Posted by: Nicholas Davis | April 8, 2013

North Korean Escalation

I’m still fascinated and concerned by the rising tension on the Korean peninsula. The question I keep asking of late is along the lines “what is the circuit breaker?”. Because it is not clear that this cycle of hostility and aggression between DPRK and the rest of the world has a natural or built-in resolution. This implies that the chances of a misstep from either side that could lead to irretrievable consequences are higher than previously.

Let me try to put that another way. North Korea has a long history of provocation – including shooting down US military planes (on Kim Il-sung’s birthday), killing US soldiers, many attempts to assassinate South Korean Presidents, and of course the recent military shelling of Yeonpyeong. Throughout these acts, North Korean leaders have acted with extreme confidence, even in directly challenging the world undeniable military superpower. At each stage, the response from the US and the South has been not to react militarily, but instead to bolster US-South Korean defensive capabilities through exercises and assets.

Will this simply be another cycle of aggression then appeasement? Koreans that I speak to argue yes, that it is a matter of Kim Jong-Un asserting power both internally and externally, and that the current rhetoric is a calculated, logical gambit with an ultimate goal of  attention, dialogue that gives Kim good photo ops and makes the West look weak, and possibly some much-needed source of aid or other resources.

However what worries me is four conditions:

1. An unstable internal situation in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un is the new, “Great Successor” in the Kim regime, relatively worldly himself given his schooling in Switzerland, yet surrounded by a generation of military leaders who have been incredibly isolated themselves and who see the cold war as the glory days of North Korean power. Given the role that the Kim cults of personality have played in reassuring the population that their sacrifices on behalf of the country are not in vain, it is reasonable to think Kim wants to prove himself to his people. To what lengths will the regime go to demonstrate power externally, and consolidate it internally around Kim Jong-Un, and how “logical” will or can they be in calculating the response? Given Kim Jong-il’s reputation as the leader who made the country a nuclear power, in what ways will the son look for a way to militarily distinguish himself?

2. A nuclear, missile-capable DPRK. The stakes are much higher today than they previously were, both in terms of the threat and the consequences of action. At what stage will the US and South Korea, perhaps with China’s tacit consent, decide to attempt a pre-emptive knock-out of DPRK’s missile and nuclear facilities? It’s been done before here, and here. And what would DPRK military officials do if they thought this was even a significant possibility?

3. Fragile North Korea-China relations. One of North Korea’s sources of strength has been its ability to rely on its traditional allies to the North – Russia and China – both diplomatically and for resources. However it is unclear how close Kim Jong-Un and the Chinese leadership are, and the recent references by President Xi Jinping indicate that China is increasingly concerned by DPRK’s words and actions.

As always, I hope (and I think it’s likely) that my concerns are unjustified. But with new relationships like this, the possibility for missteps are higher than normal. And a misstep with a nuclear power, particularly a remarkably confident one which looks back longingly to the cold war as the period where the country was most stable and prosperous, could have disastrous consequences.

Let’s hope that instead the relationship is more aptly regarded as Jon Stewart satirized on the Daily Show recently – an amusing “rebound war” sideshow that is temporarily concerning, but ultimately nothing that anyone has to worry about.

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