By Michael Walker
News about North Korea falls into two categories: the comical and the frightening. Examples of the former type of story abound, a memorable one being the claim by a Japanese expert in 2008 that the country’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, had in fact been dead for five years, and was being played by a series of doubles.
More recently, bizarre footage was broadcast by North Korean state television in which the country’s fresh-faced supremo, Kim Jong-un, paid a seaborne visit to an artillery unit stationed near the country’s southern border. Kim was greeted by a group of hysterical soldiers who raised their arms aloft and cried as if they had been visited by a deity, rather than by a portly young man with an odd haircut.
Unfortunately, the news from North Korea has of late been of the frightening variety. In February Pyongyang tested a nuclear device for the third time, prompting the United Nations Security Council to impose further sanctions on Kim’s beleaguered regime. Even China, the North’s supposed ally, voted in support of this resolution. Then, in March, it was reported that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (to use the country’s official name) had declared the 1953 armistice agreement, which had brought the Korean War to a close, null and void.
These worrying developments have been accompanied by an uptick in the North’s usual strident rhetoric against South Korea and the United States. The gravity of the situation is apparent from a message broadcast by Pyongyang’s official news agency on March 30th, which spoke of the existence of a “state of war” between the two Koreas.
The United States has hardly been passive in the face of these alarming events. In addition to increasing the pressure on North Korea at the UN, annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises are ongoing. Escalating the tensions, the Pentagon dispatched a pair of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a training mission over the Korean peninsula at the end of March. This sortie was described by U.S. officials as a way of underscoring the U.S. commitment to its longstanding regional allies, Japan and South Korea. Presumably it also had the objective of intimidating Kim Jong-un and his advisors.
What the North Korean leadership is hoping to achieve by its belligerence is anyone’s guess. As a “senior U.S. official” told the Reuters news agency that, when it comes to Kim’s strategy, “It’s a little bit of an ‘all bets are off’ kind of moment.” Several possible explanations suggest themselves, though. First, it may be that Kim is simply attempting to secure his power base by standing up to the “imperialists” in Washington. It would be understandable if he felt the need to bolster his position domestically, for he is a mere 30 years old and faces the monumental task of solving the country’s “chronic economic problems,” while at the same time keeping the 1.2 million-strong army on his side.
A second possibility is that he is employing former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory”: Give the other side the impression you are capable of doing anything, including using nuclear weapons, in the hope of winning concessions at the negotiating table. Again, considering the DPRK’s perilous economic circumstances, this strategy would make some sense.
A third, and less probable, explanation is that Kim really wants to provoke a military clash with the United States and its allies. Given the isolated nature of his regime, there is at least a chance that he believes the DPRK has the means to emerge victorious in such a confrontation.
Another unknown quantity in this supercharged state of affairs is Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first ever female president. Her month-old administration is already reeling from a series of scandals, leaving her weak at a time of potential national crisis. She would be under enormous pressure to reply with force were the North to launch even a limited military strike. Her predecessor was castigated for his vacillating response to North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean ship and bombardment of a disputed island in 2010, which led to the resignation of the country’s defense minister.
Indeed, following Pyongyang’s announcement of the existence of a “state of war,” Park emphasized that South Korea’s military would use force against the North if provoked. “If there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations,” she declared on April 1st.
While the likeliest outcome to this crisis is for Pyongyang to climb down, the two sides are leaving themselves little room to maneuver. For North Korea, none of the options look good. Backing down short of at least limited military action would be deeply embarrassing, but taking the chance of anger would be akin to suicide. Moreover, even if the situation cools off in the short term, a future standoff is almost inevitable, only this time Kim’s threats may be taken less seriously. That is likely to make him even more unpredictable.
Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Michael Walker has a PhD in international relations from the University of St. Andrews.