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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Pyongyang’s threats to carry out “a preemptive nuclear strike of justice” and that “all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment” in response to the current joint U.S.-ROK military exercises appear to be standing operating procedure for North Korea. White House press secretary Josh Earnest stated that the “comments and provocative actions … are not new” while CNN noted that “North Korea’s bellicose words are typical around the time of annual military exercises.”
While this is all true enough, Pyongyang has periodically demonstrated a steely resolve to move the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. Since Kim Il Sung’s famous miscalculation of President Harry Truman’s own resolve in 1950 – partially abetted by some intemperate remarks by Truman’s then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitting the Korean Peninsula from the defense perimeter of the United States – Pyongyang has repeatedly carried out bloody strikes against both the United States and its South Korean ally.
In each case, Pyongyang made the correct calculation that the international environment guaranteed that it could literally get away with murder
These have included two attempted assassinations of South Korean presidents, the seizure of a U.S. military vessel on the high seas, the shooting down of a U.S. reconnaissance airplane, the ax murders of two U.S. military officers, the bombing of a South Korean civilian airline, the shooting down of a U.S. Army helicopter that strayed over the DMZ, repeated naval battles with South Korea, the torpedoing of a South Korean navy vessel, the shelling of South Korean territory and the planting of mines in the DMZ that seriously injured two South Korean soldiers just last year. In each case, Pyongyang made the correct calculation that the international environment guaranteed that it could literally get away with murder. The international environment this year suggests that North Korea could again suddenly strike with impunity, even if not launching a nuclear attack on the United States or its Asian allies.
Pyongyang appears to be particularly disturbed by the international reaction to its nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. The fallout has included the passage of new tougher sanctions legislation by the U.S. Congress as well as the imposition of new sanctions by the United Nations, Seoul and even Beijing; the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) by Seoul, a source of hard currency for the North Korean regime which was reportedly used partially to fund its nuclear program; the decision by the United States and South Korea to hold the largest-ever joint annual military exercises; and the entry into discussions by Seoul and Washington regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system on the Korean Peninsula. None of this can make Kim Jong Un happy, especially with the implied further financial squeeze on his regime and the enhanced military posture of South Korea in partnership with its American ally.
Those who might consider the resulting threats coming out of Pyongyang to be merely bluster might wish to read the work of North Korea expert and ex-Pentagon official Chuck Downs, Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy (1999). Downs notes the following: “North Korea’s aggressive behavior was not extinguished by its defeat in the Korean War nor by its pledges in the armistice agreement. From 1966 through 1969, North Korea instigated 241 armed attacks on U.S. and South Korean military personnel.”
Kim Il Sung’s most daring pushing of the envelope came in 1968, 15 years after the signing of the armistice which ended hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Within a matter of days he not only sent a commando squad to infiltrate South Korea with a mission to seize the presidential mansion and kill South Korea’s president but also oversaw the seizure of the American naval reconnaissance vessel the USS Pueblo, resulting in the death of one crew member. Certainly attempting to assassinate the president of the Republic of Korea – the current president’s father – the killing of 26 South Koreans, and the killing of a U.S. sailor on the high seas all could be considered acts of war. But Pyongyang shrewdly calculated that the last thing President Lyndon Johnson wanted at the time was a second land war in Asia – the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive was just a week away.
Kim Il Sung’s most daring pushing of the envelope came in 1968, 15 years after the signing of the armistice
Even though South Korean President Park Chung Hee was reportedly chomping at the bit to seek retaliation against the North and even though the USS Pueblo crew was held and reportedly tortured in an 11-month hostage crisis, Lyndon Johnson kept his powder dry. Brinksmanship worked for Pyongyang which, apparently emboldened by Washington’s lack of response, proceeded to shoot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan/East Sea the next year, resulting in the deaths of 31 Americans, the largest such loss of a U.S. air crew in a single incident during the entire Cold War.
The next move to the brink came in August 1976 in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). American President Gerald Ford, who had extracted the last U.S. civilian and military personnel from Saigon just the year before and was facing a tough election fight with Jimmy Carter (which he lost), was not looking to pick a fight with North Korea and get into another Asian quagmire. On August 18 two U.S. Army officers, Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett, were savagely murdered with axes by North Korean soldiers while overseeing a tree cutting operation in the DMZ. Kim Il Sung reportedly conveyed a message of “regret” over the incident to the United Nations Command (UNC) but did not accept any responsibility.
Other incidents in North Korea’s rogues gallery include: the 1983 Rangoon bombing, an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, in which three senior South Korean officials, 14 other South Koreans and four Burmese were killed; the 1987 explosion of Korean Air Flight 858, in which 104 passengers and 11 crew members were killed, due to a bomb planted by two North Korean agents; the December 1994 shooting-down of a U.S. Army helicopter that erroneously strayed into North Korean territory, resulting in the death of one of the pilots (the Clinton administration, having just concluded the ill-fated Agreed Framework on North Korean denuclearization with Pyongyang two months before, sought to quickly de-escalate the situation after securing the release of the other pilot 13 days later); naval conflicts with South Korea in the Yellow Sea over the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in 1999, 2002 and 2009; the torpedoing of the South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, in March 2010, resulting in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors; and the shelling of a South Korean island later in 2010 which resulted in the deaths of two South Korean marines and two civilians.
These last two incidents took place during the administration of President Lee Myung-bak, considered the most hawkish South Korean president in a generation. Pyongyang apparently shrewdly calculated that the Obama Administration’s pre-occupation with crises in the Middle East and with the engagement of China would preclude any forceful reaction from Seoul. Demonstrating the military gravitas of then-heir apparent Kim Jong Un to North Korea’s generals was apparently worth any risk.
With foreign policy crises erupting around the world and with the United States engaged in a particularly divisive presidential campaign, Kim Jong Un and his advisers could easily calculate once again that provocation pays. President Obama would appear to be as reluctant, in his last year in office, to engage in a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula as were his predecessors Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford. While the threat of a nuclear strike seems to be merely verbal posturing, Pyongyang could up the ante in the next few months by engaging in that brinksmanship for which it is world-renowned. Thus, some further bloody provocation may be just around the corner.