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Are North Korea's latest threats rhetorical or real?

Are North Korea's latest threats rhetorical or real?

The new year has seen a more belligerent Kim Jong Un than ever — changing the constitution, firing off missiles, even tearing down monuments

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Korean War ended more than 70 years ago, and a tense peace has reigned ever since on the Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas have exchanged artillery fire, battled in the economic and diplomatic arenas, and even covertly dispatched spies to each other’s territory. But the threats of a resumption of conflict, disproportionately coming from North Korea in recent years, have been rhetorical. The firepower of the South Korean military, backed by a U.S. defense pact, has deterred Pyongyang; the sheer number of soldiers in the North Korean army, backed by a small but operational nuclear arsenal, has deterred Seoul.

But borders don’t seem quite as inviolable as they once did. Russia has invaded Ukraine, Israel has sent forces into Gaza, and even Venezuela recently seemed to contemplate an incursion into Guyana. The United States, meanwhile, has recently attacked various targets abroad, from the Houthis in the Red Sea to Iranian commanders in Syria.

Against this geopolitical backdrop, are the latest threats emanating from Pyongyang still rhetorical?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sounds more and more embattled and belligerent. In power since the death of his father at the end of 2011, he has been constrained by a hemorrhaging economy and uncompromising adversaries abroad. The growth rate of the North Korean economy wasn’t too bad at the beginning of his tenure. Since 2017, however, the arrow has simply gone downward, with a devastating 4.1 percent contraction in 2018, followed by a further 4.5 percent decline during the pandemic year of 2020. International sanctions have made North Korea dangerously dependent on China for trade, which explains in part Kim Jong Un’s current interest in covering his bets by improving relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, the two leaders that promised some form of engagement with Pyongyang—South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump—are no longer in office. South Korea’s current government is very cool toward engagement. Joe Biden, focused on a raft of other foreign policy challenges from Ukraine to Gaza, has not expressed much interest in expending political capital on a risky venture like negotiating with Pyongyang.

Washington’s failure to remain engaged with North Korea is the primary reason that longtime North Korea watchers Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker believe that Kim Jong Un has abandoned the default approach of more-or-less peaceful coexistence in favor of launching an attack against South Korea. In some ways, Kim is following the logic of Hamas, an illiberal force also in charge of a largely failed entity. Kim, too, perceives his adversaries as complacent, uninterested in any real negotiations, and vulnerable to a surprise attack. Presiding over an “open air prison” in Gaza, Hamas decided it had nothing left to lose. The North Korean leadership, in charge of an impoverished country with a horrific human rights record, may well have decided that it also has run out of options.

“The literature on surprise attacks should make us wary of the comfortable assumptions that resonate in Washington’s echo chamber but might not have purchase in Pyongyang,” Carlin and Hecker write in 38North. “This might seem like madness, but history suggests those who have convinced themselves that they have no good options left will take the view that even the most dangerous game is worth the candle.”

Carlin and Hecker don’t have what the Israeli intelligence community possessed a year before the October 7 attacks, namely a detailed description of preparations to launch a surprise attack. They are relying on official North Korean statements eschewing reunification of the peninsula and a constitutional change that now identifies South Korea as an adversary rather than as tanil minjok (“one people, one blood”).

This week, reports based on satellite images showed the destruction of Pyongyang’s iconic Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, also called the Arch of Reunification, which Kim earlier referred to as "an eyesore," and called for its demolition.

North Korea has also recently conducted a rash of missile tests, including one with a hypersonic warhead, as well as military drills near the maritime border that seem designed to provoke a response from the South.

As sober analysts, Carlin and Hecker are not given to overstatement, so their warnings must be taken seriously.

At the same time, the usual North Korean approach has been to make wild threats to get the attention of an otherwise indifferent U.S. government in order to pave the way for a fresh round of negotiations. Missile launches, nuclear tests, and promises to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire” have all, in the past, signaled not an interest in war but, perversely, a determination to restart peace talks with newly attentive adversaries. Also, Kim might be eyeing elections in South Korea where the pro-engagement opposition party is hoping to increase its parliamentary majority in the April elections and in the United States where Donald Trump is now running even or better against Joe Biden in the polls. Trump has long boasted of the 27 “love letters” he exchanged with the North Korean leader. Perhaps, Kim strategizes, the love could continue if Trump is reelected.

Beware wishful thinking. Most analysts misinterpreted Vladimir Putin’s warlike rhetoric and military preparations at the end of 2021 as merely a bid for Western attention and a better bargaining position at the negotiations table. Conventional notions about the deterrence of superior force—Israel, NATO, South Korea—may not apply in a world of increasingly volatile leaders and increasingly violated borders.

Kim’s closer relationship with Putin may well prove pivotal in North Korean calculations. Beijing has traditionally attempted to rein in Pyongyang because an overly provocative neighbor is not good for the Chinese economy in addition to boosting U.S. military presence in the region. Moscow, on the other hand, might be sending different messages, given Putin’s more confrontational approach to the West. Just as the war in Gaza has proven a boon to the Kremlin, in that it has distracted attention and military hardware away from the European theater of operations, a conflict on the Korean peninsula would be an even greater draw on U.S. and European resources.

In the late 1940s, Stalin was skeptical about the advantages of North Korea attacking South Korea. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, eventually convinced Stalin otherwise and won Soviet support for the attack on the south that took place on June 25, 1950. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has indicated that he will visit North Korea “at an early date,” his first trip there since 2000. Pundits and policymakers take note: Putin’s visit might tip the balance one way or the other in North Korea’s deliberations over war and peace.

In the meantime, it’s not too late for the United States and South Korea to offer Kim Jong Un an offramp from the conflict he has yet to initiate.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Korean People's Army Air Force headquarters on the occasion of Aviation Day in North Korea, in this picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 1, 2023. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.

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