North Korea Under Kim Jong Un: Old Threats and New Worries

North Korea's fiery rhetoric isn't new, but the tempo has clearly quickened under Kim Jong Un.

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AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS

This picture, taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on March 7, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting the Mu Islet Hero Defence Detachment near South Korea's Taeyonphyong Island in South Hwanghae province, North Korea's southwestern sector of the front.

In 17 years under Kim Jong Il, North Korea grabbed the world’s attention with several missile tests, a pair of nuclear detonations and a big helping of threats. Kim’s youngest son and successor has hit all those highlights of North Korean-style leadership in just over a year at the helm. And while these acts and the rhetoric that surround them sound familiar, their tempo has clearly quickened, particularly this past week as the Pyongyang regime responds to the latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions in response to its Feb. 12 nuclear test.

In recent days North Korea has said it will drop its recognition of the armistice that ended hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War and threatened to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike against U.S. “aggressors.” On Friday North Korea warned it was pulling out of all non-aggression pacts with the South. Pyongyang has said it might ignore the 1953 cease-fire several times before, but the nuclear threat is a new level of escalation. While North Korea doesn’t possess the sort of reliable long-range missiles or miniaturized nuclear devices that would allow it to hit the U.S., its capabilities are improving, as shown by its successful satellite launch in December.

(MORE: Inside North Korea: 10 Revealing New Satellite Snapshots from Google Maps)

“One has to take what any government says seriously,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Thursday. “It’s for that reason that I repeat here that we are fully capable of defending the United States. But I would also say that this kind of extreme rhetoric has not been unusual for this regime, unfortunately.” In South Korea, new president Park Geun-hye was far less sanguine about the North Korean threat. “Our current security situation is very grave,” Park warned Friday at a commissioning ceremony for graduating military cadets, the Yonhap News Agency reported. South Korea’s military has responded in kind to the North’s rhetoric, warning that a nuclear attack would lead to the North’s destruction.

The sanctions unanimously approved Thursday by the U.N. Security Council ban transactions that might help North Korean nuclear proliferation and require governments to inspect shipments to or from the North that might contain prohibited weapons or related materials. The measures also block the sale to North Korea of some luxury items like yachts and luxury cars and call for increased monitoring of North Korean diplomats to prevent them from aiding their country’s weapons programs. International relations expert Marcus Noland writes on the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ North Korea: Witness to Transition blog that while the sanctions do offer new powers to control North Korean proliferation, there’s also plenty of wiggle room:

The problem with these latest steps  is that each has a kind of “credible information” clause. A government that does not want to enforce them can say that they lack credible information, or that the information that they were provided did not meet the standard of “reasonable grounds.” On the other hand, the resolution also provides cover for a campaign to intensify financial restraints on the country on the grounds that virtually all of its external transactions ultimately feed back into a central pot from which the country’s excessive military expenditure is drawn. Expect continuing diplomacy from the US and its allies to secure support for an expansive definition of proscribed trade and financial transactions.

(MORE: Park Geun-hye Aims to Make History as South Korea’s First Female President)

The pivot on which all North Korea questions turn is, as ever, China, its neighbor and only major ally. China backed the passage of the new sanctions, and the latest missile launch and nuclear test came in the midst of an important political transition in China. The new leadership team of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang can hardly be amused. Despite that, China’s fundamental strategic calculations remain the same, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov argues in a recent essay. “All things considered, China tends to see a nuclear North Korea as the least unacceptable option,” he wrote.

Other observers say that China may be rethinking its position. Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, wrote last month that North Korea’s actions are undermining China’s international image and entangle its leaders in growing regional tensions. “I do sense in my interactions with Chinese officials and experts a growing concern over Kim Jong Un and his ability to lead the country,” says Haenle, who was the U.S. National Security Council China director from June 2007 to June 2009 and White House representative to the six-party Korean denuclearization talks. Any changes will be quiet, he says. “I don’t expect overnight any major sort of 180 degree change in China’s policy and I don’t expect it to be done in any sort of public, loud way, but what we could potentially see is a shift back to where they were at end of the Bush administration, where they put conditions for aid and assistance and even high-level interactions on progress in the denuclearization track to prevent North Korea from provocations and destabilizing actions.” China eased its carrot and stick approach after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in mid-2008, Haenle says, because it was clear the country was going into a leadership transition.

