When Kim Jong Un assumed power, the world saw him as a young new leader who, given his education in Europe, might be reform-minded. Just over a year later, he comes across more like a reckless bully. Since the beginning of 2013, the security situation on the Korean peninsula has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, following North Korea’s satellite launch in December 2012, its third nuclear test in February 2013, and the passage of UN Security Council Resolutions 2087 and 2094, which condemned both tests and imposed new international sanctions on the North Korean regime. Pyongyang’s nuclear breakout has emboldened its young and untested leader to set aside decades-old security commitments made by his predecessors and to issue repeated threats of preemptive nuclear strikes against the North’s enemies—the US, South Korea, and Japan.
Why is Pyongyang engaging in such reckless and confrontational behavior? Is there anything Seoul and Washington can do to alter this stance? Or is this mission impossible?
Pyongyang’s Tactical Motives
Most experts are quick to dismiss the current round of North Korean threats and warnings as typical examples of Pyongyang’s rhetorical grandstanding. They argue that the North is bluffing to get attention and compel Washington and Seoul to return to the dialogue table on terms favorable to the North. They may be right. Pyongyang’s tough talk is not likely to translate into hard-hitting action this time around. One sure sign is that there are no ominous indications on the ground of imminent military action such as the general mobilization of forces or troops concentrating in the border areas.
Nonetheless, these reckless and provocative threats should be taken seriously not only because they reflect the immaturity and shortsightedness of the new North Korean leadership, but also because they reveal the unambiguous “hostile intentions” the regime harbors towards Washington and its allies. We have always known about these “hostile intentions,” but now they have stated them on the record loud and clear. The recent barrage of pronouncements from Pyongyang has left an indelible negative impression in the minds of the American people, which will be hard to undo through any exchanges or negotiations any time soon, especially as long as the current regime stays in power in Pyongyang.
Bearing in mind that the North Korean system of governance still operates on the basis of a unified guidance principle and that there have been no visible signs of factionalism or internal political conflict, Kim Jong Un is the real mastermind behind these threats. There is no evidence that he is being manipulated by some aging grey cardinal or clique of military hardliners from behind the scenes. As the man in charge, Kim Jong Un, not his advisors, has to take full responsibility for orchestrating the North’s ongoing psychological offensive against the West and subsequent escalation of tensions on and around the Korean peninsula. Moreover, the DPRK’s official propaganda is using this artificially induced confrontation to highlight his crisis management skills and build a new legend of Kim as a super-hero who has the guts (배짱) and will power (의지력) to face down the “Almighty Evil Empire.”
The real problem is that in contrast to his father, Kim Jong Un does not have a track record yet. At least Kim Jong Il had a record of stepping back from the brink. We knew basically what his limits were and what buttons to push to keep him behaving. We don’t know Kim Jong Un’s limits, how far we can push him or whether or not he has any brakes. Hence, we must take his brinkmanship more seriously.
Is Kim Jong Un’s primary audience domestic or the international community? Given how well he performed at home last year, it does not appear that Kim is instigating the current crisis to boost his domestic legitimacy, strengthen his leadership credentials or further solidify popular support for his regime. His main audience is international. While insisting that it is not seeking Washington’s attention or trying to bid up the price for its strategic jewels that may be put up for sale eventually, the North Korean regime seems to be motivated by a desire to establish Kim Jong Un’s international reputation as a tough guy, to create more favorable external conditions for domestic development and an unimpeded strategic arms buildup by raising the cost of sanctions enforcement for the international community, as well as to secure better deals in any future negotiations by projecting enhanced power and confidence.
By switching from the “test-talk-test” mode to the “test-exercise-test” mode and incessantly employing bellicose rhetoric, Kim Jong Un may be trying to force the West to blink first and to recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. He is hurling threats at the United States and its allies to dissuade them from enforcing international sanctions and punishing the DPRK for repeatedly violating UNSC resolutions so that Pyongyang can continue to develop and test its WMD capabilities with impunity. His moves are designed not only to compel the international community to think twice before enforcing existing sanctions, but also before voting for new ones after future missile and nuclear tests because of the now seemingly certain risk of escalation of confrontation.
Since the US and its allies believe Kim Jong Un is engaged in psychological warfare, they are responding in kind by playing the same nuclear game with him and trying to teach him a lesson in the process. But, we really do not know yet how he prefers to play the game. In other words, even if this is a simple game of chess, we should be worried about Kim’s next move. He may indeed move this piece or that one. But there is also a chance that he may be thinking of hitting us with the chessboard instead.
