Should We Care About North Korea’s Threats?

Kim Jong-Un.Kim Jong-Un. (Photo: petersnoopy / Flickr)North and South Korea have technically been at war since the 1950-1953 civil war ended not in a peace treaty, but in an armistice. For decades, North Korea has been threatening military action. Last week brought an announcement that it has entered a “state of war” with South Korea — but the communist North, long closed to outsiders and with a floundering economy, has been thought to be rattling its saber.

Or rather, some see it as poking at the controls of its nuclear arsenal. In February, the North conducted a nuclear weapons tests. Pyongyang has threatened to attack South Korea and its chief ally, the U.S. Should the U.S. fear that war could be imminent?

Is North Korea Sending Out Warnings?

The recent “stream of belligerent rhetoric” is thought to be a sign that its young leader, Kim Jong-un, is solidifying his power in his own country, says the Guardian. In a sign that Kim is seeking to restore his country’s long-troubled economy, former prime minister Pak Pong-ju, known as an economic technocrat who is believed to favor opening North Korea’s economy as China has done, was promoted to be a standing member of the Politburo.

The 30-year-old Kim could also be ratcheting up the rhetoric to try to win concessions from the U.S. in the form of (1) aid and (2) a promise not to launch a pre-emptive strike on his country. The threats could also be a response to Pyongyang’s finding itself the target of more United Nations sanctions, notes the New York Times.

The U.S. does not believe that North Korea has the capacity to launch nuclear warheads on missiles or to send conventional missiles to the U.S. mainland. This past Sunday, the U.S. offered what could be called a show of its own military strength, deploying F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets from a base in Japan to participate in drills. The week before, two U.S. B-2 stealth bombers had been used in what the Guardian has called a “dummy bombing of an uninhabited South Korean island,” an activity that has enraged North Korea.

South Korea Says It Will Retaliate

South Korea’s leader, President Park Geun-hye, who was elected earlier this year, had so far taken a conciliatory stance towards the North. Indeed, a central feature of her campaign platform was “not to be blackmailed by the North, a popular conservative stance in the last few years,” says the New York Times.

But Park is also seeking to avoid the predicament of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was widely criticized as having too slowly, and insufficiently, responded to two incidents in 2010, when North Korea torpedoed a South Korea naval ship and also shelled Yeonpyeong, an island on the maritime border the two countries share, and killed 50 South Koreans.

On Monday, Park unequivocally told senior South Korean military officials that “if there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat, regardless of the political considerations.”

The U.S. military command in South Korea has emphasized that the North “would achieve nothing by threats or provocations,” which would only further isolate the country and also “undermine international efforts” for peace in Northeast Asia. It’s a suggestion that the U.S. is wary of seeming to take North Korea’s latest pronouncements as anything more than provocative bullying.

Small-scale attacks on the South’s military and on the islands near the two countries’ borders are not out of the question, and a war on the Korean Peninsula is something the U.S. — and Russia and China — could not ignore.