The great Pyongyang roller-coaster ride

By J Brooks Spector 12 April 2013

By now, anybody who has ever raised a teenager probably has reasonably good insights into the generally toxic relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world. There are those repetitive cycles of petulance, threats, crying, shouting, tears – followed by door slamming and the banging of closets and drawers. Then there are more tears followed by a tentative embrace, and then it starts all over again. And again. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

This recurring pattern is clearly not new. The National Security Archive, a Washington-based freedom of information NGO, has just released a report based on newly declassified documents. The report says, “for decades, the erratic behaviour of North Korea’s enigmatic leaders has often masked a mix of symbolic and pragmatic motives, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive. During earlier crises, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather postured and threatened the region in ways markedly similar to the behaviour of the new leader, the records show. While the current Kim is acting even more stridently in some cases, the documents reveal a past pattern characterised by bellicose conduct.” 

The NSA’s report goes on to explain, “In 1994, for instance, North Korean military officers threatened the US with a possible pre-emptive strike if circumstances called for it… Today’s posting provides a window into prior efforts to penetrate beneath North Korea’s shrill rhetoric to understand the logic, political dynamics and ultimate objectives underlying Pyongyang’s repeated threats against the US and South Korea. Obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, mostly from the State Department, these records describe events during the 1990s (the Clinton presidency) with notable echoes in the current crisis.”

Ah, but understanding this little international psychodrama is not quite the same as being able to predict which way the next zig or zag will go in the next round. The nub of the problem, say experts, is that it is simply not possible to thoroughly understand the precise dynamics at work in North Korean government.

For some, this newest war talk is just a way for North Korea to draw attention to the continuing instability of the security regime on the Korean Peninsula. There is no actual peace treaty there, only a long-running truce following the end of the Korean War. And it may also be a way of enhancing the rather skimpy military credentials attached to Kim Jong-un’s CV. Or, is the driving mechanism Kim Jong-un’s driving recalcitrant generals to figure out ways to poke at everyone beyond their isolated country; or the generals trying to push Kim around because of his youth and general inexperience; or even a government intent on whipping up nationalist frenzy by pushing the buttons of outsiders – to get them to push back – so that North Korea’s put-upon population feels compelled to rally around their government.

Making matters more difficult, there are precious few sources of detailed, reliable information about the state of the debate inside Pyongyang’s corridors of power. This is particularly true since the only westerner who has had any real face time with Kim Jong-un since he assumed leadership is former basketball star (and sometime tutu wearer) Dennis Rodman.

Now American and South Korean military commanders and analysts are looking carefully to 15 April as the date when the North Koreans may attempt to test their Musudan intermediate range missiles, rumoured to be specced to reach up to 4,000km from the launch site. Fifteen April is an especially important date in the North Korean calendar – it is the “Day of the Sun” and the official birth date of North Korea’s founder president, Kim Il-Sung, the current Kim’s grandfather. North Korea has been barred by UN Security Council resolutions from further nuclear and ballistic missile test activity and any such efforts would represent a serious, significant and real escalation in Pyongyang’s standoff with the West. In fact, Pyongyang has already been reprimanded for its launch of a long-range rocket in December and then conducting an underground nuclear test in February.

This time around, US and South Korean authorities are monitoring a handful of those medium-range missiles that North Korea has already moved to its east coast – for any indication of an imminent launch. These five Musudan missiles could theoretically reach US bases on the island of Guam in the mid-Pacific (although it is unknown if they have ever been tested for anything approaching that distance). Meanwhile, the US and South Korea have been carrying out their own annual military drills designed to demonstrate their ability to repel any invasion – and, not surprisingly, the North Koreans have repeatedly condemned these drills as tantamount to an allied dress rehearsal for their own invasion of the North.

Continuing the onslaught of fighting words, North Korea delivered a fresh round of rhetorical flourishes on Thursday, claiming it has “powerful striking means” on standby for a missile launch. And many analysts and policy officials in Seoul and Washington are guessing the North is actually preparing for a test of one of those missiles during the holiday period celebrating Kim Il-Sung’s birth.  

