In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs

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LEE JAE-WON / REUTERS

Demonstrators release balloons with peace messages during a protest to denounce Kim Jong Un on the Grand Unification Bridge in Paju, near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, on April 10, 2013

Nobody does bluster better than Pyongyang. In the past few weeks the country’s hardworking propagandists declared a “state of war” with South Korea, announced plans to restart a plutonium-producing reactor and threatened the U.S. with nuclear Armageddon. A North Korean spokesman found the time to decry the “venomous swish” of the South Korean President’s skirt. And dictator Kim Jong Un reportedly urged frontline troops to “break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.”

Fighting words, sure, but nothing entirely new here. For decades Pyongyang has promised to reduce the Republic of Korea to a “sea of fire,” using regular rounds of escalation to secure concessions from the outside world. Last week, as part of an almost daily barrage of threats, North Korea warned that it could not secure the safety of diplomats in the capital beyond April 10 and advised foreigners to evacuate Seoul. But Wednesday came and went, the diplomatic corps stayed put, and Seoul shrugged off the warning, more aggravated, it seemed, than genuinely anxious. “North Korea is using provocation because it has worked in the past,” Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification tells TIME. “North Korea is not preparing for war.”

(MORE: China’s Long, Fruitless History of Irritation With North Korea)

Tell that to the Americans. One of the strangest things about the current crisis is that it seems like the farther you get from the Korean Peninsula, the greater the level of fear. For weeks now the international press has been warning of “imminent” war, a claim unhelpfully bolstered by the likes of Vladimir Putin, who predicted that conflict with North Korea could make Chernobyl look “like a child’s fairy tale.” Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was less colorful, but equally urgent, saying North Korea constitutes “clear and real” danger to the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to fly into Seoul for talks this week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, findings released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center suggest that a majority of Americans think the government should take North Korea’s threats “very seriously.” Forty-seven percent think Kim’s regime is capable of launching a nuclear missile that could reach the U.S. — despite the fact U.S. and South Korean intelligence both suggest Pyongyang doesn’t yet have the know-how.

The fact is North Korea has little to gain, and everything to lose, from starting a war. The regime’s primary concern is self-preservation; a full-fledged fight would be dynastic suicide. John Delury, a Korea watcher who teaches Chinese history at Yonsei University in Seoul, sees North Korea’s bombast as evidence of fear, not strength. “The fundamental issue is that North Korea is the weak party, surrounded by powers that are exponentially stronger and bigger than it is,” he says. “There is a constant overcompensation; they have to constantly present themselves as stronger than they are.”

North Korea watchers say the current escalation, particularly the recent threat of a ballistic-missile test, has as much or even more to do with internal affairs as its external concerns. Young and relatively untested, Kim is likely looking for ways to consolidate his own power and safeguard his family’s legacy. Next week, he may try to do both. On April 15, North Korea will mark the 101st birthday of the state’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. It is the single most important day in the North Korean calendar, an event Delury calls “semireligious, even sacred” — so much so that in 1997, Pyongyang replaced the Christian calendar with a juche calendar, in which history begins with the birth of the Great Leader, in 1912. Last year, Kim Jong Un celebrated his grandfather’s birthday by trying, but failing, to launch a rocket two days before hosting a massive military parade.

(MORE: Brinkmanship Blockade: North Korea Bars South Koreans From Kaesong)

Will Kim top last year’s showing? In Seoul today most experts played down the likelihood of an attack, saying a test was more likely. Bernhard Seliger, an economist at the Seoul branch of Germany’s Hanns Seidel Foundation, predicts Kim might simply use the anniversary to “claim victory” over foreign aggressors, aligning himself symbolically with his grandfather, who is venerated like a god. Seliger, who estimates that he’s been to North Korea about 100 times over the past 10 years, predicts the tension will dissipate quickly as attention turns to spring planting in the impoverished rural hinterlands. “North Korea can’t wage war, because the soldiers are really needed in the fields,” he says.

Indeed, in recent days, while talking tough abroad, North Korean officials have reportedly toned down the domestic propaganda — which suggests a method behind the madness. In Pyongyang, which is shut to most foreign reporters, the Associated Press found little to suggest people were readying for war. “Soldiers laid blankets of sod to liven up a city still coming out of a long, cold winter,” wrote Jean H. Lee and Hyung-Jin Kim. Quietly, it seems, North Korea is getting ready for a celebration.

-With reporting from Audrey Yoo in Seoul

MORE: A More Hopeful Future for North Korea?

