Tensions keep on raising on the Korean peninsula with little hope for improvement in the short term.
Soon after joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises began in early March, North Korea followed through with threats to nullify the armistice agreement and cut off the hotline between itself and South Korea.
While this wasn’t the first time that North Korea has declared it was no longer bound by the armistice agreement or cut a military hotline, North Korea’s bombast has hit levels not seen in many years, with threats earlier this month to strike South Korea, the U.S. and Japan with nuclear weapons. Yesterday KCNA went even further, by relasing photos showing a target plan for the U.S. that appeared to include Hawaii, San Diego and Washington, D.C. and Texas.
On top of that, the entire country now appears to be on a war footing, with KCNA reporting at the beginning of the month that “Party and working people’s organizations held emergency meetings all at once, in which they discussed in detail a series of tasks to be fulfilled in wartime…” One source even told the Daily NK that the atmosphere was supposedly as tense “as it was at the time of the USS Pueblo incident.”
And now North Korea has announced that it has entered a state of war against South Korea, and will deal with every inter-Korean matter in a wartime manner.
These actions have all the major powers in the region on edge, with many analysts expecting another North Korean provocation to be only a matter of time. But it also raises the question, why does North Korea seem so much angrier this time than at comparable points in the past?
There are a few reasons that have coincided to create a “perfect storm” of sorts:
The Military Exercises
Military exercises between South Korea and the U.S. are a constant source of tension for Pyongyang and North Korea has objected to them vociferously throughout the years; Kim Il Sung once told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that the exercises were “a dress rehearsal for invasion.” But they also infuriate North Korea for the economic costs they impose.
Because of the real or imagined threat the military exercises pose to North Korea, the country’s armed forces remain on high alert throughout. This forces the North Koreans to expend a great deal of scarce resources. Just consider how much oil, all of which is imported from China, went to fueling the reported 700 sorties recently flown by North Korean aircraft.
On top of this, factories are reportedly diverting production from civilian goods to military.
The mobilization of soldiers also takes its toll. The army in North Korea is involved in numerous economic enterprises, including construction, and precious man hours are diverted in case the exercises really are a prelude to invasion.
Cycle of Provocation and Sanctions
Even before the military exercises kicked off, tension had been building as North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February. Both provocations led to UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions shortly afterwards, which North Korea took as a violation of its sovereignty.
This followed a past pattern of North Korean “provocation”, UN resolution, and then further provocation by North Korea, especially as it relates to rocket and nuclear tests. In both 2006 and 2009, North Korea tested a long-range rocket, was sanctioned by the UNSC, and followed with a nuclear test shortly thereafter.
Leadership in North Korea
Kim Jong Un, now entering his second full year as Supreme Commander, is still relatively untested, and therefore has an incentive to ratchet up tensions to maintain elite cohesion.
The increased belligerence may also have something to do with the appointment of Kim Kyok Sik, known as a hardliner and thought to have overseen the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in November 2010, and reemergence of Kim Yong Chol, who many analysts believe oversaw the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March 2010. However, this may just confuse causation with correlation, as the two may be favored by the leadership because it planned on taking a harder line.
There were also unsubstantiated rumors that there was an attempt to kill Kim Jong Un in late 2012. While such an attempt would not be unprecedented (senior officers of the VI corps attempted to mutiny against Kim Jong Il early on in his rule), an attempt in Pyongyang likely would not have escaped the attention of at least some of the foreign nationals living there.
Regardless, there are some signs the regime feels a bit uncertain. An analysis of visits by Kim Jong Un has shown a sharp drop-off in appearances outside of the safety of military bases or Pyongyang, especially compared with his father’s visits in his last two years.
Testing Park Geun-hye
North Korea has a history of testing new South Korean administrations, with belligerence often coming within weeks of their inauguration. A military provocation by North Korea would test Park Geun-hye, inaugurated on February 25th, early on in her term. If she responded weakly, it could seriously harm her political standing as well as the Saenuri Party as a whole.
There is also the possibility that North Korea is doing all of this to gain a stronger hand if and when negotiations begin.
As Jean Lee of the Associated Press wrote in February after the nuclear test, “The way North Korea sees it, only bigger weapons and more threatening provocations will force Washington to come to the table to discuss what Pyongyang says it really wants: peace.”
In this case, North Korea has an incentive to appear crazy or irrational. But if they can convince the U.S. and South Korea that they would be willing to go to war, the chances of the U.S. and South Korea blinking first are much higher.
It is also possible that Kim is ramping up military threats to get the armed forces on board with some variant of economic reform.
With both a plenum of the Workers’ Party Central Committee and meeting of the rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly coming in the next few days, there is already heightened speculation that economic reform will be on the agenda. Of course, that’s what was widely expected the last time the SPA met in September, only to have nothing substantive emerge. If this time is going to be different, Kim might feel he has to show his toughness to the military before proceeding. Needless to say, this is all highly speculative.
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s recent outbursts is the fact that a number of events (UN resolutions, Park Geun-hye’s inauguration, and military exercises) have all occurred at a moment where the North Korean leadership is a bit unsure of itself. This has led to an unusually bellicose tone, even by North Korean standards, in the past few weeks.
Whether or not that translates to an actual provocation is anyone’s guess. Yonhap reports that North Korea’s missile launch sites have shown increased activity, meaning a medium- or long-range rocket test could be in the cards. On top of that, fishing season along the Northern Limit Line will soon begin (it is usually around May to July each year for blue crab), which is often trouble in a normal year. North Korea might be tempted to try something either aimed at South Korean naval vessels or civilian ships.
In any case, a country with a GDP per capita barely larger than Benin (by the latest estimates) has once again commanded the world’s attention. How this time ends is anyone’s guess.
Picture by North Korean Propaganda Posters