In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs

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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.”

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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.

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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

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