North Korea insists we should prepare for “all-out war,” confirming that Kim Jong-Un, the young leader of North Korea, is following closely in his father’s footsteps, as far as spewing vitriolic rhetoric when threatened. Domestically, Kim Jong-Un must demonstrate his ability to lead North Korea in times of crisis to consolidate the loyalty of the military elite.
But wait, didn’t he just tell our lead diplomat to North Korea, Dennis Rodman, that he definitely did not want war? Either Kim is a fibber or Rodman is no diplomat. Well, both of these are likely true.
Let’s try to bring some sanity to the most recent developments from North Korea. The only leverage the country retains in the world derives from menacing neighbors with nuclear weapons or posing a conventional military threat against our allies, South Korea and Japan. It is becoming more difficult to sustain those threats as credible when its military is impoverished and its missiles, more often than not, crash into the ocean short of their target.
To remain relevant, the new leader cleverly devised a way to grab international attention once again, by terminating the tenuous ceasefire between the United Nations forces and North Korea that has been in effect since 1953. By cancelling that, the young leader has put the world on notice that they absolve themselves of any obligation to further notify their enemies before attacking, as they did so suddenly on June 25, 1950.
While this bluster has raised a few eyebrows initially, make no mistake, North Korea is not in a position to attack anyone, and they know it. The condition of the regime is desperate, and all their huffing and puffing is pretty much ignored by those who follow North Korea closely.
North Korea’s military is a ghost of its former self, and while the people remain resilient and would most likely fiercely defend their homeland to the last breath, offensive operations would be unsustainable and lead to the collapse of the regime.
Part of the reason North Korea throws these temper tantrums is to receive international attention, especially that of the United States. We could expect to see the North challenge the South in the disputed areas of the West Sea where military vessels have been known to aggressively bump each other or fishermen disappear for straying too close to the disputed border. We might also expect rhetoric to become harsh and taunts broadcasted across the demilitarized zone to resume. If that does not attract enough attention, then we might see shots across the DMZ or menacing troop movements near a border already packed with North Korean army units. The North desires a more conciliatory Obama administration and may try to play the U.S. against the South, which has taken a hard-line stance since electing its first woman president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military strongman President Park Chung-hee. The North’s tantrum is meant to elicit reassurance and international aid from frightened neighbors that have much more to lose from war than North Korea.
The U.S. must carefully weigh its response. It would be irresponsible to completely disregard the current threats, but it must be careful not to be lulled into an overreaction to one of their provocations. In addition, there is little to gain by antagonizing a regime that is blustering for mostly internal political uses and to gain additional aid from neighboring China and even South Korea. The best possible response is to continue sending positive overtures to the North regardless of their rhetoric. After achieving his domestic purpose, Kim will eventually seek a face-saving opportunity to power back his threats and get on with governing one of the most isolated and enigmatic countries on Earth.
Richard Saccone is a state representative for the 39th District. He lived and worked in both North Korea and South Korea for 14 years and has written seven books on Korea, including “Negotiating with North Korea” and his most recent book, “Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea.” He teaches international relations and political science at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.