Changing Strategic Calculus in Pyongyang
In the long run, Kim Jong Un may not stop at psychological warfare. There may be a reevaluation of Pyongyang’s strategic calculus that could increase the North’s willingness to engage in military action. That reevaluation is due to three factors.
First, the North Korean leadership increasingly fears that the KPA’s aging conventional capabilities make the country less secure. They invite aggression, and if war comes, the North is likely to lose. Moreover, the North’s traditional long-range artillery deterrent may not be as credible as it used to be because ROK-US alliance transformation initiatives over the past decade have significantly reduced the number of possible military and civilian casualties from the KPA’s initial artillery barrage.
The Iraq and Libya wars convincingly demonstrated to the North Korean military planners the technological superiority of the US-led Western air forces against any indigenous conventional air defense capabilities. From the North’s perspective, the United States can now attack KPA positions and other strategic targets inside the DPRK from the air and sea with impunity. Moreover, the “use it or lose it” dilemma with respect to the KPA strategic arsenal may push the North Korean political and military leadership to seriously contemplate preemption of any punitive US strikes. Although the introduction of mobile missiles may make the KPA strategic rocket force more “survivable,” unless they are used quickly, these mobilized assets might be detected and eliminated by far superior US conventional forces.
Second, the recent passage of additional punitive UNSC Resolutions 2087 and 2094—the latter invoking Chapter Seven (Article 41) of the UN Charter for the first time—coupled with high-profile demonstrations of American strategic nuclear assets during the ongoing US-ROK combined war drills, has aggravated North Korean fears about possible aggression by the US and its allies. Pyongyang seems convinced that by intensifying international pressure and sanctions and moving the North Korean issue under the umbrella of Chapter 7, the US is applying the same strategy that was used in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya. That’s why the North Korea’s Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces (MPAF) spokesman emphatically stated on March 5, 2013, “the DPRK is neither the Balkans nor Iraq and Libya,” and threatened “to counter the US imperialists with diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style.” Add to this mix serious fears that Kim Jong Un may be the target of a US commando raid like the 2011 operation conducted against Osama Bin Laden.
The North Korean leaders believe that “the US is ‘intoxicated’ with ‘successful wars’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya” and assert that “the DPRK was forced against its will to develop a nuclear deterrent and now to take a stand and fight back in order to stop the encroachments of US imperialism.” They stress that “any country could not but be concerned about its fate when thinking of what the U.S. and the West did against Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.” They believe that “had North Korea failed to acquire nuclear weapons, it would have been leveled to the ground like Yugoslavia and Iraq.”
Third, the acquisition of nuclear weapons may have endowed the North Korean regime with a false sense that this new capability offers a solution to its deteriorating security predicament and a perception of invincibility. In his speech at the military parade held on April 15, 2012, Kim Jong Un, for the first time, stated, “Military technological supremacy is not a monopoly of imperialists any more, and the time has gone forever when the enemies threatened and intimidated us with atomic bombs.” This official statement has been repeated since then in many North Korean pronouncements. Less than a year later on March 13, 2013, the MPAF spokesman took that message further by asserting, “An army of the nation and people possessed of nuclear weapons can always win a victory in the struggle against formidable enemies and reliably guarantee the grandeur and security of the country.” These authoritative statements, which almost certainly form the conceptual foundations for revised operational plans, show that the North Korean leadership may now believe that, thanks to the acquisition of the capability to deliver “diversified precision nuclear strikes of Korean style,” the North currently possesses an offensive advantage which is sufficient to offset their aging military and perhaps even overwhelm a defending conventional force.
Part of Pyongyang’s reevaluation may also entail a belief that launching a preemptive strike makes sense if an American attack appears inevitable and imminent. Moreover, from Pyongyang’s perspective such an American attack is quite possible. Serbia did not have nuclear weapons, but came under the US-led NATO attack under a pretext invented by its enemies. The same excuse—“the right to protect”—can easily be applied to the North Korean case, especially now that the UN Human Rights Council has established its first commission of inquiry into widespread human rights violations in North Korea. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, although Saddam pretended that he did to keep his enemies at bay. But he failed in his strategic deception and dissuasion campaign, and Iraq became the target of US attack. Although Libya disarmed unilaterally and gave up its weapons of mass destruction, it did not help Qaddafi to stave off the US-led NATO attack. The North Korean leaders saw what happened in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, and they repeat loud and clear that they will not let that happen to them.
