Editorial: North Korea may be blustering, but it's still very dangerous

Pyongyang usually does something to mark the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. Will it be a missile test this year – or something worse?

Share

The US at the weekend took the rare step of postponing a long-planned test of an intercontinental ballistic missile off the coast of California – not for technical or weather reasons, but to avoid inflaming still further tensions with North Korea. Sadly but perhaps predictably, the move has, if anything, produced a contrary effect.

In the past few days, the Pyongyang authorities have told foreign embassies the safety of their diplomats could not be guaranteed beyond today, and have effectively shut down the Kaesong joint industrial zone that they  operate with the South just north of the border, even though Kaesong is one of the regime’s few legitimate sources of desperately needed foreign currency. And yesterday the North went further still, advising foreigners in South Korea to leave the country, or risk being caught up in a “thermonuclear” conflict, an “all-out, merciless, sacred, retaliatory war”.

Such bluster is, of course, standard operating procedure for the North, and a case of sorts can be made to justify its paranoid behaviour. The country does see itself as under permanent threat. It believes the West, above all Washington, does not show it the respect its nuclear capability deserves. These fears are always especially apparent during the joint  exercises conducted each spring by South Korea and the latter’s ally and protector, the US.

Given the daily threats and invective from Pyongyang, the Pentagon was right to position extra anti-missile destroyers in the region. But in retrospect it was unwise to send two B2 stealth bombers from Missouri on a round-trip mission over the Korean peninsula, a provocative display of unmatchable military might.

What happens now, nobody knows. There are no signs of troop movements or other dispositions that would suggest an imminent attack, while reports of signs of preparations for a further nuclear test appear to be mistaken. Yet next Monday sees the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime hailed by its propaganda machine as “eternal” President. Pyongyang usually does something to mark the occasion. A missile test this year – or something worse?

This is the most serious Korean crisis, and by far the hardest to read, since the US and the North came to the brink of war in 1994 over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. We do not know who is in control: Kim’s young and untested grandson, Kim Jong-un, a clique of generals, or some of his relatives. Meanwhile, South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, has been in office just six weeks and vows a no-nonsense policy towards the North. China, the latter’s traditional patron, is not only losing patience with its protégé; more importantly, it is losing influence over Pyongyang as well. In such circumstances, even a tiny miscalculation could prove disastrous.

The best explanation of the North’s brinkmanship is its craving to be taken seriously, fuelled by an anger that actions that once earned concessions from the West no longer do so. Far from prodding the US and its allies back into long-suspended talks on its nuclear programme, the North’s recent nuclear test instead drew tougher UN sanctions – which China did nothing to stop – and B2 bomber demonstrations.

To us, the North seems utterly irrational. But one basic human rule applies: the need not to lose face. Having ranted and blustered so long and so loud, Pyongyang surely must do something to back up those threats. Sooner or later, there must be re-engagement with North Korea. The immediate priority, however, must be to defuse the crisis before it spirals beyond control. A military showdown would be calamitous.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor