North Korea deserves a high place on the list of self-destructive and dangerous nations. Not only does it remain the poorest, most repressive, closed and primitive nation, it is using money needed to feed its population to strengthen its army and build nuclear weapons.
Discipline is ensured by secret police and 17 labor camps where anyone who shows the slightest sign of not fully supporting the regime can be sent. Many who go into these camps never leave, and citizens often report on their colleagues and neighbors. Listening to a South Korean radio station can get a person five or 10 years in one of these camps, as can having dust on the obligatory picture of the “Great Leader” in one’s apartment. So scarce is rationed food that North Koreans tend to be an inch or so shorter than South Koreans.
What’s worse is that the regime itself is unpredictable. Some scholars believe Pyong-yang engages in actions that we consider irrational to impress its population and ensure the security of the Kim family and the generals who keep them in power. Others argue that this is just another manifestation of the Kim family, including Kim Song Un, the present ruler.
The latest rise in tensions is a result of the U.N. sanctions, supported by both China and Russia, slapped on the North Korea in the wake of North Korea’s testing of missiles and nuclear weapons.
In response to the sanctions and to joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises, North Korea has threatened war with the South and the United States. To show its resolve Pyongyang announced that it was pulling out of the armistice it signed ending the Korean War. (The war has never officially ended, rather an armistice was signed). North Korea’s action could open the door for renewed combat. But is that what the North Koreans really want? Combat would be bloody, and in the end, North Korea as a state would cease to exist.
And if Pyongyang were to use nuclear weapons, as it has threatened, North Korea would quickly cease to exist. The North has watched President Obama’s repeated failure to carry out any his of threats against Iran. Consequently, they wonder why they should worry about his willingness to use nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. While one can never predict what a president will do, it is safe to suggest that Obama would have no choice but to use nuclear arms against the North.
Predicting what the North will do is all but impossible. We know it has mobilized its armed forces. We also know that North Korean leaders have issued countless threats and yet done nothing.
However, I do not believe this event is over because the North Koreans have not killed anyone from the South yet. Keep in mind that the North Koreans are patient. We may not hear from them for a month or so, or they may do something tomorrow.
But against whom? Assuming they decide to inflict damage or death on the U.S. or South Korean militaries, Pyongyang would most likely go after the South Koreans (in spite of their threats against the United States). After all, the South has not really retaliated to previous provocations.
Attention will be focused on new South Korean President Pak Guen-hye. Do the North Koreans believe she is less likely to respond because she is a woman? I have no idea. What I do know is that the last South Korean president took a beating when he failed to respond to the sinking of a South Korean ship. The real danger comes if the new president does respond. That could escalate tensions that could quickly get out of hand and involve us.
Washington is sending Ash Carter, a senior defense official, to South Korea for consultations, and a two-day cyber attack was launched on North Korean Internet service — about which the U.S. denies any knowledge. North Korea was furious, which may explain the cyber attack on South Korea several days ago. More important, the Obama administration has decided to deploy 14 additional ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat. Unfortunately, these weapons won’t be in place for years.
Let us hope the North Koreans have an attack of rationality and do not try something stupid.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.