Last Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a stern warning to North Korea; Pyongyang must stop “bucking the trend of history and common sense” with its constant nuclear brinkmanship. Mr. Kerry is right, of course, but he also understands that the ritual Korean sabre-rattling isn’t going to end anytime soon.
In many ways, the Korean regime builds its legitimacy on “resistance” to the West. In his 2006 book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, journalist Bradley K. Martin analyzes the ascension myth surrounding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. North Korea’s first two tyrants.
Martin suggests that the idea of resisting Western advancement started during Kim’s time in China. Kim Il-sung’s time there, over the course of the 1930′s and 1940′s, defined his entire persona. According to legend – all accounts of his early years are disputed because of poor record keeping and the tendency of official North Korean biographers to embellish – Kim joined the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, a guerrilla unit run by the Chinese Communist Party. By 1940, he had escaped to the Soviet Union, where he served in the Red Army until the end of World War II.
The Korean War still largely defines North Korea’s attitude toward the West. Though the historical consensus is that Kim Il Sung invaded the South without Stalin’s permission, in North Korea the war is portrayed as a war of southern, American-led aggression. Thus, the regime in Pyongyang has an excuse to always be on a war footing; they must defend themselves against outside attack.
In the decades since, dozens of violent incidents suggest that North Korea’s recent brinkmanship is nothing new – if anything, they’re less explicitly violent than in the recent past (so far there’s been nothing on the scale of the Cheonan incident). While the seriousness of Pyongyang’s bellicosity is nothing to minimize, it is important to keep in mind the almost ritualistic nature it acquires over time.
The prospect of all-out war on the peninsula is terrifying, but not because it might involve nuclear weapons. North Korea’s conventional army is old and dilapidated, but enormous. It is so enormous, in fact, it can overwhelm even the highly advanced defenses set up by the U.S. military. Indeed, the worst-case scenarios in Western war gaming suggests that Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, would be overrun by the North Korean military before anyone could mount a counterattack.
This does not mean North Korea is on the verge of invading, however. There are several political factors to the current stand off that suggest what is happening is posturing.
For one, North Korea’s new leader is brand new and untested. He was thrust into power early and his father, Kim Jong-il, did not have enough time to create a personality cult around him the way Kim Il-sung did in the early 1990′s. There are scattered reports from defectors that suggest Kim Jong-un was deeply divisive within the Army, to the point of sparking gun fights between different factions. Such an untested leader might easily think he can build support within his own ranks by lashing out against the West.
At the same time, South Korea has a new leader too. Park Geun-hye is the first woman President of Korea and the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. The North Korean regime tried to assassinate Park Chung-Hee twice (he was eventually murdered by his own intelligence chief in 1979). His family is controversial in both countries.
Park is untested as a leader as well: Pyongyang not only wants to test her mettle to see her response, it also wants her to look weaker than Kim Jong-un.
So what does this mean for the current standoff? First, recognizing the cyclical nature of these confrontations helps. By looking at how previous escalations were defused, we can see what might work now. Allowing Pyongyang a face-saving way to back down – say, by letting them declare “victory” by preventing an American attack – is one way. The end of the military games taking place this month will prevent a perfect opportunity for both sides to claim victory while avoiding war. Another could be dangling the promise of additional food aid and a relaxation of sanctions.
What shouldn’t happen is continued escalation by the West. The intervention against Libya sent a worrying message to many regimes that de-nuclearization will make them vulnerable to attack by the United States. Kim Jong-un is not stupid, and he is not blind to what happened just two years ago. Pressing the regime further, even taking more aggressive moves against it, just might send the whole peninsula over the edge into war. And that won’t serve anyone’s interests.