At first glance, the tensions with North Korea seem like Europe 1914: One country steps out of line; another responds with the threat of force; the next thing you know, the World War I breaks out.
On closer inspection, things don’t look remotely that dire, though there is certainly good cause to be nervous.
Here’s what’s been happening. The past few weeks, U.S. and South Korean forces have been holding annual joint military exercises. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reacted with bellicose rhetoric, threatening to turn the region into a “sea of fire” at the slightest provocation. So far, so normal.
Then, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced that if Kim takes any aggressive action, she will respond with overwhelming force. Kim screamed louder. Then President Obama ordered two B-2 bombers to fly over South Korea and drop some unloaded bombs on a test range. He also sped up deployment of missile-defense systems to Guam and sent two guided-missile destroyers closer to North Korean shores. Kim screamed a bit more in public about his readiness to start a nuclear war.
The reassuring news: Much of Kim’s bellicosity is probably aimed at his own people, whipping up war scares to justify their continued impoverishment and oppression. And Obama’s brandishing-of-arms is aimed, in large measure, at his South Korean allies—to assure them that America has their back and will take action if the North gets aggressive.
But there’s a nerve-racking flipside to this news: Messages are sometimes misinterpreted; gambles are often based on miscalculations, especially if the antagonists aren’t speaking to one another directly (and Kim’s regime did shut down the North-South hotline not long ago). History is littered with wars that neither side wanted to happen. That’s what worries many officials and analysts when they look at the Korean peninsula.
Over the years, North and South Korean forces have clashed in the DMZ and along a disputed maritime border known as the Northern Limits Line. In March 2010, a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, sank, killing 46 sailors onboard. An international investigation led by South Korea blamed a North Korean torpedo.* The South Korean government of the time held back.The one in power now probably wouldn’t—and for good reason. But some worry that President Park would retaliate in disproportionate measure. This could compel Kim to strike back harder still, if just to show his military officers that he’s not a weakling. Park wouldn’t stop there. And here’s something else. Daniel Sneider, associate director of Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, notes that, if South Korea’s escalation extends to its air force, the Combined Forces Command—the joint U.S.-South Korean military authority—gets involved automatically, by treaty. In other words, the United States gets involved in another Korean War.
This escalating scenario—much more than the notion of a bolt-from-the-blue strike by North Korea against, say, the U.S. fleet in Guam—is what is making some officials and analysts more nervous than usual.
President Obama flexed America’s muscles—sending the two B-2 bombers over Korean skies, the two guided-missile destroyers closer to Korean harbors, and the missile-defense systems to guard U.S. forces in Guam—in part as a message to North Korea’s leaders that nuclear weapons are a serious business and that if they do anything rash, the United States can inflict devastating damage without hardly lifting a finger.
But Obama also, and perhaps more importantly, was sending a message to the leaders of South Korea (and, implicitly, Japan as well) that the United States will honor its treaty obligations, so there’s no need for them to escalate a conflict (or to start building their own A-bombs, as some in Seoul are mulling); we’ll do the heavy lifting when it comes to nuclear deterrence and, if necessary, military response.
Is there a danger that Kim Jong-un will see the next overflight of B-2s or B-52s as the start of an actual U.S. attack and launch a preemptive strike on his own? Maybe, which is why the White House is “dialing back” on its show-of-force “playbook,” according to today’s Wall Street Journal. But as long as Obama doesn’t get too provocative, it’s unlikely the North will take that step. In a standoff where nuclear weapons are part of the equation, a national leader is unlikely to launch a first strike unless he thinks that he can deal the enemy a disabling blow—or unless he has enough weapons left over to deter the enemy from retaliating (as in: Yes, I’ve just clobbered you, but if you strike back, I’ll clobber you even harder). The North Koreans don’t have enough weapons to knock out anybody—and they certainly wouldn’t have enough left to mount a second wave of strikes after the first one.
Then again, this is the logic of a rational actor, and it’s unclear whether Kim Jong-un fits the bill. Kurt Campbell, until recently Obama’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, notes in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog that, many times over the years, North Korea has issued wild-eyed threats, only to back off just before the rhetoric spills over into conflict. The question, though, is whether Kim Jong-un is as crafty or calculating as his predecessors, Kim Jong-il (his father) and Kim Il-sung (his grandfather). No one knows—another cause for concern.
The earlier Kims were rational actors, at least when it came to the tactics and strategy of survival. Seeing their nation as a “shrimp among whales,” they derived strength through drumbeats of storm and menace and by playing their neighbors off one another. But there was a method to their madness; they’d crafted a game with rules, and if you figured them out—as key U.S. officials in the 1980s and ’90s did, under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—you could avert war and even craft a peace of sorts. Kim Jong-un, not quite 30 years old and utterly inexperienced, isn’t playing by the Kim family rules; nobody can tell what game he’s playing, so it’s hard to play along, hard even to understand how he’s seeing the game board.
The other new thing in this standoff is that Kim Jong-un sits atop a regime that has launched a few missiles and tested a few atomic bombs. He may feel more powerful—and thus less eager to back down off his threats—than the earlier Kims. Yet, at the same time, his North Korea, while still the most closed society on the planet, is a bit less closed than before: The experimental markets and manufacturing joint ventures with the South, as well as the frequent flow of traffic across the Chinese border, have exposed its people to a bit of the world; a growing number of them are realizing that they’re much worse off than the others, that they don’t have to live the way they do.
This combination—mightier military weapons and a weaker base for political rule—can lead even shrewd tyrants (and young Kim probably isn’t so shrewd) to take desperate measures. It may well explain the prolonged intensity of Kim’s rhetoric, as sounding the alarms of foreign danger is the best way to ensure the docility of a restless people.
It may be that this tension will unwind by itself. The joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises will be over at the end of April. One can imagine Kim Jong-un giving a long, loud speech taking credit for preventing the American imperialists and their puppets from attacking the homeland, which—he will maintain—they certainly would have done, had it not been for the courageous determination of the North Korean people, who must therefore maintain their vigilance (i.e., keep living under the jackboot of poverty and oppression) in case the jackals resume their aggression.
Meanwhile, the best thing that Obama can do is what he has done—quietly demonstrate a smidgen of U.S. power, keep the South Koreans in line—and then, as much as possible, ignore the pygmy of Pyongyang. Like his father and grandfather, Kim wants the big powers to treat him as a peer. If his father and grandfather had a strange way of going about it, he has a psychotic way, and the clearest message that Obama and the rest of the world should send him is that it will not work.
Correction, April 7, 2013: The article originally said that the most recent conflict between North and South Korea was the sinking of the Cheonan in November 2010. Actually, the Cheonan sank in March 2010. In November 2010, the North Koreans fired on South Korean forces at Yeonpyeong Island.