Contemporary Conflicts

North Korean Duck

April 3, 2013

In recent days North Korea has gone much further in its rhetoric and provocations than ever before.  Early March Pyongyang threatened to exercise its "right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack", then it promised to strike the United States with “smaller and lighter nukes” and nullified the 1953 armistice, having warned that it could brace for a showdown with enemies. Couple days later North Korea also made all North Koreans sing an inspiring song about wiping out the U.S. imperialists at a stroke. Then  it decided that under this situation there is no reason to keep in touch with the south Korean puppets and cut off its last military communications with South Korea, having also ordered missile readiness. Finally, it declared war on South Korea and promised to restart its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to expand arsenal. How serious is North Korea in its threats and provocations?


Quacks like a duck


It is pretty much the same old story, the only thing is that the intensity and frequency of threats are higher than usual. A more aggressive rhetorical posture this time perhaps could be explained by Kim Jong-un's youth, impulsiveness and lack of experience. Such excessive rhetoric could also suggest that Kim's leadership needs to consolidate political control, promote national unity and strengthen his questionable domestic standing by demonstrating the resolve in dealing with external threats.


Nevertheless, the escalation of rhetoric is a typical symbolic expression of dissatisfaction when the external world doesn’t behave the way North Korea expects it to. Thus, early March rhetoric reflected North Korean leadership discontent with the new UN sanctions. Then there was nothing unusual with North Korean provocations and threats in response to U.S.-South Korea regular military exercises: North Korea complains about them every year.



North Korea is also notorious for using threats and provocations against its neighbors and the United States to win aid and political concessions. Such threats-for-aid policy is still working, but becoming less and less effective. Interestingly enough that despite recent threats and provocations South Korea is willing to resume humanitarian aid. Though now it wants to delink humanitarian assistance from Pyongyang’s denuclearization actions and instead focus on building trust on the Korean Peninsula. The United States still keep the door open for diplomacy. President Barack Obama has been clear that if North Koreans "unclench their fists," the U.S. is willing to meet them.


Walks like a duck


Most likely, North Korea bluffs as usual. It is in North Korea’s interest to bluff when prospects of escalation are limited, because it benefits from playing such psychological games. And, obviously, it is not in North Korea’s best interest to signal in advance about its real plans. It is highly unlikely for any country to broadcast their battle plans to the world on the verge of a major military assault.



In addition, according to analysts, military and nuclear capabilities of North Korea leave much to be desired for conducting successful operations. Analysts indicate that even though Korean People's Army, or KPA, is nearly double the size of the 640,000-person South Korean military and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in Korea, the military is believed to be decrepit: It lacks fuel, unable to sustain battlefield operations, and some troops are undernourished. Thus, any North Korean offensive could last only three to seven days. The possibility of a missile attack on the United States that figure in Kim’s threats is also questionable. According to analysts, the missile systems do not yet have the range to approach American shores. As well, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons can even be shrunk to fit atop a missile. Moreover, so far there have been no signs of real war preparation in North Korea other than announcing alert status and kind of creating an atmosphere of mobilization.



It must be a duck


We have all heard the phrase: "If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it must be a duck". In other words, even if everything points out to the fact that North Korean threats is a bluff, then it probably is. Nevertheless, it is still wise to remain vigilant for two following reasons.


First, the real issue with the new boy leader is that it's just not clear whether young Kim understands when to stop in order not to spiral the situation out of control. He might simply have a higher risk acceptance than his father. But in such a tense atmosphere any slight miscalculation or going too far could have deadly consequences.


Second, another problem is the possibility that something might go terribly wrong inside the country and if it is to happen then North Korean leadership will have nothing to lose and will lash out.



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