Is North Korea’s Bark Worse Than Its Bite?

North Korea's track record suggests that the latest threats should be taken seriously
March 7th, 2013

A day after North Korea said it would no longer be bound by the Armistice Agreement, it threatened to “turn not only Seoul but also Washington into a sea of fire.” And it followed that up today by saying with the armistice nullified, “it would not be strange if a thermonuclear war erupted.”

While North Korea often says it does not engage in empty talk, almost all of their threats are not carried out. But North Korea has followed through on enough that policymakers in the region will remain on their toes for the next few days and weeks.

There are likely a number of reasons that North Korea is making these threats now. Not only are two joint South Korean and U.S. military exercises either ongoing (“Foal Eagle”) or just about to start (“Key Resolve”), but the North Korean satellite launch and nuclear test, and subsequent (or soon to be passed) UN Security Council resolutions, have increased tension significantly.

The larger question is whether North Korea will make good on these threats. An examination of North Korean threats and actions posted at the Korea Economic Institute shows that there are surprisingly many instances in which North Korea has sent out an initial warning and then followed through, especially with regards to nuclear tests and missile launches.  As their analyst noted,

Although reading into North Korean threats is like attempting to read tea leaves, one should not be too hasty in dismissing them entirely.  With Kim Jong-un’s uncertain hold of power, there is a stronger chance than ever that brinkmanship between the two Koreas could prove highly dangerous this year.

North Korea has also previously threatened to attack the staging areas for balloon launches by South Korean human rights activists. Last October, a planned balloon launch was prevented from occurring by South Korean authorities, but there were indications that North Korean artillery and personnel were placed at firing positions.

But with regards to the Armistice Agreement itself, North Korea’s threats ring hollow, because they already said they abrogated the armistice as recently as May 2009. Even before then Pyongyang threatened on numerous occasions that it would not abide by the terms of the armistice.

There are also worries that any provocation by North Korea could trigger a strong response from the new Park Geun-hye administration in Seoul. Already the head of operations for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff warned “If North Korea pushes ahead with provocations that would threaten the lives and safety of our citizens, our military will strongly and sternly punish the provocations’ starting point, its supporting forces and command.”

U.S. and South Korean military officials responded that the armistice would remain in effect. General James Thurman, who heads the United Nations Command, said that in his role he would “fully enforce the conditions of the armistice.” A spokesman for the South Korean defense ministry, who is not a party to the armistice, said that “the armistice agreement is replaceable only by mutual consent. It cannot be nullified by North Korea’s unilateral decision.”