This past week, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with preemptive nuclear strikes in response to the nations’ joint military drills, which North Korean officials have deemed preparatory measures for invasion.
North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is notorious for its fiery rhetoric and threats leveled against perceived enemies of the state. Things have fundamentally changed, however. In the past, North Korea had little to back up their threats, even though the nation spends roughly a third of its income on military expenditure each year, according to a 2011 Reuters report. However, North Korea now has the capacity to produce atomic weapons, and if any state seems crazy enough to launch a nuclear weapon, and thus disregard the M.A.D. principle (Mutually Assured Destruction) that prevented nuclear war during the Cold War, it is North Korea.
This new military development has only bolstered the nation’s Napoleonic complex. North Korea began intimating that it would use its nuclear arsenal against its purported enemies almost as soon as their first successful test was announced. The fear is that North Korea may be increasingly able to actualize its threats. The first known North Korean nuclear test in 2006, was described as a “fizzle” by nuclear experts – which is when a nuclear bomb does not come even close to its expected yield. This failure, in tandem with the nation’s shoddy missile system at the time, assured that a nuclear strike was pretty much an impossibility. However North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions, has continued to increasingly focus on the development of both their nuclear and missiles systems since 2006, especially under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.
According to The Guardian, “Tensions rose sharply on the Korean peninsula after the North in January conducted its fourth nuclear test and fired a long-range rocket in February”. The North Korean and state-managed Korean Central News Agency has claimed that this fourth nuclear test was a hydrogen bomb, but what is more frightening is the claim that the country has successfully “miniaturized” nuclear warheads. Whitehouse officials have claimed that it is unlikely that North Korea’s newest test was a hydrogen bomb, as the yield was too low. However, the claim of nuclear miniaturization is quite probable according to experts such as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, who spoke to CNN on the issue.
Though the massive yield of a hydrogen bomb is frightening, arguably the most important factor in being a threatening nuclear power is the capacity to deliver a nuclear payload. Having the largest bomb in the world is of little use if it can’t reach its target. Dropping a bomb from a plane, as was done over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is no longer a viable option with modern air defense systems. A miniaturized warhead, however, may be attached to tactical missiles and are therefore easier to both launch accurately and more effectively reach the desired target. Most experts agree that North Korea’s nuclear system has made substantial gains. A 2013 Washington Post report claimed that, at the time, North Korea could hit Japan and South Korea, but could not reach the United States.
This past October, The Guardian noted that US intelligence and military officials claimed that North Korea may now have the capacity to hit the U.S. Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command said that, “We assess that they [North Korea] have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon… we’re ready 24 hours a day if he [Kim Jong-un] should be dumb enough to shoot something at us”. The worry is just that: Kim Jong-un may just be “dumb” enough, and he now has the capacity to do so as well.
In a nation that appears to be under the constant spell of the most delusional propaganda (for example, it is claimed by North Korean officials that when Kim Jong-il was born, winter immediately changed to spring, a new star came to illuminate the night’s sky and a double rainbow appeared spontaneously), no one is quite sure what’s actually happening within the nation – especially within the minds of top level officials. How far the sway of this pseudo-messianic cult reaches amongst higher level officials is uncertain. Perhaps even Kim Jong-un himself buys into these nonsensical fairy-tales on some level too.
Either way, North Korean leadership has a history of acting irrationally itself beyond just propagating its almost comical propaganda. As of late however, the problem for North Korea is, its actions are now starting to alienate its few allies.
Russia, a nation that has also alienated itself from the international community with its recent military excursions into Ukraine and Syria, was quick to admonish North Korea for its recent threats and actions.
According to the Business Standard, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying: “We consider the public statements (by North Korea) threatening its adversaries with ‘pre-emptive nuclear strikes’ to be completely unacceptable…Pyongyang must realize that in doing so, North Korea is definitively turning its back on the international community and creating a legal basis for the use of military force against it.” Even China, the oldest and most staunch ally of North Korea, has expressed its disdain for North Korea’s recent rabble-rousing; as stable trade and foreign relations is of paramount importance to China. According to Reuters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that China does not “recognize the nuclear status of the DPRK”. Wang went on to claim that North Korea should adhere to the UN resolution banning nuclear tests “fully and comprehensively” and “point by point”.
