Poker on the Korean Peninsula: Why Kim Jong Un Keeps Raising the Stakes

The North Korean leadership almost certainly does not want to go to war. So what's with all the saber rattling?

  • Share
  • Read Later
DAVID GUTTENFELDER / AP

North Korean soldiers march along a highway on the edge of Pyongyang on March 16, 2013

It seems paradoxical to say it, given Pyongyang’s almost daily exercises in escalation, but the North Korean leadership almost certainly does not want to go to war. Not that it would flinch at a massive loss of life if it meant propping up the regime. That, after all, has been the logic by which the Kim dynasty has run the country for more than half a century. The problem is that a full-scale conflict would almost certainly mean the destruction of the North Korean state and the likelihood of a violent end for its young leader, Kim Jong Un. “No, he doesn’t want to start a war because a war is suicidal from his perspective,” says John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies and North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul. “For him the endgame is not a war.”

Like his father before him, Kim is focused on surviving. While the isolated North Korean leadership is sometimes seen as erratic and crazy — a case not helped by Kim’s partying with Dennis Rodman or publishing photos of a map showing strike plans for the continental U.S. — it remains committed to staying in power. It has survived for half a century by avoiding any fights that it can’t win or at least, as with the Korean War, draw to a bloody stalemate. For all its goading, North Korea is unlikely to want to start a doomed conflict now.

(PHOTOS: North Korea Ratchets Up Tension on the Peninsula)

So why then has North Korea gone into incitement overdrive, threatening preemptive nuclear strikes, withdrawing from the 1953 Korean War armistice, cutting off hotlines with South Korea, pledging to restart the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon that was shuttered as part of a 2007 deal and, on Wednesday, blocking South Korean workers from a jointly run factory park? One explanation is that North Korea may feel more isolated and vulnerable than usual, despite its recent displays of nuclear and ballistic-missile capability. The annual military exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces have angered North Korea in previous editions. And this year’s Foal Eagle exercise has featured an extensive display of American military hardware, including B-2 stealth bombers that flew from their home base in Missouri to drop inert bombs on a training run over South Korea.

China, North Korea’s only real ally, helped punish it after the Feb. 12 nuclear test, which led to another round of U.N. Security Council sanctions. The full impact of Resolution 2094, which includes steps to block funding of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and prevent its import of some luxury goods, has yet to be seen. And there is no sign that China is preparing to abandon its only treaty ally. Indeed, after Deng Yuwen, an editor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Study Times, wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times calling for just that, he was removed from his job, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported. But from North Korea’s perspective, China’s willingness to back sanctions is still cause for concern. “I think for North Korea that type of cooperation is lethal if it’s maintained because it drastically reduces the space in which it can maneuver and leverage the different parties off each other,” John Park, a Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a recent discussion hosted by the Korea Society in New York City. The U.S.–South Korea military exercises, which are intended in part to show allied military resolve and capability, might also feed China’s fears about what it would face along its border if North Korea were to collapse and the Korean Peninsula were unified under a pro-U.S. government. So far though the Chinese government hasn’t voiced any concerns about the show of force targeting Pyongyang, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

(MORE: Is Kim Jong Un Driving North Korea to a Nuclear Dead End?)

And with new leadership in China and South Korea, Pyongyang wants to see how its neighbors will respond to its latest moves. “They are a weak, small country surrounded by South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S.,” says Delury. “They are completely outclassed. That makes them highly responsive. We tend to think they’ve got everything planned out and we’re falling for their tricks, but they’re actually responding and testing reactions and then figuring out what happens next. It’s dangerous to think they’ve got it figured out.” That approach has been key to what Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, says is a well-worn technique of manufacturing crises in hopes of winning a payoff. “For many years, actually for decades, North Korea has played the same trick, which until recently has worked well,” Lankov said in a recent interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

First, they manufacture a crisis. They behave pretty much like they’re behaving now. They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo. So, they first manufacture a crisis, and then they get paid for resolving the crisis. This approach, these tactics have worked perfectly well for many, many years, but recently it’s losing its efficiency, because the outside world, above all the United States, have finally learned how it usually works with North Korea, and they are not really rushing with money and concessions. And this is what North Korea wants above all: money and concessions from the outside world. So, obviously, it’s quite possible that the North Korean decisionmakers decided to go really seriously loud this time.

So how best to respond? Lankov argues that it would “be better if the world paid no attention whatsoever to all these threats.” A nice idea, though hard to put in practice while North Korea keeps upping the ante.

MORE: North Korea: Is Kim Jong Un’s Bark Worse Than His Bite?

MORE: No One Expects War With North Korea. But What If?

25 comments
JimHannington
JimHannington

It Takes ONE to Know ONE ! ! !  How childish this game has become, men fighting like children in the sandbox.  TIME OUT ! 

MourningCalm
MourningCalm

All still quiet on the southern front. Zany as it may sound, in the event of a shooting war, it is more likely that China will invade NK just to prevent it from being united to the South and becoming a US ally.

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

No one believed Noah when he got into the Ark..........One day this verse will come to pass........Are you in the Ark of Gods provision in Christ Jesus ?

........1 Thessalonians 5:3........