However, while the North Korean doctrine is moving in the direction of a new emphasis on preemptive strikes, judging by the results of the March Plenum of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Central Committee—the introduction of a new strategic line of “parallel economic construction and nuclear arms development”—the North Korean leaders have decided that such a strategy requires more time to further develop their WMD arsenal. The new party line is reminiscent of a similar strategy of parallel economic and military construction initiated by Kim Il Sung in December 1962 at a time when he had lost confidence in the Soviet nuclear shield after the former USSR struck a deal with the US to end the Cuban missile crisis. At the same time, the DPRK’s relations with Mao Zedong deteriorated dramatically amidst the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It is worth remembering that the policy of parallel economic and military construction dramatically increased the influence of military hardliners in North Korean politics and culminated in the Blue House raid—an unsuccessful attempt by KPA commandos to assassinate ROK’s former president Park Chung-hee on January 21, 1968—and the subsequent USS Pueblo crisis on January 23, 1968.
The Bottom Line
The United States and North Korea have entered a dark tunnel from opposite sides and may be moving towards a head-on collision in the years to come. The evolution of this relationship is now set on a certain trajectory, which is potentially dangerous and destructive. Are Washington and Seoul willing and ready to fight the second Korean War with nuclear arms in the coming years?
There are no easy answers to the challenges that Kim Jong Un presents. But, the US would be well advised to remember that the North Koreans are motivated by strategic considerations and long-term goals, not just tactical action-reaction concerns. This is America’s first real crisis with North Korea under Kim Jong Un’s leadership. We are establishing an important precedent now in terms of what payoffs or penalties Kim can expect from his reckless bullying in the future. In the end, the current round of DPRK-US confrontation may be just about reputation—the reputation which Kim will rely on to settle the accounts with his enemies in the future.
We need to start thinking several moves ahead like the North Koreans do. What will happen after they conduct another strategic missile test and a fourth nuclear test, and we go to the UN Security Council to get a new sanctions resolution invoking Article 42 under Chapter 7, and they step up their highly provocative brinkmanship again with the expectation that their threats of outright military confrontation will compel the US to back down, just like in the past?
The United States and South Korea should stop playing Kim’s brinkmanship game and re-take the diplomatic initiative. President Park Geun-hye can make a real difference if she stays true to her own beliefs and engages Kim Jong Un’s government on the platform of her “trust-politik,” regardless of what the new president’s critics may say about her or her new policy. It is high time for President Park to step in and bring the situation under control by reaching out to Kim Jong Un directly and inviting him to sit down and talk with her—perhaps in Panmunjom or Switzerland or Beijing or wherever—about a future for the Korean peninsula without mutual threats of total annihilation.
Critics may say this is appeasement and a sign of weakness, which will help Kim Jong Un boost his domestic legitimacy and international stature. We need to look beyond that and argue that President Park needs to stand up to Kim’s bullying and demonstrate to him that his attempts to break her will by putting Kaesong into play will not work, but she does stand ready to show him another way leading to a real breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. Such forceful and imaginative leadership will be a sign of President Park’s true strength, self-confidence, maturity, and wisdom. In the end, it might well be the “swishing of the skirt” that might bring peace to Korea. But, if she blinks and puts on the iron-clad shoes of her predecessor, it may be hopeless. History tends to repeat itself. It takes a really great man or woman to break its spell and save peace. Perhaps, she is the one.
 “Spokesman for Supreme Command of KPA Clarifies Important Measures to Be Taken by It,” KCNA, March 5, 2013, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2013/201303/news05/20130305-21ee.html.
 “KPA Supreme Command Spokesman’s Statement Encourages DPRK People,” KCNA, March 6, 2013, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2013/201303/news06/2013030-17ee.html.
 “Senior Official of Russian Political Party Hails DPRK’s Nuclear Test,” KCNA, March 1, 2013, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2013/201303/news01/20130301-05ee.html.
 Pyongyang Korean Central Broadcasting Station in Korean 0024 GMT 15 April 2012; Speech by Kim Jong Un at the military parade by the Korean People’s Army, Navy, and Air Force held at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
 “Statement of a spokesman for the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces of the DPRK National Defense Commission on March 13, 2013,” KCNA, March 13, 2013.
 “ U.N. poised to approve inquiry commission on rights abuses in N. Korea,” Yonhap, March 19, 2013, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2013/03/19/76/0401000000AEN20130319005200315F.HTML.