North Korea
North Korea’s Threats: Rhetoric or Reality

The Korean War ended over 70 years ago, and a tense peace has prevailed on the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas have exchanged artillery fire, battled in economic and diplomatic arenas, and even secretly dispatched spies to each other’s territory.

However, threats of a resumption of conflict, disproportionately coming from North Korea, have been rhetorical. The South Korean military’s firepower, backed by a U.S. defense pact, has deterred Pyongyang, while the North Korean army’s small but operational nuclear arsenal has deterred Seoul.

Geopolitically, borders have become less inviolable, with Russia invading Ukraine, Israel sending forces into Gaza, and Venezuela considering an incursion into Guyana. The United States has attacked various targets abroad, including the Houthis in the Red Sea and Iranian commanders in Syria. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is increasingly embattled and belligerent, with a hemorrhaging economy and uncompromising adversaries abroad.

The two leaders that promised engagement with Pyongyang, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, are no longer in office, and South Korea’s current government is very cool toward engagement. Joe Biden, focused on other foreign policy challenges, has not expressed much interest in negotiating with Pyongyang.

North Korea watchers Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker believe that Kim Jong Un has abandoned the peaceful coexistence approach and is now launching an attack against South Korea. They believe that Kim is following the logic of Hamas, an illiberal force in charge of a largely failed entity, and perceives his adversaries as complacent, uninterested in negotiations, and vulnerable to a surprise attack.

The North Korean leadership, in charge of an impoverished country with a horrific human rights record, may have run out of options and may have decided that even the most dangerous game is worth the candle. Carlin and Hecker rely on official North Korean statements eschewing reunification of the peninsula and a constitutional change that now identifies South Korea as an adversary rather than as tanil minjok (“one people, one blood”).

Satellite images reveal the destruction of Pyongyang’s Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, also known as the Arch of Reunification. North Korea has also conducted missile tests, including one with a hypersonic warhead, and military drills near the maritime border to provoke a response from the South.

North Korea has been using threats and threats to gain the attention of the US government, aiming to restart peace talks with new adversaries. This approach has been seen in past instances of missile launches, nuclear tests, and promises to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire.” Kim Jong-un may be considering elections in South Korea, where the opposition party is hoping to increase its parliamentary majority, and the US, where Donald Trump is running against Joe Biden.

However, analysts have misinterpreted Putin’s warlike rhetoric and military preparations as a bid for Western attention and a better bargaining position at the negotiations table. Conventional notions about deterrence of superior force may not apply in a world with increasingly volatile leaders and violated borders.

Kim Jong Un’s relationship with Putin could be crucial in North Korea’s decision-making. Beijing traditionally seeks to control Pyongyang to protect the Chinese economy and boost US military presence. Moscow may be sending different messages due to Putin’s confrontational approach to the West. A conflict on the Korean peninsula would draw more resources from the US and Europe.

In the late 1940s, Stalin was skeptical about North Korea attacking South Korea, but Kim Jong Un’s grandfather convinced him and won Soviet support for the 1950 attack. Putin’s visit to North Korea, his first since 2000, could potentially influence North Korea’s decisions on war and peace. Pundits and policymakers are monitoring Putin’s visit to determine the outcome of North Korea’s deliberations.

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