According to International Business Times, China has even unblocked the search-term “third-generation pig” for Internet users, which refers to Kim Jong-un. Even so, it seems unlikely that such finger-wagging, even from the nation’s only allies, will have any sort of effect on North Korean behavior.
However, maybe North Korea isn’t so “naive”. A nuclear strike of any sort would assure the outright dismantlement of the Kim regime and an invasion of North Korea. If the nation’s top military brass has any shred of rationality about it, surely they recognize this truth. Many claim that the apparent irrationality of the North Korean regime doesn’t run as deep as it seems. In fact it may be that this menacing attitude is less about defeating or conquering its “imperialist” enemies and more about keeping the North Korean regime hobbled together. Essentially, this is a game of existential self-preservation for the country’s elite, not conquest.
The reason for this activity is two-fold: The Washington Post notes that, with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the North Korean regime has achieved the ultimate military deterrent as with it, the cost of an outright invasion of North Korea is much too high. With its increasingly effective nuclear and missile systems the costs are becoming all the higher too. This isn’t a military build-up indicative of imminent invasion or attack, it is the attempt to ensure that much more powerful foreign forces do not invade. The regime is likely being quite genuine in its purported concern that joint-military operations between South Korea and the US are indicative of a potential invasion. North Korea’s endless barrage of threats is likely meant to serve as a constant reminder to foreign powers of the nation’s nuclear capacity, and the seemingly irrational bravado that accompanies said-threats makes them seem not only able but more than willing to actually launch a nuclear strike. Appearing rabid and irrational can be a quite useful tool.
Yet, the goal is not only to deter foreign powers from military intervention, but also to reinforce internal propaganda on multiple levels. As is noted by Vox News, in order to maintain a complacent and subservient populace, North Korea must perpetuate the myth that they are the mightiest and most prosperous nation on earth that is constantly threatened by external imperialistic powers. So, not only do these threats deter purported enemies, but internally they make the regime appear strong and willing to stand up to imperialistic enemies abroad on behalf of their people. Also, adherence to the demands of external powers, such as the US or regulatory bodies like the UN, would be a direct contradiction of the North Korean mythos. Drawing legal lines in the sand almost forces North Korea to cross them in a show of their dominance and superior strength as the appearance of yielding to foreign demands is insulting to the regime, which is hyper concerned with the maintenance of its appearance as a dominant power to its people.
Perhaps most interestingly, the recent increase in threatening claims and behavior may be the product of internal political friction within the regime itself.. Vox News points out Kim Jong-un’s predicament: “Imagine being in your late 20s and suddenly taking control of a small country, one whose government is dominated by a small and ruthless coterie of more experienced military and party officials. Probably one of your biggest concerns would be making sure that those officials took you seriously”. They suggest that much of North Korea’s recent activity, such as the purge of many top level officials including Kim Jong-un’s own uncle, may be indicative of the new leader trying to further solidify his grip on power. Again, appearing rabid and ruthless is a strong deterrent to potential competitors and Kim Jong-un may be playing such a game on both a macro and microscopic scale.
There is no real certainty as to what is truly going on when it comes to what is called the “Hermit Kingdom” that is North Korea. The tight clamp the Kim regime keeps on its internal affairs makes it difficult to know the actual political state of the nation or to coherently map-out the reasoning behind its seemingly irrational actions, or verify the actual lack of reason. Either way, it is advisable for foreign powers act very cautiously. Whether North Korea is some anomalous bastion of complete insanity or just hyper-paranoid about its continued existence, it may be provoked either way. The Guardian notes that The Russian Foreign Ministry leveled comparable advice towards the US and South Korea as it claimed that the two nations’ joint military operations put “unprecedented … military and political pressure on Pyongyang… the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) cannot but feel reasonably concerned for its security.” The age old advice is that if the dog seems to have flecks of foam in its mouth, don’t poke it with a stick.
Assistant External News Editor