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North Korea’s month of bluster: is there method in its ‘madness’?

Western commentators seem generally mesmerised by North Korea’s quixotic behaviour. The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is described as “delusional”, “fruitcake”, “reckless”, and the actions of North Korea’s…

Kim Jong-un’s threats against South Korea and the US have become more dramatic. EPA/Yonhap News Agency

Western commentators seem generally mesmerised by North Korea’s quixotic behaviour. The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is described as “delusional”, “fruitcake”, “reckless”, and the actions of North Korea’s political/military elite as “aggressive”, “defiant” and “devoid of logic”. Such epithets explain little.

Even today, Fairfax Media describes North Korea’s most recent threat of “merciless” military strikes against the United States using potentially “cutting-edge” nuclear weapons as “lurid”.

To recap briefly on recent tensions: in December 2012 North Korea successfully launched another satellite into orbit, followed in February of this year by a third nuclear test, said to be twice as big as the 2009 test. Thereafter, the acrimony on both sides has steadily intensified.

With South Korea and the United States in the midst of joint military drills, Pyongyang declared on March 12 that the 1953 Korean War armistice was nullified. A few days later the Pentagon announced a major expansion of projected antiballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast, a dangerous move if for no other reason that China itself might see it as aimed at neutralising its own deterrent.

On March 22, North Korea threatened to attack US military bases in Japan and the Pacific island of Guam in retaliation for training missions by US B-2 bombers over South Korea.

A US B-2 bomber hovers over South Korea during a drill. AAP/Yonghap News Agency

The United States responded yet again by signing an agreement with South Korea regarding possible US involvement in “local clashes and skirmishes”. Three days later it dispatched two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice sortie over South Korea, by which time North Korea had cut off the remaining military hotline with South Korea.

Today, North Korea announced that it had ratified a law authorising plans for “counter-actions” against US aggression, including use of a “lighter” nuclear strike. In response, the US have moved an advanced missile defence system to Guam.

What are we to make of this unnerving sequence of events? One possible interpretation is that North Korean leaders decided to create yet another crisis only to offer to defuse it at a later date in exchange for the energy and food aid the North Korean economy sorely needs. There is evidence to suggest that earlier crises have followed a similar pattern, which may help to explain the periodic rise and fall of tensions.

But such an explanation fails to address two closely related questions: one involving the timing of the latest round of sabre rattling, and the other the fury with which it is conducted.

One thing is clear: North Korea, regardless of its belligerence, lacks the means to defeat South Korea, or to inflict any military damage on the United States.

The motive therefore lies not in the execution of any military threat but in the theatre of threat-making. The prospect of extracting international aid can only be part of the motivation. There is, after all, no guarantee that such aid will be forthcoming even if North Korea should ease its threatening posture. Even if sanctions were relaxed or if some aid did come North Korea’s way, Western economic assistance is likely to be limited, temporary or subject to potentially unacceptable conditions.

Other considerations - each relating to a different audience - have almost certainly influenced the thinking of Kim Jong-un and his associates.

There exists a perceived need to convey a clear message to the people of North Korea: the regime is strong and stable; the new leader may be youthful and inexperienced, but North Korea’s determination to expand its military capabilities is undiminished.

The North Korean Central News Agency has reported that the North Korean army is ready to fight South Korea and the US. EPA/KCNA-Yonhap

Pyongyang moreover wants its principal adversaries - South Korea and the United States - to be left in no doubt that it is fully determined to thwart any attempt at regime change. Developing a limited but credible nuclear deterrent is crucial to this purpose.

The final - and maybe the decisive - factor is that Pyongyang is signalling to Beijing that declining Chinese support will mean increasing North Korean belligerence. The net effect will be even higher levels of insecurity in northeast Asia, likely to be highly damaging to Chinese interests.

North Korea’s defiant posture is also likely to provoke an expanded US military presence in the region, and this cannot be to China’s liking. Simply put, Pyongyang is telling Beijing: “maintain your support, however low-key, because for you this is the lesser of two evils”.

Placed in this context, the US administration’s tit-for-tat strategy makes little sense. It risks adding fuel to the flames, and making relations with China even less predictable.

A more appropriate short-term response is for the international community, notably the United States, to ride the present storm, avoid provocations, and support Chinese diplomacy aimed at containing the dispute.

The long-term solution is to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia as a whole. Even a few initial steps in this direction would help ease tensions between North and South.

