Anyone following North Korean statements for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that the world came extremely close to witnessing major war several times over the past few weeks. On July 24 the DPRK foreign ministry announced it would respond to joint US-South Korean military exercises with “powerful nuclear deterrence,” saying the drills amounted to a provocation that would prompt a “retaliatory sacred war.” Days later, North Korea said it would have to “bolster its nuclear deterrent” in a “more advanced way” to cope with the increasing nuclear threat posed by the U.S. Then, in response to South Korea’s August anti-submarine exercise in the West Sea, Pyongyang threatened a “strong physical retaliation,” adding that if South Korea attacked it during the drills, it would invite a “most powerful retaliation.” This week, the North fired a volley of artillery shells into waters near South Korea and threatened to use its nuclear deterrent to show “what a real war is like” if deemed necessary. However, there has been no sign of war yet, no clear indication of a third nuclear test and no mobilization of forces north of the DMZ.
The fact that North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric is far from becoming a reality comes as no surprise. As Pyotr Razvin from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry explains, “North Korea has been threatening to spill seas of blood and destroy imperialists and their marionettes for several decades. I think they could not have kept silent in their current position and they could not have approved of the maneuvers. They had to say something. Now what do they say? They threaten.” This is presumably why one report suggests that most young people in the ROK remain unconcerned about North Korea despite heightened tensions after the sinking of the Cheonan. Indeed, decades of threats make it relatively easy to disregard them. But is there a risk to assume that rhetoric will rarely articulate beyond words?
The ever-widening gulf in conventional military capabilities is arguably the main reason North Korea has been deterred from turning military threats into action beyond a few border skirmishes along the DMZ and NLL. However, threats and warnings in other areas do sometimes materialize. In Octtober 2006, North Korea conducted a nuclear test. In February 2009, it launched its Unha satellite launch vehicle. And in April 2009, it left the Six Party Talks after the UN Security Council condemned the satellite launch and “bolstered” its nuclear deterrent by testing another nuclear device in May.
Should we then be worried about its latest threats and warnings? It seems doubtful that Pyongyang would start a war: it would be suicidal, and its carefully-worded threats suggest otherwise. A July 24 Foreign Ministry statement says Pyongyang will “legitimately counter with powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces,” which merely shows that it sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Similarly, by saying “the army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” Pyongyang appears to be saying it will use nuclear force if it is pushed into an undefined corner. Similar ‘caveats’ are present in their most recent nuclear threats, suggesting a low possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack. .
North Korea’s threat to “boost its nuclear deterrence in an advanced way,” is one potential area that could lead to some realization since similar language was used ahead of its May 2009 nuclear test. However, the question is how? A third nuclear test? Developing its HEU program? Developing a hydrogen bomb? Or merely continuing its plutonium program?
High level North Korean defector Hwang Jang Yop this week speculated that a third nuclear test might occur because Pyongyang ” believes nuclear arms are its most important defensive tool, and the country will not abandon its nuclear ambitions.” While it’s plausible the regime is also developing its highly enriched uranium program, it is arguable that this program is still in its infancy. Many experts also doubt North Korea will use hydrogen bombs, despite a recent claim to have succeeded in nuclear fusion. However, Pyongyng could be suggesting it’s nearing plutonium weaponization – an issue already under considerable debate.
North Korea’s launching of artillery shells this week following South Korea’s ant-submarine drill, while a relatively minor incident, does follow its warning to “counter the reckless naval firing projected by the group of traitors with strong physical retaliation.” While the artillery drill doesn’t quite fit the concept of a ‘strong physical retaliation,’ the international community shouldn’t completely ignore Pyongyang’s warnings. In light of the sinking of Cheonan, future warnings may be backed with more substantive acts if Pyongyang grows confident it can provoke Seoul with little fear of grave military consequences – especially since the South’s military didn’t respond to the artillery shelling in any major way.
Although reading into North Korean threats is like attempting to read tea leaves, one should not be too hasty in dismissing them entirely. It seems unlikely that Pyongyang will trigger war, but it seems to be developing its nuclear program and it may further instigate border clashes. None of this is favorable for South Korea or the region especially if it leads to escalation. North Korea would of course be less incentivized to make threats and act belligerently if it were engaging proactively with the U.S and South Korea. But the current policy of waiting for a Cheonan apology as a precursor to engagement might also take forever. What’s more, Pyongyang’s belligerency may continue and even increase in scale. John Feffer says this approach is like “putting the cart before the horse…The Nixon administration didn’t wait for the perfect moment to engage Beijing [and] as the case of detente with China demonstrates, changes take place either as part of the short-term engagement process or, more likely, somewhere down the line when the leadership can safely embrace the changes as indigenous rather than imposed by outside actors.” With little known about Kim Jong Il’s successor and talk of a potential power struggle when he dies, it seems prudent to talk to Pyongyang as soon as possible