N. Korea‘s verbal threats
South Koreans have long been accustomed to abusive verbal threats from the North, most of which end in provocative rhetoric. They have also wisely avoided some deadly North Korean provocations from escalating into a major war. However, many people are perplexed about the latest verbal threats.
The latest ones came in an unusual announcement by the North Korean military supreme command on April 23, specifically targeting President Lee Myung-bak and some media organizations in the South. The North’s military threatened that it would “launch special actions that will reduce the (South Korean) bases of provocation to ashes in three or four minutes.”
Across the North, there were a series of angry statements and rallies protesting the South by several state organizations, all in competition to show their loyalty to their new young leader Kim Jong-un. On April 25, marking the 80th anniversary of its founding, the North Korean military renewed its threat “to stage a retaliatory sacred war” against the South Korean president “to cut off the windpipes of and destroy those who provoke.”
The North accused President Lee of having “insulted our ‘highest dignity,” a reference to his criticism of Pyongyang’s rocket launch and its militant policy on the occasion of celebrating the centennial of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.
President Lee had said the estimated $850 million spent on the rocket should have been used to buy food for the people and that the North should carry out land reform by privatizing state-owned agricultural land to improve the livelihood of the people.
Washington was saying very much the same thing through the White House and the State Department. However, Pyongyang did not wage the same kind of verbal attack on the United States. The North’s foreign ministry complained that the United States has double standards on the proliferation of nuclear and missile development by singling out North Korea to oppose its rocket program, while being silent on India and other countries that develop such weapons.
After the North’s failed rocket launch, the South displayed its own cruise missiles it claimed were capable of striking any part of North Korea and targeting the window of any room in the North, an insinuation that Kim Jong-un may not be safe if he started a war.
Most pundits in Seoul believed that while the President’s views were right, it might have been imprudent to express them publicly, as they would only instigate North Korean provocation. Others shared the view that the President said the right thing in support of his principled policy towards the recalcitrant, wrong-headed North Korean policy.
There is no way to know whether the latest threats are just empty words designed to scare the South or if they would be actually carried out. If the North were serious, what form of attack would it be that can “reduce the targets to ashes in three or four minutes”?
It is possible to speculate that the “special actions by the revolutionary forces” might include a range of possible attacks, including cyber attacks to paralyze government functions or operations of critical utility systems including power, gas and communications. North Korean commandos might carry out a suicide mission to blow up an atomic power plant or use bio-chemical weapons on a subway system that would instantly kill thousands of people.
However, even if the North Koreans carried out their threats, they would likely limit or localize their attacks to avoid a large number of human casualties or serious consequences.
The North Korean leaders are not ready yet for such a suicidal war.
It is understandable that the North never liked the conservative Lee administration which consistently maintained a hard line policy on the North. The North Koreans know that the South’s President is going through a leadership crisis, stemming from the financial scandals of his close associates among other negative factors. And he barely has 10 months left of his term.
Nevertheless, the real reason behind the North’s demeaning name-calling of President Lee and waging threats against him at this point is confusing. The goal may be to divert people’s attention from the failed rocket launch or to solidify support for Kim Jong-un. Maybe Pyongyang is reacting to international condemnation of its continuing nuclear and missile development, while still seeking reengagement with the United States.
One visitor who witnessed Pyongyang’s April festivities, including the rocket launch, a military parade and Kim’s speech, told an audience in Seoul last week that Kim ordered Pyongyang’s admission of the rocket failure. The visitor said Kim seemed open and decisive but did not appear concerned about the consequences of his quick decisions.
For a more realistic threat, the North is likely to conduct a third nuclear test at any time. At present, there is nothing, except Kim’s decision, that will stop another nuclear test, plutonium or uranium based. The futility of Chinese pressure, American sanctions or cooperative U.S.-China efforts was never understood to be more real than now.
Pyongyang has already declared that it will continue its rocket launches, still claiming satellite rockets are not missiles. The North has known all along that their rocket launches are regarded by the United States and its allies as missile tests.
Clearly, more trouble will be coming from North Korea. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at email@example.com.