By now, everyone who has followed the utterings of North Korea’s leaders and authorized spokespersons for any length of time knows that Pyongyang’s rhetoric is bombastic bluster intended mostly for domestic consumption. It has always been a superb way of implying an external threat to the regime, one that requires the (continued) sacrifice of the citizenry in order to fend off the Yankee barbarians and their South Korean lackeys. To date, it has been remarkably effective in diverting attention away from domestic issues to non-existent dangers, for the U.S. has not directly threatened the North with extermination – at least not until most recently.
Even if North Korea’s fear is not justified, it is never wise to make an adversary feel trapped in a corner with no way out
Things have changed. Earlier this month, South Korean and American troops began the by far largest ever joint military exercise that includes scenarios involving the attacking of North Korean sites of weapons of mass destruction, decapitation strikes aimed at North Korean leaders, and the eventual occupation of the whole of the Korean Peninsula. Looking at these drills through the eyes of Pyongyang, it is indeed a worrisome situation, one that has caused the North to call up reserves and proclaim readiness at a moment’s notice to launch nuclear strikes, retaliatory or preemptive. Even if North Korea’s fear is not justified, it is never wise to make an adversary feel trapped in a corner with no way out.
Setting aside for the moment the two issues of (a) whether the North has the ability to deliver any weaponized nuclear devices, and (b) whether Kim Jong Un is willing to risk his own destruction in utilizing them, is this not yet another instance of the dog’s bark being worse than its bite? The answer is, “Maybe, maybe not.”
THE DANGER OF DESENSITIZING
One of Aesop’s fables is about wolves that devoured a village’s sheep because no one responded to the cries for help from the boy who had purposely sounded so many false alarms in the past. Like nearly all fables, it is instructive – this one for two reasons. Most of us are well-aware of the obvious lesson: the North is always blustering that they are going to attack this or destroy that and yet it never happens. After so many concocted warnings, many do not give much thought to what Kim Jong Un threatens to do.
The second lesson is more important, but is at times forgotten. As Samuel Croxall, the Anglican translator of Aesop’s fables into English, wrote in the 1700s, “When we are alarmed with imaginary dangers . . . till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against real ones?” That is to say, when we nonchalantly dismiss Pyongyang’s blatherings, we run the risk of ignoring a threat that should be heeded – and that may be precisely what Kim Jong Un intends.
AS ALWAYS, THE PAST IS PROLOGUE
A look back at mid-twentieth century history on the Korean Peninsula involving the current dictator’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is useful at this point. It is important to understand the events leading up to the Korean War and how the war actually commenced.
In the years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, there were a significant number of bloody clashes along the 38th parallel that divided North Korea from South Korea at the time. These local hostilities were instigated by both Pyongyang and Seoul – the guilt running both ways. Keep this in mind, for this played a part regarding the start of the Korean War.
The plan for initiating the Korean War, drawn up a by Soviet advisory group in North Korea, was for the attack on the South to begin in stages, so that each incident would appear as just another North Korean response to a South Korean border provocation. Even though fear of discovery by the South led to abandoning this ruse, the forces of South Korea and the U.S. were caught totally off guard when the attacks came. Launching the full invasion early Sunday morning after a major Saturday night party in Seoul attended by senior American and South Korean personnel was masterful.
Even now it could be difficult to distinguish between some localized incursion, designed by Pyongyang to only irritate the West, and the beginning stage – one out of many – in an unlimited war. If one waits for perfect information, it is likely to come too late to be of much value in responding. This is the dilemma facing any military commander in South Korea for whom the question is, “Is this the real deal, or is it the current Kim just thumbing his nose at us once again?”
IS IT TIME TO WORRY?
Are domestic conditions in the North so grave that such threats are necessary to rally the population behind him? Because of the sanctions that appear to be having some initial effect, the elites and senior military leaders appear to be somewhat discomfited. The regime must remind its people that Kim Jong Un is the one to lead them out of this morass. There is no better way to rally the citizens than to alert them to an impending attack – or even an invasion – by the U.S. and South Korea.
Is Kim Jong Un willing to seal his own fate by starting another Korean War, rather than let his empire collapse about him? The North fully recognizes that initiating an all-out conflict might gain it the element of surprise – and even inflict considerable damage. However, all senior leaders must surely understand that defeat is unavoidable. That notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom is that Pyongyang would not go down without some sort of last gasp reaction when there is nothing else to lose.
All of this, however, does not rule out some sort of provocation by North Korea, one designed to have significant impact. Kim Jong Un is short on experience, but he does know that the North has yet to be punished severely for any of its localized clashes. This history reinforces his belief that he can poke and prod the U.S. and South Korea almost at will – and with impunity.
China is preaching the need for everyone to remain calm, and now there are warnings from the Russians (of all people!) that Pyongyang is crossing a dangerous line when it comes to overheated rhetoric about destruction and war. When Moscow becomes concerned enough to publically comment, it is clear that things are on a dangerous course. North Korea is dancing just shy of a razor-thin line here. A false step, such as a grievous miscalculation by Pyongyang or an appalling lack of awareness by Seoul and Washington regarding nascent hostilities, could mean disaster.
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun
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