Should we be worried about North Korea and does it pose a nuclear threat?

The threats keep coming, but are they serious? John Everard, a former UK ambassador to Pyongyang, analyses what’s going on in Kim Jong-un’s head

Over the past few weeks North Korea has issued an almost daily stream of threats against the United States and South Korea.

They have announced the end of the armistice that halted the Korean War in 1953, talked of attacks on US bases, and shown Kim Jong-un, their supreme leader, conferring with his generals in front of maps indicating (technically implausible) trajectories for North Korean missiles to hit US cities.

Pyongyang’s latest tactic has been to move a long-range missile towards its east coast, where one of its key launch sites is located. It is very unlikely that North Korea plans to start a nuclear conflict (not least, it is almost certainly technically unable to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US) but there is a risk that Kim Jong-un will start a conventional war by accident.

Broadly, there seem to be four reasons for all this invective. Firstly, North Korea is angry at Operation Foal Eagle, the combined US-South Korean military exercises currently under way. These take place every year, and every year Pyongyang condemns them, claiming that they are cover for a planned invasion. This part of the rhetoric is almost routine but it does raise the baseline of fiery vitriol from which other aspects of the rhetoric start out, and the North Korean reaction this year has been more shrill because the US publicly deployed B52 and B2 aircraft to South Korea during the training drills – and announced that they were capable of dropping nuclear bombs.

Secondly, North Korea is furious at the United Nations Security Council, which it believes is dominated by the United States, for passing resolution 2094 on 7 March. This response to North Korea’s nuclear test on 12 February imposed new sanctions on the country, especially in the financial sphere. It will now be more difficult for North Korea to move illicit money around. Pyongyang seems particularly to resent the fact that China, its ally, voted for the resolution.

Thirdly, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young new leader, is still trying to consolidate his power. Over the last few days there have been a series of large and high-profile meetings in Pyongyang at which several senior positions have been reshuffled, as he puts his own men into key posts. During this process he has to keep the respect of his party and of his military, and being seen to stand up to the Americans will be part of this.

Fourthly, there is the clear message that Dennis Rodman, the basketball player, brought back from his visit to Pyongyang in March – that Kim wants to talk to Barack Obama. North Korea wants the United States to recognise it as a nuclear power (it has just passed a law confirming its claim to this status). It wants respect, it wants the US to drop what it calls its “hostile policy” to North Korea, and it wants aid. Kim Jong-un will want to be seen as the leader who achieved all this, and the one to succeed in making personal contact with the US President, an effort in which his father and grandfather failed (it is important to the North Koreans that the President personally is involved – efforts by the US to communicate with North Korea earlier this year through senior envoys seem to have got nowhere).

But for none of this is North Korea prepared to surrender its nuclear programmes which, it recently reaffirmed, it would not give up even for billions of dollars. Usually, a state seeking dialogue with another state makes an effort to be nice to its proposed partner, but not North Korea. It simply does not do cuddly. In the past, Pyongyang has often managed to persuade the US to sit down with it by issuing threats and indicating that, if it does not get what it wants, it will develop weapons of mass destruction. It seems to be trying the same technique again.

How dangerous the latest threats really are depends on which of these factors is driving them. If it is the military exercises (which end on 30 April) or the big political meetings in Pyongyang (which are now over), or even about the UN resolution (which Pyongyang doubtless hates but knows it cannot change) then there is reasonable hope that the rhetoric will die down fairly soon and business as normal can be resumed.

Many of the threats are cast in a responsive mode – if the Americans attack us then we will do horrible things back to them. So it would still be possible for North Korea, if it so wishes, to halt the hostile rhetoric once the exercises are over, and perhaps claim that its tough line has again scared off the vile Americans from invading, with some semblance of coherence.

The hostile rhetoric has not just been sustained but escalated daily, and has been backed by actions. On 11 March Kim visited two military units opposite Baengnyeong island, near which the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, was sunk in 2010 by a torpedo that the West believes was fired by a North Korean submarine. Two days later he attended a live fire drill; a week after that it was anti-aircraft exercises in response to the US bomber flights. More trips to military units followed in the subsequent days, before rockets were put on standby on the day the South commemorated the 46 people who died on the Cheonan.

Behind the curtain, military drills have required local markets to close, while ostensibly civilian households have been required to take part. Add to this the recent announcement that the Yongbyon nuclear complex will be recommissioned, and the blocking of South Korean managers from the Kaesong Industrial Zone (set up during a political thaw some years ago on the border between the two Koreas to allow South Korean companies to take advantage of inexpensive North Korean labour), and it suggests that we are observing not just an extended North Korean protest but a calculated escalation of pressure on the international community, and in particular on Washington.

If ordinary North Koreans are fearing the worst, then it doesn’t show. Former colleagues in Pyongyang tell me that the atmosphere there is calm – you would not guess from people’s demeanour that the international situation is so tense. This reminds me of the popular reaction to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Even comparatively well-informed contacts showed no nervousness that their country’s actions might precipitate a storm, and seemed to find the agitation within the foreign community in Pyongyang slightly amusing.

I remember walking through a market the day after that test, where the traders seemed blithely oblivious to the political earthquake that their country had just caused – they remained focused instead on the daily imperative of making enough money to feed their families.

But the domestic calm could, too, be a red herring. If the main driver of North Korean behaviour is the desire to pressure the US into fundamentally changing its policy towards Pyongyang, then whatever the locals might think the situation is fraught. North Korean tactics are usually to keep piling on pressure until the other side crumbles. To back down without achieving his objective would expose Kim Jong-un to domestic criticism, which could be dangerous (there were unconfirmed reports of an assassination attempt on him last year).

Moreover, it is likely that he needs a deal with the US in order to secure aid to deal with his country’s dire economic problems. This does not mean the hunger that so many of his people suffer – the regime has shown a callous indifference to their suffering for many years. Rather it means the growing taste for the good life amongst his supporters in Pyongyang, whom he has to keep happy in order to preserve political stability.

In recent years he has managed this successfully – Pyongyangites now enjoy mobile telephones and new restaurants. But he needs to be sure that he can keep the good times rolling for these people. Chinese aid alone will not be enough.

If on the other hand Kim Jong-un continues to escalate his rhetoric and provocative actions in the hope that the US will blink (and Secretary of State Kerry’s recent reaffirmation that the US will not recognise North Korea as a nuclear weapons state does not suggest that it will) then he will soon run out of steps that can be taken without significant danger of a US or South Korean military response.

The fear is that Kim will believe that his successful third nuclear test means that nobody will dare to retaliate against his provocation. The situation from 2010, when Seoul didn’t hit back for the Cheonan or the subsequent shelling of a South Korean island, is still fresh in his mind and may provoke a miscalculation (a missile attack across the border? Sink another South Korean vessel?). This time it could trigger a response.

Although South Korea has said clearly that it will hit back robustly against any such North Korean action, and although the US has stated equally clearly that it will stand by its South Korean ally, it is not clear that Kim Jong-un either understands or believes these statements.

If he does not, and decides to resort to violence, then we risk entering a spiral of provocation/retaliation/North Korean response from which it would be very difficult to prevent a slide into wider armed conflict. Should we be worried? Yes.

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