North Korea versus South Korea. Is it different this time?

We went through this rhetoric full of threats from the North Korean side many times before. So would you say is it somehow different this time, is it in your opinion possible to identify any new element in this? Read few comments.

Peter Hayes, Professor of International Relations, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Director, Nautilus Institute in San Francisco

I will be fairly specific.

Rodong Sinmun in Korean 06 Mar 13 – The US and South Korean Warmongers Should Prepare for Ultimate Destruction: “If the US imperialists brandish nuclear weapons, we – in complete contrast to former times – will by means of diversified, precision nuclear strike in our own style turn not just Seoul, but even Washington, into a sea of fire.”

The threat to use nuclear weapons against specific cities is new and barbaric. No more or less barbaric than the clinical language or countervalue targeting or obvious collateral damage implicit in the declared doctrines and operational practices of the NPT nuclear weapons states. They have managed to join the ranks of nuclear barbarians. Congratulations DPRK. However, the DPRK has no way to realize this threat, which makes them look absurd as well as barbaric.

Rodong Sinmun in Korean 22 Feb 13 – Ri Hyo’n-to – The Era When the United States Used To Habitually Engage in Nuclear Blackmail Is at an End: “Had our Republic not prepared the nuclear deterrent, what would our people’s fate have become and what would the situation on the Korean peninsula have been? The United States should have started a war a long time ago. Our country too would have probably become like Iraq or Libya, and the Korean peninsula would have been like the Balkan peninsula toward the end of the last century or Afghanistan in the early part of the new century. Furthermore, it would have been recorded in history as the most catastrophic nuclear war ever experienced by mankind yet.”

The idea that anyone wants to attack or occupy North Korea given its spartan state, collapsed economy, and relatively insignificant resources is ludicrous. Unlike Iraq or Libya, they don’t have oil, or anything equivalent which some in the US may view worth fighting over! This rationale may make some North Koreans feel good or secure, but likely not in the North Korean military suffering from shortages of fuel, food, ammunition, and basic military materiel. In fact, having nuclear weapons now draws fire onto the KPA; burdens them with a new and onerous command and control, security, and delivery missions; and generally distracts them from their deterrent mission and the underlying conventional and forward-deployed military forces.

Statement by a Spokesperson for the DPRK Foreign Ministry“ Pyongyang Unattributed Korean Central Broadcasting Station, in Korean 0943 GMT 07 Mar 13: “…as long as the United States is attempting to light the fuse of a nuclear war, our revolutionary armed forces will exercise the right to carry out preemptive nuclear strikes on the strongholds of the aggressors in order to defend the supreme interests of the country.”

They are taking every opportunity to remind China that it has not delivered the United States as a negotiating partner, and that it should therefore back the DPRK while abandoning any notion that China can influence North Korean policy and actions. This is a nice example of claiming something that doesn’t in fact exist–the right to nuclear pre-emptive attack; but it is also emulating declared American doctrine in its most extreme form. Practically speaking, it’s an empty threat. The only place that they can reliably (2/3 probability at best) explode a nuclear device is in a hole in North Korea, which has little military utility. They may also be motivated by one-upmanship, that is, countering the ROK general who stated that they would consider pre-emptive attack on NK nuclear weapons.

These statements are not about deterrence or reassurance. They are opportunistic statements aimed at compelling their adversaries and even their partners to change their policies towards the DPRK. They are highly irresponsible and probably illegal under the UNSC resolution on nuclear aggression in 1994.

Finally, they also recall the similar threats made during the Cold War, when the DPRK invoked the threat of nuclear retaliation should the DPRK be attacked, against the US and its allies. The source of such retaliation could only have been Soviet or Chinese nuclear weapons at this time as the DPRK had no nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s. This rhetoric had little credibility at the time. The DPRK would have been caught in the crossfire of a global nuclear exchange, but the idea that the Soviet Union or China would have used nuclear weapons to “save” the DPRK from itself in a war in Korea was about as ludicrous as these vacuous but dangerous threats today.

Roger Cavazos, Non-resident Associate, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco

Peter laid out specific differences at a strategic level – the one that matters.

Here are some tactical level observations of what’s different, what’s the same and what might be next.

What is different?

