TOKYO — North Korea’s doing a lot of saber-rattling these days. It has been threatening to launch a preemptive nuclear strike one day and ignite South Korea into a "sea of flames" with multiple rocket launchers the next.
Kim Jong Un and his regime have quite a track record when it comes to bluster and brinkmanship, so is there any reason to take these threats seriously? He has, after all, just tested a fourth nuclear device and launched a rocket widely seen as part of a ballistic missile program. But would Kim really take on the much more advanced South Korean military, thereby inviting the involvement of the much, much more advanced United States military?
Here, we try to put the threats in context.
Where did all this come from?
The key thing to remember is that North Korea’s raison d’etre is its opposition to the “imperialist United States” and its “puppet forces” in South Korea. At the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided in half by the communists (the Soviet Union and China) and the capitalists (the United States). It was supposed to be temporary, but the division has endured for 70 years. Over that time, both sides have fought to be seen as the “real Korea.”
For the first 30 or so years, North Korea was economically superior, but as South Korea rapidly industrialized and overtook the north, Pyongyang has increasingly portrayed itself as morally superior and has continued to insist that unification must take place by the South adopting the North’s ways. Of course, history hasn’t worked out that way, and pretty much everyone agrees that that’s baloney, but it doesn’t stop North Korea from insisting that this is the way things are going to play out.
So for the Kim regime’s purposes, maintaining a siege mentality and telling the populace it needs to unite against the “imperialist aggressors” is a very useful tool — it’s how the world’s only communist dynasty remains in power. And these days, with sanctions imposed by the United States, South Korea, the European Union and the United Nations, North Korea doesn’t need to look too far to be able to claim that the whole world is against it.
So, what’s caused this sudden outbreak of almost daily threats to nuke us?
Two things have coincided to make North Korea’s usual barrage of threats particularly ferocious: the imposition of tough sanctions through the United Nations, which even China appears to be enforcing, and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which Pyongyang always views as a pretext for an invasion. Under normal circumstances, either of these would elicit a fierce outcry from Kim Jong Un’s propaganda machine. But the coincidence of the two means it’s particularly vociferous right now.
“South Korea and the surrounding nations are imposing the highest pressure on North Korea at the moment,” says Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. “Even China has stepped up its level of sanctions against North Korea compared to the past.”
North Korea has been taking every opportunity to express its strong feelings about both, adds Scott Snyder, Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You can feel the grievance; you can hear the anxiety related to these circumstances,” he said.
So can North Korea really make good on these threats?
There’s no proof that North Korea has been able to do the things it claims, like making a nuclear warhead small and light enough to fit on a ballistic missile.
At the moment, the value of the weapons seems to be in the threat of using them, not in their actual use.
Some U.S. military leaders have said, however, that it’s reasonable to assume that the North Koreans have been able to make some advances in their weapons of mass destruction program, given the efforts they’ve put into it.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, recently told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that if Kim "thought his regime were challenged, he states that he would use WMD."
Indeed, Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongkuk University in Seoul, warns against writing off the threats too quickly.
“We have dismissed North Korea’s ‘bluffing’ about being able to make highly enriched uranium in the past, but it turned out to be true, so North Korea’s nuclear capability should not be underestimated.”
Argh! So they’re going to nuke us?
Steady on. Using its nukes would be suicidal for North Korea, which would quickly feel the full force of the United States’ military might. It would certainly want to use nuclear weapons to try to repel an invasion, but there’s no suggestion that U.S. and South Korean troops will be marching north any time soon.
“I don’t think war is imminent, but certainly it raises tensions,” said Joel Wit, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea who is now at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “North Korea is building nuclear weapons and missiles to defend itself against militarily superior countries.”
But one thing has changed in the past couple of years to make people take these threats more seriously. North Korea, which had always referred to its nuclear weapons as a deterrent, has increasingly talked about a preemptive strike.
“There’s a pattern to North Korea’s expressions. Now, the threat of a preemptive strike is part of its template,” said Snyder of CFR. “It’s hard to tell whether it’s representing a heightened likelihood of attack or whether the propaganda writers just found a new word in the dictionary.”
I’m not feeling particularly relieved here.
Well, you’re right not to breathe a sigh of relief. As Suh Choo-suk, an analyst at the South’s Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, points out, there’s a risk of miscalculation.
“The chances of North Korea conducting military provocations are low during the South Korean-United States joint drills, but small clashes or conflicts could occur in this highly tense time,” he said. “And small clashes could have a bigger impact because of the high tensions.”
There are also plenty of alternatives to conventional attacks — such as hacking, something North Korea has gotten pretty good at.
“The North could try to attack South Korea in cyberspace or stage a provocation but make it hard to trace the offender. It could declare a quasi-state of war like last August to have an impact on the South Korean economy,” says Cheong of the Sejong Institute.
And the tensions are likely to continue for some time to come.
“North Korea will probably try to continuously create tension in this region and wait for a new South Korean president to be elected, or it can express its intention for dialogue,” said Koh of Dongkuk University. “There is no way of knowing for now.”
Any glimmers of hope here?
One important thing to note. Even amid all this rhetoric, there has been no mobilization of troops, no declaring a state of war, like the operational alert issued in August last year during a period of heightened tensions with South Korea.
In fact, some analysts note that the focus of the domestic media has largely been on economic themes and preparations for the Workers’ Party Congress that will be held in May.
As Kim Jong Un put it during his recent visit to nuclear scientists, when he posed next to what North Korea said was a miniaturized nuclear warhead: "Being a proud nuclear weapons state at present, we have a firm guarantee for making a breakthrough in the drive for economic construction and improving the people's standard of living on the basis of the powerful nuclear deterrent."
This jittery period is likely to persist for another couple of months. The U.S.-South Korean exercises go through the end of April, and the Workers' Party Congress is due to be held in early May. Stay tuned.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this post.