While Americans are filing their taxes, North Koreans are throwing a party. April 15 is the birthday of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. Today, the entire country of some 23 million partake in various ceremonies, celebrations and events honoring the DPRK’s founder. As popular culture reminds them every day, Kim Il Sung "liberated" Korea from the Japanese in the 1940s and soon created a “Worker’s Paradise” that embraced communism and took up the mantle of the “true” Korea in contrast to the "corrupted" South.
We may look on curiously from a distance at the birthday festivities this year. But next year wil mark Kim Il Sung's centenial, when, had he lived, he would have been 100. The danger is that without any progress on the diplomatic front with the United States, North Korea is likely to use that 100th anniversary as a platform to engage in provocations. Missile tests, another nuclear test, brinksmanship on the seas. Not only will the North want to commemorate its founder but it will also seek to establish itself as a “world power” and consolidate the legitimacy of its next leader – Kim Jong Un – Kim Il Sung's grandson. Add to this the fact that South Korea is hosting an international Nuclear Security Summit next spring and the stage is set for some dangerous posturing and one-upsmanship.
But the next birthday celebration doesn’t have to be a surprise party. Washington can take more initiative and break out of its “strategic patience” deep freeze and once again conduct overtures to the North designed to re-start diplomacy. Such overtures need not damage the alliance with Seoul, but we cannot continue to be stymied by the South’s hard line either. Our special envoy for North Korea has not even been to Pyongyang since he was assigned the post. We have ample issues we can discuss with the North that need not be “rewarding bad behavior” and we know how to contact them.
The next 365 days will be crucial to how the next year and the future of the Korean peninsula unfold. We need to write our own invitation to Kim's party.