The proclamations of American journalists, while couched in much more academic terms, express hardly any more fear of approaching hellfire than the meme-makers and Photoshoppers of the wider Internet. The general consensus, as it has been in similar situations, is that Pyongyang’s threats can be best described as “saber-rattling,” a protracted play featuring tightly-choreographed dances of soldiers, dimly-lit scenes of midnight military meetings, and a poorly-cast, slightly overwhelmed lead. Even worse, we’ve seen this play several times over the past twenty years, when it began its first run with North Korea’s 1994 threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” (This rhetorical flourish has only recently been topped by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, who expressed concern that the situation in North Korea could “descend into the spiral of a vicious cycle.”)
Even as the U.S. media writes off the Korean stare-down as mere posturing, the government has done more than enough to serve its purpose within the drama of the warring Koreas. Partially in response to North Korean nuclear tests, the U.S. military has conducted practice runs with nuclear-capable stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula, which provoked only more violent rhetoric from the Supreme Leader. When you add in South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has promised “strong retaliation” to any provocation from the North, as well as bystanders Russia and China both casting wary glances at their once longtime ally, you have quite the large cast for this international farce.
Like most people, I have my doubts that the North Korean government is stupid enough to commit suicide by launching a nuclear attack against the United States. Though, from its bellicose rhetoric you might guess that North Korea is merely a push of the button away from wiping Washington, D.C. off the face of the earth, military experts are skeptical as to whether Pyongyang possesses the capability to reach the United States with a nuclear warhead. Even if it could, it would not do so, and Kim Jong-un surely knows that as well as you or I do. So why the show; why the flexing and shouting; why the international game of chicken if no one plans to make a move?
There are a number of possibilities. Given Kim Jong-un’s status as a new, untested leader of a desperately impoverished state, he may be trying to assert himself or rally support for his regime by demonizing South Korea and the United States. Some wonder if the threats are merely a ploy to attract the attention of the United States and encourage the Obama Administration to turn its attention to the issue of Korean reunification, a goal that seems to have been forgotten by the wealthier Korea.
Given the way the North Korean government is behaving, however, I’d say reunification isn’t on its mind. The cutting off of the military hotline between the two Koreas, re-declaration of a war that technically never ended, and presumably symbolic tearing up of the armistice that paused the hostilities are fairly familiar gestures. But the sexist personal attack lobbed by Pyongyang at the South’s first female president, blaming her “venomous swish of skirt” for the rising tensions, suggests that the right-wing, military-first government of the North has no qualms about alienating its left-wing neighbor. We may have little need to fear North Korean attacks on the U.S. mainland, but skirmishes between the Koreas, which have broken out before, remain a very real possibility.
In addition to the ever-present threat of border clashes, a recent series of cyber attacks on the banking system and television broadcasters of South Korea, which have been attributed to the North by South Korean and American experts, suggest that Pyongyang may choose a different, stealthier means of attacking its neighbor and enemy. Such attacks, unlike massive military operations, cannot be easily traced back to North Korea; this enables it to undermine the South while maintaining its ability to believably claim that it has done nothing. Rather than the blundering showboat some have made him out to be, Kim Jong-un may be revealing himself as something more akin to a sly magician who cleverly employs distraction to ensure you’re never looking where you should be.
If that is the case, the U.S. faces a challenging balancing act. If the U.S. fails to respond with appropriate force to suspected cyber attacks or military skirmishes, some will cry that the superpower has chosen to abandon its allies. If it lays too heavy a hand on the Korean peninsula, however, it risks igniting a full-scale war between the two Koreas. But the United States has been here before. If the country can adapt to a younger North Korean leader armed with some newer methods of warfare, it may be able to walk the tightrope without sending anyone tumbling into war.
—Stacey Nieves ‘15 is an English major.