Diplomacy, however, is not enough. It has to be complemented by an expanding web of human contacts between North and South. If providing North Korea with an economic lifeline assists this process, then the option must be patiently embraced. The long term benefits will greatly outweigh the cost of dealing with an unpleasant and seemingly erratic regime.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Madness or not, it is good for business if you work for western intelligence/military/security industries.

    And newspapers too as they can periodically tell us we are under potential threat from North Korean nuclear missiles.

    So everyone wins.

  2. Bill Butterworth


    Is there any independently verifiable evidence that Kim has actually done or said any of the things attributed to him?

    I can't help being reminded of the buildup to the second Gulf War and thinking the alleged threat is about as real as Saddam's "WMD"s.

  3. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    One thing North Korea has going for it, the local branch of Weight Watchers.
    You only ever see one obese person in the DPRK and that is the Dear Leader.

  4. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    The danger is that Pyongyang will cry wolf just too many times, and suddenly the wolf turns up.

    Will China finally step in and defuse the problem completely, or will our world be swept into its first localised nuclear exchange that could kill millions and send the World into economic melt down. How much longer can we afford to play this brinkmanship before a mistake is made.

    While Burma finally seems to be making some effective concessions, North Korea and Iran, two rogue states led by megalomaniacs, continue to sabre rattle and threaten much more than just some mouse roaring

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      One can only opine what the Western response would be if North Korea had megalitres of oil.

    2. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      True enough Dianna, though Iran does and they havent invaded there.....yet.

      I'm not saying the West arent at fault for many of the World's problems, but they arent the only ones. North Korea's bluster and threatening behaviour is only because they have China to back them up, same as Russia with Iran. That's not to say the West hasnt supported crazies in power in other countries they wish to exploit or use.

      But in the end the West are not the only peoples with blood on their hands. All major powers have vested interests. And North Korea's ongoing belligerence, to eke out concessions and resources, could very easily result in war in that area, and just as European nations felt obliged to support their small allies and allow the situation to escalate into all out war in 1914, the same could easily happen if North Korea suddenly crossed South Korea's borders and China and USA felt obliged to assist their respective allies

    3. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      I understand your point, Ron. My POV on Iran is that the Coalition of the Willing made such a mess of Iraq, they lost all credibility.

      Agree there are no innocents - except for the unfortunate collateral damage done to the citizens of these blighted countries.

  5. Stewart Riddle

    Lecturer in Literacies Education at University of Southern Queensland

    It makes me think of the two schoolyard thugs, strutting about and taunting each other. The belligerence and blood pressure gets higher until suddenly one thug thumps the other. Then it's black eyes and bleeding noses all round. Except, in this case, nukes are involved.

  6. Shaun King


    I'd have to say, follow the money to get to the bottom of whatever "conspiracy" is going on. Whether it's from the east or the west.

    Considering the fact that all our western (and many eastern) governments are now corporations, masquerading as parliaments, we must take into account their lawful obligations. A corporation must consider profit above all else.

    This Nth Korean thing is a doosey, as one commenter noted, they don't have oil. So what is it they do have (besides nukes) that is sparking the interest of the US/UK/Euro bloc?

    Meanwhile, the citizens of Nth Korea suffer at the hands of their dysfunctional leadership, aided and abetted by our dysfunctional leaders.

    It only takes a light breath of wind to bring a house of cards crashing down. Solving this, and all our other "worldy" problems is easier than we think.

  7. Terry Reynolds

    Financial and political strategist

    Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse Tung were all mad and cost the world tens of millions of livea., Just as mad citizens, assisted them in the debauchery. It should surprise no one if North Korea launches the attack they threaten at any moment, as they clearly believe they are up to it and have a huge army. Loss of life means nothing to them!

    While down here in Australia we have an opposition who spends every opportunity aggresively spooking people into thinking we are no better off than the North Korean peasants. Just as mad citizens here readily accept it.

  8. Raine S Ferdinands

    Education at Education

    I lived in China to understand some of its ideology. China is the puppet master of N Korea. It is in the best interest of China to have on its side a recalcitrant, idiotic juvenile (N Korea) that would throw tantrums whenever it suits China. China also wants to be acknowledged as the 'Tai Koh' (big brother) in this region. Gillard has gone to Chins to "urge China…." to rein in N Korea. This is actually what China wants ... all Western nations to seek China's help/advice/assistance; an official…

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