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Rhetorical storm: North Korean threats turn up the heat

Are moves to put North Korea’s military on its highest alert level just posturing by leader Kim Jong-un? EPA/Rodong Sinmun

The North Korean government announced yesterday via its Korean Central News Agency that it is placing its “strategic rocket units and long-range artillery units” on their highest alert status.

The press release further claims that these units are capable of striking American military targets in South Korea “and its vicinity” (read: Japan), as well as US bases in Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States. Earlier this month, the North declared its “right to make a preemptive nuclear strike at the strongholds of aggressors”.

These statements are indicative of an increasingly aggressive stream of rhetoric voiced by the North Korean government, even by its own lofty standards of belligerent hyperbole. So what is the Kim Jong-un regime trying to achieve by raising temperature of its provocations? There are a number of strategic, economic and symbolic observations that could shed light on this question.

North Korea’s ability to strike targets in South Korea artillery and short-medium range missiles is well documented and has been a key plank of its strategic posture for decades. Less plausible is the North’s ability to hit targets further afield with long-range nuclear-armed missiles, the successful December 2012 rocket launch and nuclear test on February 12 this year notwithstanding.

One successful long-range missile test does not prove that Pyongyang is ready to deploy reliable, accurate long-range missiles in the field. Likewise, the February nuclear test has not proven definitively that North Korean scientists have engineered an intercontinental ballistic missile-deployable nuclear warhead, despite clear advances in miniaturisation evidenced by the test.

The North Korean government may be telling the truth about its nuclear and missile capability, however it is also possible that its rhetorical bluster is intended to deter military retaliation for its nuclear test and buy time to complete the development of these weapon systems.

We should note that the Korean People’s Army’s decision to heighten the alert status of its missile and artillery units coincides with the annual joint US-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises, involving over 11,000 troops across all branches of the armed services. It is not unusual for the North Korean government to raise both its alert status of its military forces and the hostility of its anti-American propaganda during these annual exercises. For a government whose foreign policy orientation pivots on the acquisition and application of hard military power, it is unlikely that the Foal Eagle exercises could be interpreted in any way other than as a threat.

These provocations also indicate that Pyongyang may not be interested in joining the international economy on American terms and is content to accrue further economic sanctions. Pyongyang can adopt this position if it has other links to the global economy that render it less vulnerable to pressure from the international community.

Such links may take the form of growing economic connections with China, along with various lucrative illicit activities undermine the UN Security Council sanctions regime and expose the declining strategic leverage that Washington and its allies have over North Korea.

The symbolism of March 26 is also important as the third anniversary of the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette ROKS Cheonan, which sank in the Yellow Sea with 46 fatalities after a North Korean torpedo purportedly pierced its hull. The Cheonan was patrolling the southern side of the disputed Northern Limit Line maritime boundary between North and South Korea near Baengnyeong Island.

Anniversaries such as these play an important role in the legitimation of the Kim regime to the North Korean people, as evidence of the government’s commitment to defending the country against so-called “imperialist aggression”.

North Korea’s increasingly hostile posturing is indeed troubling for regional stability. This does not mean however that the country’s leadership is crazy or irrational. This behaviour may be strategically flawed and potentially dangerous, but it does have a decipherable logic. Foreign observers should exercise a measured concern in evaluating the potential strategic and domestic drivers Pyongyang’s aggressive behaviour.

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