Verbal show of muscle or threat of an armed conflict to be taken seriously? Kim Jong Un announces a “state of war” and threatens the U.S. with an attack. Experts consider concrete war plans on the part of the dictator to be improbable but warn not to underestimate the situation.
Threatening gestures from North Korea: Kim Jong Un is continually trying to drive at the U.S. and South Korea with new provocations. In one photo that the government in Pyongyang distributed, the dictator is seen in front of a map that is marked with plans to attack the U.S. mainland. Lines show possible flight paths of missiles pointed at Los Angeles and New York, among other cities.
In a statement, Kim described the ceasefire that the North recently rescinded as a vague condition between peace and war. Now, the balance has shifted: The communist nation finds itself in a “state of war.” According to North Korean rhetoric, this was triggered by the joint troop maneuvers of the South and the U.S., in which two U.S. stealth bombers participated for the first time.
But what really lies behind the martial announcements from the Communist country that even threatened the U.S. with nuclear war?
“Putting on a show is not the same as taking action,” said a senior U.S. government official to the Washington Post.
“Describing the situation as akin to war is not to be remotely confused with wanting a war, let alone going to war.”
‘They Could Be Looking To Show He’s a Tough Guy’
Instead, it is probably more a matter of winning domestic political legitimacy through foreign policy saber rattling.
“Kim has to present himself to his people as a strong leader,” said Professor Jun-Ho Chang, a political scientist at the Gyeongin National University of Education in Seoul, to Süddeutsche.de. As a political blank slate, the dictator has a greater need to elevate his status than his father Kim Jong Il or his grandfather Kim Il Sung.
“His father did not use such strong rhetoric,” Chang further explained.
Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul, also assumes that Kim is primarily anxious to be perceived as militarily competent.
“I don’t think he has really connected with the North Korean people. They could be looking to show he’s a tough guy,” Hill said to the Washington Post.
Therefore, as another official from the administration said to The New York Times, Kim’s statements are less important than his possible actions:
“We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”
Experts Speak of a Sharper Tone Than Usual
In the opinion of Professor Chang, the North Korean ruler could plan to first break the agreements with the South — in order to agree upon them once again a short time later.
“Kim wants to become the leader of the dialogue, portray himself as the one who put the opponents in their place. The maneuver of the American and South Korean troops is a good opportunity for that.”
The situation should by no means be underestimated.
“The tone is clearly sharper than we have been accustomed to in the past years,” said Chang.
“For experts, it is definitely a warning sign, even if the South Korean population does not perceive it to be so threatening.”
Observers in the U.S. likewise speak of an increased risk of a limited armed conflict, whereby a direct attack on U.S. troops in the Pacific or on the U.S. mainland is improbable.
"The bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea only deepens that nation's isolation," said [White House] deputy press spokesman Josh Earnest in Miami.
Catherine Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, also warned:
“The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state; nor will we stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States."
South Korea Must Maintain Deterrence
Even if Kim is not planning a war at all, the situation could easily escalate, warns Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea researcher at the University of Leeds, in a guest column for The Guardian.
“The cycle of provocation and reaction — which is which, depends where you are — could spiral out of control.”
For example, if something similar to what occurred in 2010 happens: In that case, a ship from the South Korean Navy was hit by a torpedo and sunk. Forty-nine crew members died. Who fired the shot was never proven, but a North Korean submarine was the most plausible explanation in the view of most experts. The South refrained from a retaliatory strike.
However, the country cannot afford for this to happen again if it wants to maintain deterrence against its northern sister state. Another hacker attack, like the one that partially paralyzed the South Korean media and banks, could be the provocation that would force the South into action.