Despite this hovering threat to test missiles, North Korea seems to be turning the rhetoric down a notch, after weeks of continual threat. And muddying the message just a bit more, North Korea has begun calling foreign visitors to the country in anticipation of the 15 April holiday. In previous days it had encouraged foreigners to depart South Korea and earlier it had cut the emergency communications connections with the South, broadcast threats to turn the US into a sea of flame complete with videos showing the destruction of Washington, DC, and statements that things were on the way to an actual state of war with the South.

Moreover, South Korea seems to be lowering its own rhetorical flourishes. The government’s unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, told television audiences on Thursday, “We hope the North Korean authorities come out to the dialogue table.” Ryoo then urged Pyongyang to cool things off a bit, re-engage in dialogue with the South and re-open operations of their joint industrial park in Kaesong, the industrial development zone close to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula into the two feuding nations. Ryoo added, “We strongly urge North Korea not to exacerbate the crisis on the Korean peninsula.” South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young has added, “North Korea has continuously issued provocative threats and made efforts to raise tension on the Korean peninsula… but the current situation is being managed safely and our and foreign governments have been calmly responding.”

And the country’s recently elected president, Park Geun-hye, called in a group of foreign investors to soothe their concerns, saying her country had undergone “dramatic economic growth and democratisation in the past 60 years despite the provocations and threats from North Korea.” Officials in Seoul continue to play down security fears, noting no foreign government has evacuated citizens from either Korean capital.

At least for now, virtually all analysts are of the view that North Korea will not stage an attack like the one that set off the Korean War in 1950. There are, however, concerns that the animosity between the two regimes might still set off some kind of foolhardy skirmish that could escalate up the ladder to a more significant conflict – and then things would get scarier. As US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington on Wednesday, “North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions… skating very close to a dangerous line. Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation.” 

Meanwhile, in preparation for the possible missile test launch, South Korea has pre-positioned three of its navy destroyers, an aerial surveillance craft and special land-based radar kit to pay attention to eventualities. And Japan has put Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors in position around Tokyo – placements that have been well publicised on international television broadcasts. Meanwhile, American Secretary of State John Kerry was due to arrive in Seoul on Friday for further talks with officials about the on-going standoff.

As far as the American people are concerned, there is significant concern but no actual war fever – or panic – yet. The most recent Pew Research Center poll in early April says a majority of Americans say, “while the US should take North Korea’s nuclear threats very seriously, the public is divided over whether North Korea’s leadership has the capability or intention to follow through on its threats. About a third of the public (36%) says they are paying very close attention to news about North Korea’s military threats and plans to restart its nuclear reactor, making this the most closely followed foreign news story of the year. Those who are following news about North Korea’s threats very closely are far more likely than those following it less closely to say that the government should take the threats very seriously (73% vs. 46%).”

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, according to those reporters allowed in the city, there appears to be no real sense of war panic. Workers have been spreading out across the city to spruce it up for those April holidays, even as the country’s massive military spending continues to punish the economy of North Korea and as the land endures regular food shortages, especially outside the capital. 

But, considering North Korea’s continuing dependence on China for food and energy, on the rest of the world for other food aid, and on South Korea to a degree for industrial investment (in places like Kaesong) as well, smart money is probably on the choice that even if the North Koreans do test a missile, the larger gamble is that they are really in the game for a better deal on food, energy – and national honour. Besides chatting up Dennis Rodman, maybe Kim Jong-un has been listening to Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T too. DM

Read more:

  • Reading the North Korean Tea Leaves: The Perpetual Struggle to Fathom Pyongyang’s Motives and Goals; “Brinkmanship” Seen As a “Mainstay of the North’s Negotiating Repertoire,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 421 at the National Security Archive website
  • North Korea delivers new round of war rhetoric at the AP website
  • NKorea fury at joint war games goes back decades at the AP 
  • South Korea Moves to Defuse Tensions With the North at the New York Times
  • G8 ministers condemn North Korea nuclear moves at the BBC
  • Is China ready to abandon North Korea? At the BBC
  • The AFSC In–and On–North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics
  • New Threats of War from North Korea: Part II, interview with Marcus Noland (North Korea specialist) at the PIIE website
  • North Korea and the price of patience, a column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post
  • Xi warns against chaos in region at Chinawatch website
  • Public Divided over North Korea’s Intentions, Capability at the Pew Research Center website

Photo: North Koreans dance on a street in Pyongyang as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il’s election as chairman of North Korea’s National Defence Commission, in this picture taken and released by the North’s official KCNA news agency on April 9, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA



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