North Korea: The stakes behind the rhetoric

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
North Korea: The stakes behind the rhetoric
The renewed instability on the Korean peninsula showed there is a frightening possibility that the situation could spin out of control – and the complex reasons behind the words and actions of both sides goes beyond a regional conflict.

After the North was heavily penalized by UN sanctions following its recent satellite launch and nuclear test, Pyongyang has embarked on a near-daily onslaught of belligerent threats, some of which include its invalidation of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, threats to nuke the United States, and threats to occupy South Korea and subsequently take all Americans in the country hostage.

Military analysts say that North Korea is at least several years from building a nuclear warhead or a missile capable of reaching the US mainland, but there is no doubt that if the Kim regime oversteps in its approach, there could be severe repercussions for civilians in South Korea and Japan, both in range of North Korea’s rockets.
  

Despite regular threats of destruction and Pyongyang’s recent proclamation that the two Korean states are officially at war, day-to-day life has continued normally according to sources on the ground. Needless to say, there is no doubt that civilians on both sides are feeling the tensions, especially those on disputed South Korean islands in the West Sea, just a stone's throw from the North Korean maritime border.

The 4,000 residents of the South’s Baengnyeong Island, which Kim Jong-un threatened to “wipe out” in early March, have been severely hindered from carrying out day-to-day activities such as fishing due to joint US-ROK military exercises in the area. Despite inter-Korean relations reaching their lowest point in recent history, with the entire South on high alert, most South Koreans are adept at brushing off the North’s rhetoric but are still exercising caution.
  

North Korean soldiers attend military drills in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 20, 2013. (Reuters/KCNA)

The question remains: What exactly is Kim Jong-un trying to achieve through this campaign of bellicosity? North Korean state media claims that the US“should clearly know that in the era of Marshal Kim Jong-un, the greatest-ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past.”The current approach being taken by Pyongyang is multifaceted, but its central component is building up Kim’s image domestically and rallying the population through nationalism – this has been reinforced by daily public appearances and friendly photo-ops of Kim mingling with local people, as well as an internal propaganda campaign likening him to his grandfather Kim il-Sung, the founder and 'Eternal President' of North Korea.

The central message Pyongyang wants to send both internationally and domestically is that Kim Jong-un’s era is distinctly different than his father and grandfather's – many South Korean observers have also noted this change in approach, aimed at making the regime’s moves more difficult to predict.

Most analysts are regarding the North’s rhetoric as their familiar brand of psychological warfare: Cranking up the tensions and threatening Seoul and Washington with destruction, and then being rewarded with food aid and concessions when it tones things down, which it has previously done in the months of April and May – around harvest time. Pyongyang likely views the present scenario as an opportune time to test the water, keeping the new administrations of their neighbors in South Korea, China and Japan on their toes.

Despite the muscle-flexing and the foolish threats emanating out of Pyongyang, Washington’s recent deployment of two nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers illustrates everything that is wrong with US policy toward the North – this kind of move only serves to raise antagonisms, and it in fact legitimizes Pyongyang’s rhetoric of the US threatening nuclear war on the peninsula.

This photo taken and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 29, 2013 shows a gathering at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to support the statement of the Supreme Command of the North Korean Army and to win victory in the battle with the US and South Korea. (AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS)

In addition to joint US-ROK’s endless barrage of war games on North Korea’s doorstep, the brandishing of B-2 bombers, which carry bombs that can blast through 70 meters of reinforced concrete, is an unnecessary stunt that is both bold and needlessly provocative. In fact, the B-2 flyover helps Kim Jong-un in consolidating his political power at home by rallying domestic support behind the US threat and distracting North Koreans from economic problems.

These moves beg the question: Is the United States prepared to launch a full-scale war against North Korea? Despite the high public disapproval of overt warfare campaigns launched by the Bush administration, the unholy status North Korea enjoys in American mainstream media – coupled with its threats to nuke the United States and the simple fact that is it a communist state – is likely enough to coax the average American into supporting a war of aggression against Pyongyang.

Despite the fact that the war would be relatively easy to sell to the public, the United States is financially strained and in no position to engage North Korea and endure massive causalities within its military, not to mention the risk of pulling China into the confrontation. Washington would likely find nuclear weapons to be the most cost-effective way to quell the North Korean threat, an equally unacceptable scenario.

his photo taken on March 28, 2013 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 29, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) making a speech during the meeting of information workers of the whole army in Pyongyang. (AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS)

At this point, North Korea is a godsend for the US military-industrial complex and defense industry, and South Korea is set to keep its status as the world’s single biggest importer of US weaponry. As the Obama administration pursues its 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific region, the colorful belligerence of North Korea is exactly what it needs not only to maintain its unpopular military presence in South Korea and Japan, but also to further bolster its military muscle on China’s doorstep.

Despite North Korea’s empty threats, one should not dismiss the possibility that they will respond to provocations with force, much like how they shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 as a response to South Korean military exercises that fired live rounds into their territorial waters. This kind of small-scale fire exchange has the possibility to ignite the situation into a larger and more dangerous standoff, so it is of maximum importance that cool heads prevail and needlessly provocative displays of military muscle are scaled back.

Koreans have historically seen themselves as a shrimp amongst whales – where they saw their peninsula abused by the US and the Soviet Union yesterday, they fear the same scenario repeating itself between the US and China today. If the Obama administration is not careful, it will provoke Pyongyang into doing something rash. By then, it will already be too late to rectify the situation.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.