Is North Korea being more restrained than we think?


Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by military officers, inspects air drill at an undisclosed airbase in North Korea. (AP Photo/KCNA via KNS)

North Korea's threats from the last week have included, among other things, launching "preemptive" nuclear strikes on South Korea and the United States. Its provocations included showing the world its "plan" for strikes against the U.S. mainland, readying rocket forces for battle, announcing that it was operating under "wartime" conditions and stating, for example, "Time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle."

Pretty scary stuff. But North Korea's actual actions, though certainly provocative, appear to have shown much greater care, caution and restraint than their rhetoric would suggest. Here's Stephen Haggard, a North Korean expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics:

What exactly have the North Koreans done? On closer inspection, not much. Cutting the hotline eliminates one channel of communication to the South. But there are others through Kaesong and to date there is no evidence that the workers in KIC are being held hostage (about 750 South Koreans live on site, with anywhere between 100 and 500 going in each day). We are highly skeptical that they will close this cash cow, as some recent reports have suggested. But if they did, the costs would be higher for the North than for the South, particularly as the Chinese appear to taking some baby steps to actually show their displeasure. Make our day!

Placing strategic rocket forces and artillery on a higher stage of alert is risky, as we have noted. But these forces are already on a high state of alert, and this last round of statements are all cast in deterrent terms: the hyperbole is about actions the North would take n response to ROK or US “provocations,” defined as actual military action against the North.

In other words, North Korea is issuing a lot of bluster about all the terrible things it will do if and only if they are attacked by the U.S. or South Korea first, which they know is extremely unlikely. When the dreaded American attack never comes, North Korea can "claim success and step down," Haggard writes.

North Korea doesn't want to start a war because, among other reasons (example: it would lose), it's happy with things the way they are now. And if things are going to stay the same, Pyongyang might as well try to take credit for that, by presenting the U.S.-South Korean military exercises as a big scary military threat that only ended without war because Grand Marshall Kim Jong Un successfully stood down the American imperialists.

This is not to deny, of course, that North Korea poses serious threats, but those are mostly limited to small-scale actions, such as the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that killed two South Koreans, or the less likely but still worrisome chance of accidental escalation. But it is a reminder that North Korea's threats and provocations are all part of a larger game of its own design, in which "victory" is defined not by overrunning Seoul but by preserving the status quo.

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Max Fisher · April 1, 2013