1) DPRK issued an original warning via the offices in Panmunjom. They had not done that for a long time;

2) They addressed the warning directly to the Commander of USFK (United States Forces Korea). Even though DPRK hasn’t addressed South Korea via Panmunjom in an extremely long time, if ever. DPRK also avoids addressing the United Nations, it has also been a long time since they addressed the Commander of USFK;

3) DPRK actually cut the line. Even though the line was rarely used, especially after the two countries of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee left or were forced out of the North, the line served a symbolic function. There are obviously many ways DPRK can contact others if they deem it politically expedient. DPRK signal to noise ratio (credibility) went up a fraction because they said they were going to cut the line and they did. However, the signal to noise ratio dropped dramatically with their nuclear threats.

What’s the same?

1) Mass rallies in Pyongyang. If Pyongyang were truly worried about the security situation, they wouldn’t gather several hundred thousands in one place at one time and make a public spectacle of the matter. They have not gone into “bunker mode”;

2) China does not engage in exercises with an ally separated by thin ribbons of water (the Yalu and Tumen rivers);

3) DPRK has not cancelled tours or tourist groups coming to North Korea. Those visits provide hard currency. To my knowledge DPRK has not mentioned anything about using them as human shields, but the effect of having tourists there likely comforts DPRK. DPRK likely feels that Western countries are not so crazy to attack while their citizens are in North Korea. On a personal note, in addition to all the humanitarian reasons, I think this is one of the reasons to have POW/MIA search teams in North Korea.

What’s next (maybe)?

1) more bluster;

2) more missile firings. DPRK has apparently issued NOTMARs (notice to mariners) to avoid certain areas. DPRK usually issues those NOTMARS for areas where they plan to fire missiles;

3) a very hungry DPRK. DPRK will conduct their military exercises and devour a huge amount of fuel and energy which is already scarce. There are no new crops being planted, let alone harvested for the next few months. What little fuel and spare parts that may have been used to operate farm equipment or create fertilizer will rapidly disappear or dwindle in the military exercises.

4) no war. KPA has about 30 days worth of fuel, very few spare parts and as soon as they leave their caves, they are susceptible to rapid destruction. They can do a tremendous amount of damage, but they it’s over for Kim Jong-un and his regime. IF (and a huge “if” as Peter mentions and shows in previous writings) DPRK explodes one nuclear device, the conventional and systematic regime dismantlement begins. Again, that means the ride is over to Kim Jong-un, personally, and the end of the regime.

Two final points for the overall situation:

1) DPRK’s upset; not suicidal.

2) A DPRK nuclear weapon is an important domestic tool for Kim Jong-un. It creates external partisan struggle to rally internal domestic support. It’s also why DPRK is relatively insensitive to either reward or pain. They’re not impervious, they just have a high threshold.

Virginie GrzelczykSenior Lecturer in International Relations, Nottingham Trent University

I think North Korea appears to be the ‘driver’ when it comes to increasingly aggressive rhetoric here: it has chosen to ‘sanction’ its relationship with South Korea over the recent UN sanctions. This is a dangerous path, as North Korea appears to want to project a strong image given the recent political changes in South Korea. Indeed President Park has only been in office for a week in Seoul, and has yet to really craft a North Korean policy.

We have been, for a while now, into a cycle of tit-for-tat, basically retaliation in kind coming from a number of actors, but usually following the path of having UN sanctions (strongly backed by the US) then leading to North Korea testing a weapon or withdrawing from an agreement, thus leading to more sanctions. This has been going on for the best part of the first Obama Administration, and there has been a lack of any institutionalised discussion with North Korea with the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks. At this point it seems crucial to me, to not alienate North Korea further, but to actually agree to sit down and talk: there are a number of new elements here indeed, mostly actors in this situation (apart from President Park, Kim Jong Un as well as John Kerry as new US Secretary of State have also yet to be involved in multilateral diplomacy over the peninsula), and positions need to be stated clearly. Refusing to talk with North Korea will most likely not end the cycle of escalation, and could lead to a potential military clash on the peninsula, with the first target being the South, a scenario quite reminiscent of the 2010 incidents that also tell us that civilian casualties are not out of the question…

 Nicholas Kitchen, Fellow of LSE IDEAS, Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy, London School of Economics

From the American perspective, they will have been pleased to have been able to get Chinese support for a new round of sanctions, but the question remains whether those sanctions will be rigorously enforced by Beijing. The increasing global public awareness of North Korea’a belligerence, particularly through YouTube videos, does mean that anyone thinking about not complying with the sanctions runs a greater risk of international opprobrium than has perhaps been the case in the past.


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