North Korea’s Bluster: How Should We Respond?
So what, exactly, is going on in North Korea? And how should we respond to Kim's bluster?
It seems like a day doesn’t go by anymore without the North Koreans engaging in yet another act of bluster. They’ve repudiated the 1953 Armistisce, cut off all the hotlines between the North and the South, threatened U.S. bases in the Pacific, put the nation’s military on its highest state of alert since the Korean War ended, and threatened to launch a nuclear strike against South Korea and the United States. Now, the nation has said that it has entered a “state of war” with the Republic of Korea:
(Reuters) - North Korea said on Saturday it was entering a “state of war” with South Korea, its latest bout of angry rhetoric directed at Seoul and Washington, but the South brushed off the statement as little more than tough talk.
The North also threatened to shut down an industrial zone it operates jointly with the South near the heavily armed border between the two sides if Seoul continued to say the complex was being kept running for money.
The two Koreas have been technically in a state of war for six decades under a truce that ended their 1950-53 conflict. Despite its threats, few people see any indication Pyongyang will risk a near-certain defeat by re-starting full-scale war.
“From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly,” a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency said.
KCNA said the statement was issued jointly by the North’s government, ruling party and other organizations.
There was no sign of unusual activity in the North’s military to suggest an imminent aggression, a South Korean defense ministry official said.
The North has been threatening to attack the South and U.S. military bases almost on a daily basis since the beginning of March, when U.S. and South Korean militaries started routine drills that have been conducted for decades without incident.
Many in the South have regarded the North’s willingness to keep open the Kaesong industrial zone, located just a few miles (km) north of the border, as a sign that Pyongyang will not risk losing a lucrative source of foreign currency by mounting a real act of aggression.
The Kaesong zone is a vital source of hard currency for the impoverished state and hundreds of South Korean workers and vehicles enter daily after crossing the armed border.
“If the puppet traitor group continues to mention the Kaesong industrial zone is being kept operating and damages our dignity, it will be mercilessly shut off and shut down,” KCNA quoted an agency that operates Kaesong as saying in a statement.
The threat to shut it down could sharply escalate tensions because it would suspend a symbolic joint project run by the rivals. It could also trap hundreds of South Korean workers and managers of the 123 firms that have factories there.
Closing down the industrial zone, of course, would also potentially give Kim Jung Un some rather convenient hostages in the form of South Korean citizens. Unless, of course, South Korea decides that it’s simply too risky to keep those people there and begins to attempt to evacuate them, an action which itself could further provoke the North. As always, though, the question is what the North Koreans are really aiming for. Nobody seems to seriously think that Kim wants to send his nation to war, for example. While the North could inflict serious damage in the opening moves of such an engagement, especially to Seoul and other areas located close to the DMZ, in the end, North Korea’s military would crumble under the weight of U.S./South Korean forces, and the nation itself would leave the conflict in a far weaker position than at the start. For that reason, the general consensus among DPRK observers is that this latest round of saber rattling is all about either getting something from the West, such as food aid, or bolstering Little Kim’s position inside the power structure, or possibly a bit of both.
At the same time, though, there’s a risk that events could spin rapidly out of control:
[I]t is the abilities that Mr. Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval corvette, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either — though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do American experts.
“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don’t know him,” one senior administration official said Friday. He added, “We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”
The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings that Mr. Kim seems to be suggesting are imminent, they are hard to trace to North Korea, at least immediately. As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and in fact the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan, even after a commission of inquiry, with experts from outside South Korea, concluded it was the work of a submarine-launched torpedo.
To North Korea experts in Washington and Seoul, there is something familiar in the country’s threats to “keep the White House in the cross hairs of our long-range missiles.” Such threat of armed brinkmanship — the catchphrase in the 1990s was that Seoul would become a “sea of fire,” a term recently revived by North Korea’s news agencies — has in the past drawn its adversaries to the bargaining table with economic concessions. But at the same time, the tensions with the outside world provide the government with opportunities to elevate its leader’s status among his people — which might be more important to a young, untested leader than it was to his father and grandfather.
According to the view that North Korea’s propaganda machine pounds into its citizens’ minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its longtime Chinese ally and American enemy — all thanks to the strong “military-first” leadership of the Kim family and the country’s nuclear arsenal.
In such a setting, Mr. Kim’s trip to a border island on a wooden boat — it almost seemed designed to create a “Washington crossing the Delaware” motif — is proof of his “daring and pluck,” as the country’s main party newspaper, Rodong, explained. Rodong also declared about North Korea’s nuclear weapons: “Let the American imperialists and their followers know! We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.” The first, famously, had no nuclear weapons; the second gave up its nascent nuclear program in late 2003, a move North Korea describes as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s greatest mistake.
In the propaganda world that the three generations of the Kim dynasty has created, Mr. Kim is “a great iron-willed general admired by all of his people, including real generals who have actually served in the military,” said Lee Sung-yoon, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “For the Kim III, fantasy is reality.”
Keeping the fantasy up has required a lot of work in the past month, with many visits to military units on both of the country’s coasts, and a lot of conferences at midnight with generals.
Yet in each of these scenes, North Korea’s propagandists sometimes made Mr. Kim look as much a clumsy actor as a new leader of one of the world’s most belligerent governments.
For one, North Korean state-run media on March 12 released a photo showing Mr. Kim arriving at an island within the gun range of South Korean marines and quoted him as threatening to “cut the windpipes of the enemies.” But it strained credibility that he traveled to a region he called a powder keg on a small unarmed wooden boat, as shown in the photo.
On Tuesday, North Korea released a photo showing Mr. Kim watching hovercrafts storm a snow-covered beach in eastern North Korea. But it did not take long for journalists and analysts to conclude that the picture was clumsily doctored to add more amphibious landing vehicles and make the drill look far more imposing than it really was.
