Column: North Korea practices risky brinkmanship


The Maroon



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It’s the season of threats and counter-threats on the Korean peninsula. The posturing in speeches and military demonstrations by Pyongyang intensified over the annual spring combined drills between United States and South Korean military.

North Korea follows an annual pattern of brinkmanship in order to reinforce domestic political domination and confuse prospective adversaries. Throughout the training cycle, the ruling military collective hypes a sense of impending crisis. This serves to offset U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers.

North Korea raised the level of its hostile rhetoric recently, threatening that it would not provide a warning before any attack on South Korea. Pyongyang’s escalating threats then peaked when it declared that it was prepared for nuclear war.

An assault on American military in the Pacific or on the mainland appears improbable. There is almost no possibility that Pyongyang could hit a target on Hawaii, Guam or

on any other location beyond the Korean Peninsula where United States military are posted. Yet the mounting stresses ratchet up possibilities for some type of limited combat. And there is always a chance for a misstep, especially on the part of the young, inexperienced, third- generation Kim.

Currently, North Korea has announced conditions for negotiation with the U.S., following weeks of antagonism. The ultimatums from Pyongyang involve the removal of all United Nations sanctions enacted because of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, as well as a commitment on the part of the United States not to take part in “nuclear war practice” with South Korea. The North stated that denuclarization of the peninsula must start with removal of U.S. armaments.

These provocations are an effort by Kim Jong Un to strengthen his position. They’re mainly for his old guard military leaders, since he needs them for his own survival. According to some experts, deliberation is taking place as well, among North Korean leaders over the future direction of the nation as a nuclear state.

China has no desire for a nuclear North Korea, yet it is even more anxious about the country falling apart on its border.

If Kim Jong Un wants to stay in power, he must persist in programs established by his father, Kim Jong Il. The most significant of these is the

regime’s determination to construct a nuclear arsenal. North Korea will then need to continue as a nuclear- armed autocracy in extreme poverty. The message that the North Koreans absorbed from the invasion of Iraq is that a nuclear deterrent is essential. Pyongyang also judges that a nuclear arsenal is necessary for diplomatic leverage.

Because modernizing processes would damage national stability, they cannot be undertaken. In order for the ruling military collective to remain dominant, it has to coax aid from other states, and their nuclear platform facilitates this. Using nuclear weapons for intimidation, Pyongyang has been able to draw a significant amount of international assistance. And one of the reasons for its power is the boldness with which it acts, in spite of its weakness as a state. The central issue now is how to constrain North Korea’s brinksmanship.

Previous performance has been marked by a series of provocations followed by diplomatic forays intended to lessen strains and win political concessions.

Unlike with Iraq, the United States does not want to preempt against Pyongyang since that attack would destroy Seoul. This type of strike advances such a threat to the Republic of Korea and the forty thousand American troops stationed there as to be implausible by Washington’s calculations. Its

concern is in part that Kim Jong Un may at some point place himself in a position in which he believes that he needs to act on his rhetoric in order to save face. This menacing rhetoric is disturbing for, among other reasons, Pyongyang’s short and mid-range missiles are able to strike objectives in South Korea and Japan.

Yet Kim Jong Un would derive nothing from starting a conflict that would result in the rapid defeat of the North. The ruling military collective is not made up of suicidal maniacs, but of calculating tacticians who have perfected the technique of political extortion and who ultimately need to extract further relief from other countries after their rant dies down. Their annual hostility shouldn’t be taken uncritically, since it plays into the political strategy of controlling international public opinion in order to attain what have proven to be recurring, predictable objectives.

In its reaction to North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council declared that there will be a price to pay for Pyongyang’s abuse of its international responsibilities. The nation will have to move in a different direction in order to acquire the aid it urgently requires.

Kenneth Keulman is the chair of the department of religious studies and is currently teaching a course on human rights.He canbereachedat [email protected]

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