North Korea's Dangerous Invasion Bluff
From weapons proliferation, to human rights matters, and to global security—North Korea is present. It is extremely difficult to find a major international issue in which North Korea is not playing a substantial role. Despite the small size of its population and breadth of its territory, North Korea has played a “disproportionately important role” in the last 30 years of world history, particularly due to its arsenal of advanced weapons systems and the consternation its warheads create both near and far.
Currently, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear and missile programs are so unpredictable and cloaked in such secrecy that the threat this isolated communist state poses must never be underestimated. U.S. policymakers and military experts continually reinforce to South Korean President Park Gyen-Hye that recent developments in North Korea, such as substantial increased activity at Punggye-ri nuclear test site, underscores the need for renewed efforts at denuclearization. While Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities still remain unknown, one thing is clear – Kim Jong-Un is remarkably adept at “manipulating global public opinion.”
Following the death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, in 2011 and the successful power transition to his third son, “Great Successor,” Kim Jong-Un, pundits like Dr. Charles Armstrong, renowned Korea expert and professor of history at Columbia University projected that North Korea would “endure and not collapse.” Armstrong and others like Dr. Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and a research scholar at Columbia University also surmised that North Korea would continue its provocative rhetoric by conducting further nuclear tests or “a limited but deadly attack against South Korean interests either on the peninsula or in another country.”
Likewise, most experts in East Asian studies and international security formed a consensus that North Korea would never use its nuclear weapons because both Kim Jong-Un and the elites around him recognize that a nuclear war would represent the annihilation of the regime. For an untested, tyrannical megalomaniac, potential regime collapse must be avoided at all cost. Kim has the means necessary to launch provocative strikes against his southern neighbor. But underneath the threats and rhetoric, he grasps that such actions could jeopardize the longevity of his reign.
As suspected, Kim Jong-Un emerged as a totalitarian leader like his father and the “Great Successor” continues to publicly announce Pyongyang’s string of nuclear threats to both South Korea and the United States. However, in reality, Kim knows his bankrupt economy cannot afford an all-out war with South Korea. Moreover, South Koreans show no signs of panic after these nuclear launches and sea of fire threats. Why are the South Koreans so calm? According to many, the South Koreans know that North Korea will only be able to conduct limited strikes similar to the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong-Do because Kim Jong-Un is not likely to start a frontal war.
Kim is not likely launch war with his neighbor because while North Korea may have the fourth largest standing military in the world at approximately 1.3 million soldiers, its equipment is seriously outdated. Kim’s military equipment (tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and MiG-19’s) goes all the way back to Pyongyang’s alliance with Moscow during the Cold War. South Korea, on the other hand, continues to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of the most advanced U.S. weapons systems. Seoul is scheduled to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for their next main fighter aircraft while North Korea struggles to keep their dilapidated MiG-19’s intact without multiple training accidents. South Korea’s, substantially aided by the U.S., has become one of the world’s most capable conventional forces and “present a formidable forward defense against any possible attack by North Korea.”
In the remote chance of an all-out war, even with its obsolete and nearly unusable equipment, pundits extrapolate that Kim Jong-Un’s military could cause substantial damage in the early stages of the war. However, any conceivable attack would eventually be repulsed by South Korea’s 600,000 South Korean soldiers armed with advanced military technology and supported by 28,500 U.S. troops.
A new factor is complicating Kim’s potential plans to attack South Korea. His self-proclaimed superior field artillery may soon be up against the Israeli-made Iron Dome system, which intercepts and kills short range rockets and missiles. In the aftermath of the most recent war in Gaza, Seoul has expressed serious interest in purchasing the anti-missile system.
Though Kim Jong-Un has said his rockets were ready to “settle accounts with the U.S.,” military experts question the authenticity of the threats. Most of Kim’s antics are for a domestic audience rather than to truly “repel” the West. Kim pretends this bellicose rhetoric is a prelude for invasion against his southern neighbor. But in actuality, it is to generate extreme anti-Western sentiment.
According to Jennifer Lind, professor of government at Dartmouth College, North Korea is “a military that if you ran them against the Iraqi military in 1991, [they] would lose.” A military defeat against South Korea and/or the United States would represent the extinction of the regime. It’s difficult to imagine Kim possibly liking these odds. The unavoidable outcome contradicts Kim’s goal to continue the Kim family regime and maintain the supremacy as long as possible.
Kim Jong-Un’s real persona may just be exactly like that of his late father: a juvenile psychopath parodied from the film, Team America: World Police. Nonetheless, the Kim family regime has always been more pragmatic than the world portrays it. Indeed, Kim Jong-Un does not preach rewards of the afterlife nor is there a martyr in the Juche philosophy—a self-reliance ideology developed by his grandfather Kim Il-Sung. Westernized and supposedly more modern, Kim’s love of basketball and other lavish spending subjugate the temptation of an invasion. Surely, Kim will not jeopardize his dictatorship or status by launching a frontal war against South Korea. In short, Kim is bluffing in a very dangerous game of international poker.
Perhaps Kim would turn to China in a time of crisis to support a war against the south. Would China—based on mutual ideology and alliance—be obliged to aid the North and fight against joint forces of South Korea and the U.S.? What would Xi gain from a possible second Korean War?
Beijing has every reason to deny supporting a war because the consequences would be disastrous. China is worried about instability and war along the border of northeastern China as it does not want “an influx of North Korean refugees across their shared 800 mile border.” A nuclear bombardment could also contaminate China, thus the possible effects on China’s economy would be catastrophic. And with its own difficult internal political problems, Beijing could hardly be enthusiastic about assuming responsibility for the mess left behind in North Korea by the Kim regime.
Recently, despite its resilient impetus to keep Pyongyang as an ally, Beijing has been showing signs of frustration and skepticism. Kim’s uncooperative and erratic behavior – such as the public pillory of his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, who served as a main conduit between North Korea and China – and a third nuclear underground test have forced Xi to snub North Korea. Indeed, for the first time in history, a Chinese leader officially visited South Korea before North Korea, a “little brother” with whom China once shared pain and sacrificed lives during the Korean War.
All things considered, starting a Second Korean War would not serve any of Pyongyang’s interests. But threatening one does. Kim Jong-Un’s behavior may seem irrational, but he is not ready to sacrifice his power. A threatening posture still matters to North Korea as leverage to win fuel oil deliveries, food aid, nuclear reactor construction, hard cash-earning tourist enclaves and investment zones. North Korea will continue to utilize the same ploy, and the international community seems likely to grant occasional concessions now and in the years to come.