Will the DPRK Strike?

Ayear ago this month the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) vowed to “reduce all the rat-like groups [in the Republic of Korea] … to ashes in three or four minutes … by unprecedented peculiar means and methods….” In response to this, South Korean (ROK) officials urged the DPRK “to immediately stop” the practice of issuing threats. Such threats, they said, only serve to increase tensions. But, of course, that is the North Korean game. The DPRK issues threats to increase tensions in order to receive payment for agreeing to decrease tensions later on. It is a very simple system of extortion, and it was once effective. Only now, the threatened parties are not responding with cash. Instead, they have been responding with their own military moves. This sudden change from appeasement to exasperation has led to a crisis.

Last Thursday the DPRK issued an official statement blaming “the U.S. imperialists” for violating the sovereignty of the DPRK. As the situation was “extremely grave,” Marshal Kim Jong Un, “brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu, convened an urgent operational meeting on the performance of … the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Korean People’s Army … to ratify a firepower strike plan.” Marshal Kim had reportedly declared a “do-or-die battle … for putting an end to the history of the long-standing showdown with the U.S. and opening a new era.” The decision, quite naturally, reflected “the strong will of the army and the people of the DPRK to annihilate the enemy.” According to the statement, DPRK servicemen were “surging with anger” against the many reckless imperialist provocations – which include: making B-52 sorties into South Korean airspace; and flying B-2A stealth strategic bombers and other strike craft from the U.S. mainland to Korea as part of a bombing drill. “This is an unpardonable and heinous provocation and an open challenge,” noted the official DPRK statement. “By taking advantage of the U.S. reckless campaign for a nuclear war against the DPRK, the south Korean puppets vociferated about ‘preemptive attack’ and ‘strong counter-action’ … openly revealing their threat to destroy symbolic monuments to the dignity of the DPRK’s supreme leadership.”

Presenting itself as a parody of wild-eyed paranoia, and epitomizing the projection of the DPRK’s own hostile intentions, Pyongyang further accused the United States of “brigandish ambition for aggression” and also accused the South Korean “puppets” of attempting to invade the DPRK. Consequently, “their threats have entered the reckless phase of an actual war from the phase of threat and blackmail.” Therefore it was right and just, according to the DPRK statement, “that the Supreme Command of the KPA [Korean People’s Army] … made the decision to decisively settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists and south Korean puppets by dint of the arms of Military-First politics (So’ngun), because the time when words could work has passed.”

It must be admitted that the DPRK statement doesn’t sound like a blackmail threat. It sounds more like the statement of someone who has swallowed a lifetime of distorted propaganda about the United States and “the south Korean puppets.” In truth, the DPRK statement comes from a deluded leader who is so crazy (by the standards of the outside world) that intelligent observers are left shaking their heads. For what country in the whole history of the world has ever presented an official statement of this kind?

Consider the following section of the DPRK statement: “It is the resolute answer of the DPRK and its steadfast stand to counter the nuclear blackmail of the U.S. imperialists with merciless nuclear attack and … all-out war. They should clearly know that in the era of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the greatest-ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past. The hostile forces will clearly realize the iron will, matchless grit and extraordinary mettle of the brilliant commander of Mt. Peaktu that the earth cannot exist without Military-First (So’ngun) Korea. The time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle.”

It should be pointed out that military geniuses don’t issue official statements in which they describe themselves as military geniuses full of “matchless grit and extraordinary mettle.” To make a statement of this kind, when one has never fought a war, is to announce one’s own ignorance and egotistical self-regard. It is, in fact, the confession of a clown with his finger on the nuclear button. Pundits in the U.S. are not alarmed, of course. They are cool and calm, believing that the DPRK won’t do anything to harm its own “self-interest.” Unfortunately, self-interest is in the eye of the beholder. In this regard, one must consider the self-interest of a clown who doesn’t even know he is a clown. Even worse, this clown is surrounded by lackeys who are incapable of forestalling his behavior. For how else can we explain the DPRK statement, which continues thus: “It is self-evident that any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula is bound to lead to an all-out war, a nuclear war…. The first strike of the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will blow up the U.S. bases for aggression on its mainland in the Pacific operational theatres including Hawaii and Guam and reduce not only its military bases in south Korea but the puppets’ ruling institutions….”

Psychological projection is not some academic myth, but a very real affliction – the same affliction that led Hitler to blame the Jews for starting World War II. In the same sense Kim Jong Un blames the United States for World War III. He believes the United States is an “imperialist aggressor.” Therefore, in the present context, he is not bluffing. He is telling us what he actually thinks.

