Dealing with North Korea is like playing poker with the guy that goes all in on every hand. Eventually you have to start calling his bluff, or you will lose. Yet, it is important to note the degree of the situation to figure out whether or not the bluff is real.
North Korea recently threatened to enlarge its nuclear arsenal and “mercilessly” attack South Korea and the United States, as the latter two allies prepared for joint military drills that the North considers a rehearsal for invasion. Although North Korea routinely issues threats over the annual joint military drills, its latest warning could be another act closely linked to the leadership transfer under way. Kim Jong Il, who is believed to be in poor health, is thought to be in the process of trying to hand over power to his designated successor, his son Kim Jong Un.
I believe that North Korea’s provocative claims may be tied to the fact that Kim Jong Il is trying to beef up internatio¬nal esteem for his son. In September, North Korea’s ruling party held a rare congress in which the younger Kim was given key roles in the party and the Central Military Commission. In addition, incidents such as the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March and the recent artillery firing are unlikely to be rogue actions by the North Korean military but rather aimed at bolstering Kim Jong Un’s standing. Kim Jong Un has no accomplishments to his record but if he can appear to be in charge of a military that is achieving some kind of military success, it would probably aid his succession.
North Korea’s nuclear threats, however, do put the U.S. military in an awkward situation. On the one hand, if the U.S. military starts submitting to North Korea’s threats, it is unclear where such a submission would end. North Korea would want the U.S. to cancel military exercises, then pull out of the region, then refuse to recognize South Korea and so forth, with nuclear threats to back up each demand. On the other hand, a threat of nuclear war is serious business. The reason nuclear deterrence works so well is that every government in the world is terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Therefore, no matter how small the odds of North Korea carrying out its nuclear threat is, the potential downside of the threat materializing will have obviously large implications.
Yet, North Korea loses a lot of credibility when it makes threats that it cannot possibly follow through on. Just like a parent who tells a child, “if you don’t eat your vegetables you will have to go to your room,” fails to carry out the stated punishment, and then is subjected to increased disobedience from the child, a government that makes threats to other governments but fails to carry them out is unlikely to be taken seriously in future negotiations. Therefore, it is most likely that the U.S. will call North Korea’s bluff and continue its military training operation with South Korea.
North Korea’s nuclear threats may also be linked to the fact that they cannot stand that they are not front-page news right now. South Korea and the United States have conducted these military drills for years so why is North Korea suddenly kicking up dust? I think that North Korea cannot fathom that the world seems more focused on the Middle East and North Africa.
This is a basic ploy by the North Koreans to say “Hey! Look at me! Me, right here!” North Korea threatening attack is not news. As with children, it’s when they’re quiet that you have to worry.
Kevin Phan is a fourth-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.