Then on Friday, photos released by the North’s state media, which also showed signs of digital manipulation, featured Mr. Kim huddling with his top generals during a midnight meeting to approve “plans to strike the mainland U.S.” A military chart behind them showed a series of lines shooting out of North Korea and hitting major cities in the United States, including those on the East Coast. Even if the North Koreans had such missiles — most analysts doubt it does — would they really intend to launch them at the United States in what would be a suicidal action for the Pyongyang government?
“We’re all trying to put him on the couch,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “A year ago the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form,” adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.
One North Korean analyst living in South Korea urges caution in seeing the recent moves by the North as a significant departure from the norm:
We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says, “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.
The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now under way on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.
It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire work force — much as other countries do in times of actual war — as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.
And Raijon Menon suggests that the West makes a mistake if it responds to North Korean bluster in a manner that gives Kim an excuse to become even more bellicose:
North Korea’s melodrama is calculated, not crazy. Each time it engages in these apocalyptic outbursts, the results are precisely what it wants them to be. The United States and its North Pacific partners react in a semipanic, but also ratchet up the tension with warnings and moves of their own. Down the line, when the dust settles and diplomacy begins (the resumption of the on-again-off-again Six Party Talks that began in 2003 to induce the North to ditch its nuclear weapons program) memories of the last tirade linger and strengthen Pyongyang’s bargaining position. The reasoning of its interlocutors tends to be as follows: We’re dealing with a volatile regime that’s armed to the teeth, now has nuclear weapons, and could collapse under the weight of its economic problems. We need to tread gingerly and consider what carrots to offer. It’s a great self-protection racket.
So we’re in a familiar place now that North Korea is acting up again. True to the established pattern, the Obama administration has announced plans to beef up the ballistic missile systems in Alaska and California by adding another fourteen. Never mind that the price tag is $1 billion, that the success rate of this equipment is about 50 percent, and that the full deployment won’t be finished until 2017. The U.S. Navy dispatched four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to South Korea as part of “Foal Eagle,” and they may extend their stay. U.S. B-52 bombers, flying four thousand miles from their bases in Guam, have flown across South Korea.
South Korea has turned up the heat, too, warning Kim that his country “will cease to exist on the face of the earth” if it attacks. (Top that, big guy.) Some South Korean pundits have proposed that their country should develop its own stash of nukes. Polls show that over two-thirds of South Koreans think that’s a good idea.
How should the administration handle these stop-and-start crises on the Korean peninsula? Do nothing and say little. The alternative is to (again) give North Korea the satisfaction of seeing a superpower and two major powers, South Korea and Japan, whipped into a frenzy following its fulminations. That reaction merely increases the North’s leverage to bargain for aid, whether from the South (once the dust settles), or from China, its sugar daddy. Both Beijing and Seoul worry about war on the peninsula but also about the North’s economic collapse, which could send millions of North Korean refugees streaming into their countries.
“No Drama” Obama should live up to the label. North Korea’s leaders know that attacking the South, let alone the United States, would spell the end of their regime. Kim pere was never one to risk that result, his intermittent fits of rage notwithstanding. There’s no reason to believe that Kim fils is different. North Korea’s rhetoric is unrestrained, but its actions are generally well calibrated. That’s because it knows that the North-South balance of power is tilted decisively against it.
Menon also suggests that the common view of the Kim regime as unhinged is incorrect:cec
The notion that the North Korean regime is unhinged and hence immune to the logic of deterrence is commonplace, but it’s a canard. This is not the 1950s. The North is in a much weaker position. Back then, its economic resources were comparable to the South’s. But it has long since become an economic basket case plagued horrific famines (which are estimated to have killed as many as three million people) and hobbled by a Dickensian industrial system. South Korea, meanwhile, has become a first-rank economic power with a formidable industrial base, cutting-edge technology and booming exports.
Menon’s advice strikes me as well-taken. The truth about most of these threats that North Korea has been making over the past months is that they really can’t back them up in any manner that doesn’t result in the destruction of the entire regime. Yes, they could unleash significant destruction on the South, but the very act of doing so would guarantee a retaliatory strike that would devastate the North Korea military and bring about the end of the regime. So, I think it’s safe to assume that the North Koreans don’t intend to launch attacks on South Korea, Japan, or the United States even if they are technologically capable of doing so. There must be an ulterior motive going on here, and Menon’s theories about what’s going on seem as plausible to me as any other. For this reason, his advice that the West should not respond to Kim’s provocations with actions that tend to reinforce his bluster seems about right to me. If nothing else, such responses play right into Kim’s hands by giving him an enemy he can point to in order to divert his citizen’s attention from the deplorable condition of their nation.
None of this is to suggest that we should not remain vigilant in what is one of the most heavily militarized areas of the planet. The United States has tens of thousands of troops in South Korea and Japan, as well as a Naval presence in the waters around the Korean Peninsula for a good reason. This presence, along with the status of the South Korean military itself, stands as a reminder to the North of the consequences of engaging in reckless military conduct. At the same time that we’re vigilant, though, we also need to be careful not to let a situation spiral out of control because of misunderstandings or miscommunication, something that would seem to be more likely now that the North has cut off all lines of communication with the South. Presently, our line of communication with Pyongyang goes through Beijing, but it’s unclear how much influence the Chinese have over the North Koreans at this point.
It’s entirely possible that this latest crisis may end with an exchange of fire. The last crisis on the Korean Peninsula, after all, ended with the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of an inhabited South Korean island. It’s worth remembering, though, that the last crisis did end and it didn’t result in a wider war. As we make our way through the latest confrontation with the North, it’s worth remembering that and remembering to take steps that would cause tensions to lessen, not lead to a resumption of a war that is now 60 years in the past.