Officials in the U.S. government seem to appreciate Kim’s actual state of mind. They have studied the DPRK statement and know they are dealing with a deluded person. It is now the aim of U.S. policy to react slowly and coolly to the Korean situation. Specifically, the United States is backing off harsh statements and obvious military demonstrations. This is not to be mistaken for appeasement. It is a more careful policy of avoiding an unnecessary conflict when tensions are at a fever pitch. It is in the best tradition of peace-making, provided it does not return to the policy of sending more cash to the failed regime in Pyongyang.

And yes, the situation is dangerous precisely because the DPRK is a failed state in possession of nuclear weapons. Its leader is a megalomaniac surrounded by lackeys who rule over a starving population and a desperately precarious economy. Given this situation, all you need is a border incident. All you need is an artillery engagement in the DMZ. One of a thousand things could go wrong and we could find ourselves in a nuclear war.

In reality, war is not always the product of careful calculation. It is more often the result of accident, miscalculation and misperception. If a major decision-maker is deluded, crazy or stupid, there is a good chance he’ll get himself into a war. And so, we should not be dismissive of the danger.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on Feb 18, 2011. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

Threatening Noises from North Korea

The Voice of America headline reads, “North Korea threatens Japan with Attack.” Another headline reads, “US to increase missile defense as North Korea threatens strikes.” We learn about Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement of the planned installation of 14 land-based missile interceptors in Alaska by 2017. Elsewhere we read about a North Korean military leader threatening a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States (see video links at “Is War Brewing on the Korean Penninsula?”). We also see chilling video footage of the young North Korean dictator telling military officers, “Throw all enemies in the caldron, break their waists and crack their windpipes.”

Such has always been the rhetorical style of the North Korean regime. For the last 15 years North Korea has been promising to engulf South Korea in a “sea of flame” while threatening the United States with inevitable nuclear destruction. The North Korean government has gotten a lot of attention, and has won aid in the past by alternating threats with the promise of peace. The greater the threats, the greater the harvest when the prospect of peace is held out. In fact, it is an old game. Yet one may ask if one day a North Korean princeling, deluded with power, will take his own rhetoric seriously. At what point does rhetorical style transform itself into calamity?

North Korea is a socialist country of a different type. It has remained hardline and Spartan in its determination to confront the capitalist enemy, with a huge army and massive missile forces. And as everyone knows, a war on the Korean Peninsula would have devastating economic repercussions for Asia and the Pacific. While America worries whether North Korea has missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities, the Japanese and South Koreans are left in no doubt. A North Korean missile can hit Tokyo with a biological or nuclear warhead at any time.

What is the source of North Korean militancy?

The ideology of North Korea was originally Marxist-Leninist and consistent with that of the Soviet Union and China. In 1972 the ideology was officially changed to something called “the Juche idea,” first set forth in the 1950s by the founding dictator of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. The ideology proposes military strength and national self-reliance. Juche has its roots in Stalin’s idea of “socialism in one country” combined with Mao’s principle of “regeneration through one’s own efforts.” Since man is the master of all things, North Korea might well take an independent stand against imperialism and capitalism. Of course, this stand isn’t truly independent because North Korea has always received its weapons from China with occasional economic or technical support from Russia. The regime has also used threats (including the threat to build a nuclear weapon) to get economic assistance, money and food from the United States and South Korea. Perhaps it is mistakenly attempting to use the threat of nuclear war to for a similar purpose today.

North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries despite possessing a large and powerful military machine. Making economic isolation and autarchy into a virtue, the North Korean economy has withered. In the 1980s the government pushed a program to produce ten million tons of grain per year. To their dismay, they only produced four million tons. (It is estimated that six million tons are required to feed the North Korean people.) Nevertheless, North Korea has managed to create an enormous army with over 153 divisions and brigades, including 60 infantry divisions/brigades, 25 mechanized brigades, 13 tank brigades, 25 special Operation Force brigades, and 30 artillery brigades.

When a country only has weapons, and little else, what do you suppose its policy relies upon? Threats come naturally. The entire psychology of the country’s leadership is alien to peaceful pursuits. It is, indeed, oriented toward war. And if war is impractical for the moment, then the orientation is toward the threat of war. The most natural thing in the world, therefore, is that North Korea’s leaders should issue dire threats. As for the question of whether they are bluffing, the answer should really be placed in reverse. Are the South Korean, Japanese and Americans bluffing in their commitment to resist North Korea? And furthermore, are they willing to purchase peace for a price? If so, the North Koreans will sniff them out. And another thing is certain: The North Koreans will attack if and when their opponents weaken. Let no one be mistaken on that score.

Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

This article was originally published on Financial Sense on March 18, 2013. The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.