If China’s endorsement of the latest sanctions are a sign it is growing weary of its North Korean ally, it has been at pains to deny it, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying it continues to advocate stability and denuclearization. “I don’t think China has changed its stance,” says Fang Xiuyu, a North Korea expert and professor of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “China’s position on the North Korean nuclear crisis is very clear: support denuclearization and maintain regional peace.” The new sanctions are “an international consensus and we have no reason not to support them.” Now the question is if they’ll have any effect.

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

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15 comments
Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

China is not "rethinking its position" -- it will stand by its ally DPRK despite (or because of) US/ROK belligerency.

The problem with these latest steps  is that each has a kind of “credible information” clause. . .
vs.
If China’s endorsement of the latest sanctions are a sign it is growing weary of its North Korean ally . .

So TIME's demonization of DPRK is similar to its approach to Iran -- a mouthpiece for US mis-directed foreign policy.

timevicente
timevicente

Unless he's close to madness, I would expect Kim Jong Un's provocative rhetorics are a ploy to strengthen the military and the people behind him.  Why doesn't the US do a Nixon and get the results from a personal dialogue with North Korean leaders?  The rest of the world should calm North Korea's nerves and not isolate that country. Sow peace, harvest peace.

btt1943
btt1943

It is only natural that when pushed to an extremely tight corner, one would in desperation fight back with all one's might and craze. 

Young leader of North Korea, perhaps under constant immense pressure from the military and party, seems to be getting near paranoiac lately. The world needs not pay too much attention on his wild yet empty threat, just leave him alone. The more international responses he gets, the more agitated he may become, and the wilder he would be.   (ttm1943, mtd1943) 

peaceword
peaceword

SEVERAL NORTH KOREA NUCLEAR LANDMINES PREVIOUSLY CONCEALED ON U.S. SOIL. . . North Korea’s nuclear threat against the United States and South Korea relates to North Korea’s Nuclear Landmines, each weighing about 60 pounds (approx. 45 Kilos)yielding a 20 Kiloton Hiroshima-size blast, that have previously been concealed inside the borders of the U.S. and South Korea by North Korea military agents during the past several years.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@peaceword 

If you think you can get a 20 kiloton blast out of 60 pounds of North Korean technology, it shows you know jack shit about nuclear weapons.

IliaPonomarenko
IliaPonomarenko

Yeah. these guys really know what they're frying...The balance of powers in that regions does not favor for the US, so Washington is likely to make some steps towards discharge of situation. One can increase the humanitarian aid to the North Korea. It is much easier and appealing solution in such circumstances, so Kim's blackmailing really can be fruitful 

eetom
eetom

If North Korea were to start a war now, it would spell the end of the regime.  Its enemy would take the opportunity to exterminate it.  Let us hope that Kim is not so stupid as not to know that.

Crazii_beautiful
Crazii_beautiful

This guy Kim Jong performs really well on his role of what in DR would be called 'el Cuco' (AKA Boogieman in the US). I think many countries have had the chance to play that role before and even now, but Kim Jong wins the Oscar for Best Lead Actor and his movie 'TrueStory' the one for Best Picture. The rest of us are just the scared kids. The only difference I see between real life and myth is that in real life, rather than protect us, hiding under the covers could actually get us eaten (by El Cuco). 

ChrisGeo
ChrisGeo like.author.displayName 1 Like

Is there any proof N Korea said that? Where is the audio? Where is the statement? I want to cross reference this with a Korean speaker and see exactly what he said. Don't believe the BS. The media is total 100% non-credible now. Verify everything three times over.

oldwhiteguy
oldwhiteguy

Likely that the kid Kim Jong Uh is getting run by the old guys in the silly hats.  Also likely that the additional sanctions are making their bums squeak a bit, otherwise why the saber rattling?  Let's remember that this country is basically just an excuse for a cadre of people in power who live high while the population eats scraps.  They're not going to launch a war against anybody, least of all a nuclear one, because if they do, the party's over for them. They'd have to give up the Courvoisier and the Disney dvds. The only end to them is for their own people to give them the bum's rush.  So I say, let's just tell them we're having a party and they're missing out.  Then let 'em squeak.

JohnForsthoffer
JohnForsthoffer

Cut all foreign aid. And when the North Korean people are starving looking for help from  their fearless leader, they will see that all monies are being used on nuclear weapons. Then what will they do? 

PaulJames
PaulJames

Another great article Austin! Go Midd