PHOTOS: North Korea Ratchets Up Tensions on the Peninsula

39 comments
shahg64
shahg64

too bad we have Obama the weak titty in office, or I would love to see fat face Kim fug ly get arrested by US special forces and brought to an International court of justice for ruining his nation and for creating mischief in the region, this guy and his nation is a joke, the only power they have is vs Seoul which is uncomfortably close, but the US should drop a nuke off the cost of NK and let them see the power of a real Nuclear weapon.

ToddAlband
ToddAlband

What is with these animals who rape? Are they so ugly they can't get a girlfriend?

robbiestells
robbiestells

@atoxicbeauty theverge had an article about this and how all the hype is from western media. S Korea isn't phased at all lol

shepardcody88
shepardcody88

people should really start taking this issue a lot more seriously if they did launch the missiles and it was fast enough not to be intercepted somewhere in the world is going to be hit. just think about that the more you make fun of the situation.

xicacha
xicacha

@seoulcialite Seriously. I was in Seoul two weeks ago. Didn't even think of NK once until people hounded me when I got home. So annoying.

Poco76
Poco76

@marklittlenews I hope it's just threats... I have a lot of expat friends that still live in South Korea!

Kabakasman
Kabakasman

Its such a cahllenge but the pertinent question is when will the problem be sorted out? should America take this opportunity and sort out the madman once and for all? For the North Koreans are to remain as potential threats that can burst any time whether u just watch them play their foolery or ignore them entirely. How is it like having a guy in the neighbourhood who puts in place an environment where u sleep at your own peril?

natibk3r
natibk3r

@natibk3r Any miscalculation from either side would surely result to a shooting war.

KTheena
KTheena

@SarongJohnnie The funny thing about this article is it negates the sense of panic CNN, a sister company, was trying to induce last week.

EmmyRetired
EmmyRetired

@TIME @TIMEWorld I find it sad or funny all this talk of fear of NKorea but when they sunk a South Korean ship nothing happen sooo

movinouter
movinouter

@TIME @TIMEWorld cus people strongly believe that this is not gonna be ended up in a war. They're just doing this to show their existence.

Sponsor_Drivers
Sponsor_Drivers

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nofaith
nofaith

I tend to believe that Kim Jong Un, lacking political experiences, was cajoled into doing some many unthinkable things by those who were around him. And later, he will be overthrown in a military coup.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

It is inevitable as Nuclear arms spread not to mention gene spliced bio-weapons that sooner or later some appropriately self important nut case with delusions of deity is going to do something utterly illogical and with no possible beneficial outcome.

That day may be remarkably close.

Step11
Step11

I honestly get the feeling that this is a dog and pony show by the North Koreans as a means to deify Kim Jong Un to their general populace and military in the same way that his father and his grandfather were, during their rule.

 Some kind of manufactured "miracle" will come at the 11th hour and Un will get the credit in the North Korean media.  I'm really struggling to believe that they would go as far as all out war, when China would likely shut things down for the sake of their own economic interests, as well as not wanting to deal with thousands, if not millions of North Koreans fleeing for their border, seeking asylum.


sverry7
sverry7

"Totally cut their windpipes and teach them the true meaning of war?" First off, this guy should fire the writer who came up with that line. I can picture his film buff and amateur director dad yelling "Cut! Cut!"   

And what would this pampered and protected elite kid know about war besides from the computer games he likely played as a student in Switzerland? 

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

One day, this world will be suddenly brought into great conflict.........

........Revelation 6:4.......

Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.

Heisenberg99
Heisenberg99

Somebody tell the fatboy with the six dollar haircut to go away.

SarongJohnnie
SarongJohnnie

@KTheena i.e - Spratley Islands dispute, Indonesian smog, Israel-Palestine, a bit of Bird Flu, and, of course, doom and gloom from N. Korea.

SarongJohnnie
SarongJohnnie

@KTheena I find a lot of the international news stories are seasonal. They pop around the same time every year.

SarongJohnnie
SarongJohnnie

@KTheena Was telling a colleague yesterday that this is just seasonal sabre-rattling by Pyongyang and peddled by headline hungry media.

Step11
Step11

@sverry7 I liked the "venomous swish" comment.  Over the top, but wouldn't be out of place in the Zoolander sequel.

melonheadx13
melonheadx13

@Crossroads shut up your raving religious mumbo jumbo already.  it's the last thing we need.  hey, remember that rich christian guy with the radio station or something who gave away $100 million because the world was coming to an end?  yeah, hardly anyone does anymore.

KTheena
KTheena

@SarongJohnnie Yeah. Pyongyang and Tehran are the pantomime villains of choice now that Saddam and Osama are out. Completely agree with you.