There are two schools of thought about what lies behind North Korea’s increasingly frenzied posturing. The first goes like this: The rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, including calls to “break the waists of the crazy enemies [and] totally cut their windpipes”, is no worse than their decades-old ritualistic promises to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire”.
What we are witnessing, according to this theory, is nothing more than an inexperienced leader (Kim Jong-un has only just turned 30) shoring up his power base at home, testing the resolve of a newly elected South Korean president, and lashing out at the latest round of US sanctions and joint US-South Korean military exercises.
The second approach is to caution that this time, it’s different: North Korea has carried out a third nuclear test, formally repudiated its armistice with the South, cut a military hotline, restarted the plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor, and stopped access to the joint North-South Kaesong industrial zone, which had been allowed to operate through even the worst crises in recent years.
What is more, we have little understanding of how the relationship between the leader and his generals has changed since the opaque transition from Kim Jong-il — someone who knew the tacit rules of a showdown with Seoul — and his son.
How should we arbitrate between these two views? We could start by distinguishing between fantasy and fiction. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned in an article for The Daily Telegraph that North Korea was “a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat”. But he picked his words carefully, aware that this was not yet “a reality”.
Simply put, North Korea cannot mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and then deliver it to the US mainland. When Kim Jong-un posed last month with missile strike plans displayed in the background, arrows streaking across the Pacific to American cities, those might as well have been lines daubed on a game of Risk.
Pyongyang might be able to hit Japan, South Korea, or some nearby US bases, but even this veers to the implausible, given the plethora of land-based and ship-borne missile defence platforms that the US has deployed in recent days and years.
We should also remember that North Korea’s fury is born of fear. It may have got itself into this mess by conducting a missile test last year and a nuclear test in February but, having done so, it is sincerely afraid of the continuing US-South Korean military exercises, and may even view them as a precursor to an attack.
In 1950, North Korea used military manoeuvres as a front for its own invasion of the South. But now its baroque, frequently absurd threats are more likely intended as conscious efforts at deterrence rather than indicators of imminent war. This dynamic is especially important for a young leader whose standing with his armed forces is questionable, and for whom any sign of weakness might be politically fatal. There is method in Kim’s madness.
The line between the defensive and the offensive is often slender, though: wars can begin even when neither side wants one. North Korea will not hurl missiles at Washington, nor even Seoul or Tokyo, but in recent years we have seen a range of disturbing possibilities below that threshold, any one of which might have spiralled out of control. Even if this is the North Korea of old, as optimists suggest, that is hardly a comforting thought.
In March 2010, a North Korean submarine allegedly fired a torpedo at a South Korean warship, killing 46 seamen. Later that year, North Korea attempted a more overt approach, lobbing 170 artillery shells and rockets at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. This was probably the peninsula’s gravest crisis since the Korean War, but South Korea was once more constrained in how it could hit back.
There is a policy dilemma here. The solution is not to give in to blackmail. Talking is fine, but it would be foolish to lavish aid and diplomatic attention on a regime that has developed a Pavlovian association between nuclear brinkmanship and winning concessions at the negotiating table. North Korea wants attention, and it should not be allowed to have it.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not going to disappear, and so a multilateral diplomatic track, such as the moribund six-party talks that collapsed in 2009, will have to be resumed eventually. But not yet. Remember, it was North Korea that violated last year’s Leap Day agreement, which provided food aid in return for a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing, by testing a rocket.
It is easy to call for diplomacy, but harder to explain why it should work today when it failed yesterday.
Moreover, North Korea should not be allowed to lash out, as it did three years ago, without material consequences. If we focus only on deterring a nuclear attack, we risk giving the impression that smaller acts of state terror are permissible. At the same time, Washington must remember, as Europeans surely do, that writing blank cheques to allies is the truest path to inadvertent escalation. Any retaliation should be within the narrowest of boundaries, and paired with clear signals to the North that invasion is off the cards.
In fact, South Korea has moved in the opposite direction. Last month, it said it would strike not just attacking North Korean units, but also their “commanding post”, something that might be interpreted in the North as the first step in a bigger offensive. Then, the South Korean president told her military that they were to “respond strongly at the first contact with them without any political consideration”. It should be obvious that entrusting local units with the authority to kick-off a second Korean War is less than sensible. The United States should also be able to temper the current joint exercises, perhaps quietly shelving the most provocative parts, without diminishing its commitment to South Korea in the slightest. Humiliating North Korea is not conducive to deterring it - in fact, it makes that task harder.
The US has flaunted its big sticks; now it should speak softly. This is also an important opportunity to cajole, embarrass and put pressure on China to show better faith in dealing with its wayward ally. If Beijing does not step up, it will have only itself to blame for upgraded US missile defence (something it opposes on the basis that it might weaken China’s capacity for nuclear retaliation), an enlarged US military presence in the region, and the mounting perception within Asia that China is failing to wield its growing power with the requisite responsibility. Privately, Chinese officials worry that putting pressure on North Korea might lead to regime collapse, a mass influx of refugees into China and a unified Korea that would leave US troops sitting on China’s doorstep (a prospect that spurred Beijing’s intervention in the Korean War). These are not unreasonable concerns, but China’s kid-gloves approach is making Pyongyang more reckless, and therefore increasing the risk of a catastrophic outcome for China.
China has yet to clamp down on the transfer of military and dual-use goods, such as transport and launch vehicles for ballistic missiles. Nor has it used its economic leverage: China supplies 90 per cent of North Korea’s energy, 80 per cent of its consumer goods, and just under half of its food. Beijing has condemned the nuclear tests and, this week, issued the usual platitudes urging restraint. But words will no longer cut it. Once the joint exercises finish, at the end of this month, there are two possibilities.
We might witness another missile or nuclear test, perhaps on the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s venerated first leader and the incumbent’s grandfather. That would renew the crisis, probably forcing Washington to keep its forces on the Korean peninsula and pushing North Korea to find new and inventive ways of eking out the brinkmanship. Alternatively, tensions might subside if Kim feels he has satisfied his domestic constituencies. The priority will then be to restore the thicket of agreements and institutions that North Korea has shredded in the past few weeks, such as the armistice. If Kim Jong-un did not previously know the rules of this game, he will be learning them fast.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2013
Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.