For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.

drudown
drudown

My hope is that our President dispassionately realizes that the North Korea "situation" is an opportunity to find a diplomatic consensus between the US, China and Japan (collectively: the "Pan Pacific Partnership") which may serve as a pretext to resolve other, arguably more pressing matters that touch and concern economic growth. A Pan Pacific Partnership should be predicated on the simple reality that it is preferable to deal with North Korea on equally favorable terms. In other words, at the heart of North Korea's disruptive conduct is a desire for greater inclusion in global commerce and economic development. With South Korea's advice and consent, the Pan Pacific Partnership should fashion a stimulus package that materially benefits ALL the participant nations, i.e., in doing so, there are no "concessions" made without adequate consideration. After all, it is difficult to conclude what North Korea has to offer the Pan Pacific Partnership other than meaningful, cooperative trade opportunities. Why not start by engaging China and Japan on the a mutually advantageous stimulus package where all participants can, say, (1) materially improve infrastructure; (2) materially reduce environmental waste via State-subsidized disposal and (3) start a fund to cooperatively assist in times of natural disasters (e.g., begin efforts to remove debris from the tragic Japanese earthquake)? At the end of the day, North Korea wants a fresh start. China, Japan and the US should help provide it to the Korean people- on both sides of the line.

GaryBee
GaryBee

Think again, Un starts a war, quickly wipes out Soul, overuns the DMZ and then the UN steps in and gets a cease fire. Where are we then??

salb4
salb4

Daily antics from  North korea, pretty soon will have nothing else to threaten.

salb4
salb4

Yawn.... What antic will the child like North KOREA  produce tommorrow......Boring, Ignore this child. 

SalChaparro
SalChaparro

Why does anyone believe they are actually gonna do anything. They just want the United States and their allies to give them more money so they can promise to not make nuclear weapons. What will they do with the money? Continue to starve their people and continue the path they are taking right now. its sad that everyone knows whats gonna happen and theres nothing we can do except go to war to change the outcome but thats life , lets just get it over with.

KL
KL

Why would anyone want to start a war. With money being so tight as it is, this only makes economic recovery worse for everyone. Although, seems like they are applying the lets strike while everyone is down. We'll see how much further this goes and we'll probably end up throwing money their way that we don't have (China's money we borrow). :(

sohnjames
sohnjames

We can't let NK develop nukes. If they behave this way now, imagine how they will be when they acquire the nuke and the missle to deliver it to US. We should strike them now and destroy the leadership. Of course, we won't do it, mainly for the fear of scaring the hell out of SK. But, that's what needs to be done.

PeterSharma
PeterSharma

The only intelligent choice tempered with base wisdom is complete ignorance of NK unless and until they  encroach or attack at which point the only wise reply is to destroy all command and control installations in a swift-kick air offensive.

PaulSteven
PaulSteven

As a Layperson, IMO:  irregardless of what NK does, What will China and Russia do is the bigger question.

oldwhiteguy
oldwhiteguy

Totally agree with the conclusion.  NK is a house of mirrors.  It's a cadre of wealthy party boys who have made sure to hire a lot of bodyguards and give them lots of guns. Kim isn't going to invade anybody.  It's all about convincing his people that he's a tough guy in charge and getting other nations to pat him on the head. The only people who should take this seriously are the U.S. and South Korean military leaders at the DMZ simply because that is their job.  But for the rest of us, we need to exercise restraint.  But now we see where some knucklehead in our own Congress are calling for military action.  This idiot needs to be taken into a room and told to put a sock in it. What we have in North Korea is a kid yanking our chains.  If we continue to give him a lollipop or threaten him with a spanking, it's only going to get worse.

lanced
lanced

May be this is NK's version of Red October. The generals may not be able to back-down at some points. They know full well that when the U.S. responds, their lives are over. Kim is pushing them to the point where they will either surrender or facing the U.S. almighty military power and hope that they will chose the former.

Unlikely, but who knows. 

kjeroh
kjeroh

I'm inclined to disagree with Mr. Austin Ramzy's opinion. Let me preface that I'm not a renowned reporter with highly placed sources. However, it's very possible that Kim Jung Un may feel he's in a nothing to lose position. He has no illusions of his ability to win a war against South Korea and the US. However, his country needs massive help; well beyond anything he can drum up through toning down his rhetoric. He could very well believe that with a short, sharp war, where he essentially seizes or isolates Seoul can give him the help he needs. Even if US/South Korea push past the demilitarized zone (38th parallel) and the international community allows an actual election, the people's love will keep him in power.

However, it's also possible Kim Jung Un wasn't able to put together a ruling coalition before his father died. It may be that the military is calling the shots. Maybe they are certain that even if China steps aside and lets North Korea be pummeled by South Korea and the US, that their benefactor will never allow the removal of the North's power structure.

rutnerh
rutnerh

Nothing but empty threats or rocket rattling from a mouse that roars. And the DoD uses this hype to defend their bloated budget requests....just as Bush overreacted to Saddam's claim of having weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq.

marchandler
marchandler

"He [Kim Jung Un] doesn’t want to start a war because a war is suicidal from his perspective" ~ This is a dangerous assumption. Saddam Hussein went to war although it was suicidal. So did Gaddafi. History is full of leaders who followed suicidal paths. Perhaps because they come to believe in their own omnipotence. Because they live in a bubble, surrounded by people who tell them they're invincible. Or for any number of other reasons. ....  We can HOPE that Kim Jung Un and his generals will act in their own self-interests, but we cannot rely on that. Our policy needs to assume that they may take a suicidal path; we need to be prepared for that. 


Schifter
Schifter

People are killing me with their farts. I wish the government would ban refried beans. You should have to own a license to fart, because seriously, my state is full of beaners these days and we have run out of toilet paper.

kjeroh
kjeroh

@oldwhiteguy Yes, the neo-cons still exercise enormous power in Congress through the likes of McCain and Graham. However, even if something goes horribly wrong and shooting breaks out, hopefully our missile technology will keep US from committing any more of our assets than are currently in and around the peninsula.