The threat of a dictator: Do we have something to fear?

by Connor Soudani

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they are officially deemed, recently made provocative threats against the United States and South Korea.  While North Korea has made similar threats in the past, the unpredictability of their young leader, Kim Jong Un, has kept the world on alert for what could come next.

The statement initially issued by North Korea said that the nuclear threat posed by the U.S. would be “smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK (North Korea) and the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces.”

Despite the colorful rhetoric of this threat, Norman Thorpe, a Whitworth adjunct faculty member who formerly reported for the Wall Street Journal in South Korea, said that there is something many people are missing.

“They’re not empty threats, but if you look at the way they are phrased, most of them are stated in a conditional or reactive framework,” Thorpe said.  “So they’re not empty threats but they don’t indicate, I don’t believe, that North Korea is ready to launch all out war against South Korea or the United States at the current stage.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to CNN, ‘hinted at risks in reacting to North Korea, calling the tensions a “complicated, combustible situation” that could “explode into a worse situation.”’

Senior Hannah LeTourneau, who spent the fall of 2012 studying physics through International Student Exchange Programs at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, interpreted the situation differently.  She said that after studying North Korea’s rocket technology, she was fairly certain that even if this situation did lead to war at some point, North Korea would not be able to withstand any sustained conflict.

“They can definitely launch something but I don’t think they have the economic background to hold out for any kind of long term thing whatsoever under the combined power of China, South Korea and the U.S.,” LeTourneau said.  “He might do something crazy, but I don’t think it would be anything with a huge impact.”

Associate professor of Chinese history Anthony Clark wrote in an email that there is a good deal of evidence to support some additional underlying motives behind this staunch rhetoric. Clark is currently in China.

“Kim’s current rhetoric is not unlike what we have heard before,” Clark wrote.  “My guess, though one can’t know another’s inner intentions, is that he is appealing to his military, which is the center of his power.”

Additionally, Thorpe said that while Kim Jong Un may be trying to consolidate power locally, this tactic isn’t new.

“Domestically he is trying to consolidate power and show himself as a militarily strong leader,” Thorpe said.  “So the threats are maybe a little stronger, the language might be a little stronger than we’ve heard from North Korea in recent years, but there were strong threats voiced under previous leaders in North Korea also.”

He suggested that Kim Jong Un is in fact speaking to his power base and his constituency in North Korea more than to the United States or South Korea with his remarks about retaliating.

For South Korea, threats such as these recently made from the North produce unease, because of previous attacks by North Korea most recently in 2010 with the sinking of a South Korean battleship.  However, LeTourneau said that as far as South Korean citizens go, the amount of frightened reactions to these threats is minimal.

“There’s only so much more that you can reasonably do, so, from what I’ve seen, it’s more about constantly being prepared rather than responding too much to a specific incident,” LeTourneau said.

According to an article titled “Threats of annihilation normal for South Koreans,” which illustrated South Koreans in Seoul smiling and going about their daily lives, the writer, Jim Clancy, made a connection.

Clancy said that after pausing in the city and examining the landscape, he felt obligated to consider where he would seek shelter in the wake of a North Korean missile strike.  After realizing that his best bet would be in the subway system and calculating much to his discomfort how long it would take for him to get there, he decided to think about something else.

Despite this history of relative inaction since the armistice ending the Korean War, the South Korean government has claimed, according to The Guardian, that “South Korea also adopted more proactive deterrence strategy after attacks by the North in 2010, threatening to respond with disproportionate force to any future provocation.”

In the end, a lasting peace will be difficult to obtain, as it has been historically.

Thorpe said that North Korea most likely wants to have some kind of peaceful relationship with the U.S. and not have to worry about the United States as a possible source of an attack.  Despite this hopeful goal, Thorpe also said that North Korea is going to want to continue to have its nuclear capability.

“[North Korea] says that that is not on the bargaining table because of events that it’s seen in the past.  It feels safest to have [nuclear capabilities]. North Korea also wants the United States to take its troops out of South Korea.  I don’t think the United States will do that.  I think that’s probably not on the bargaining table either,” Thorpe said.  “If setting those two things aside, there’s someway to work things out more peacefully, that would certainly be to everyone’s advantage, but whether or not that will be possible, I don’t know.”

Clark wrote he believes that as East Asia has become more powerful, economically and militarily, the North Korea issue has become a problem of “face” for China.

“We also need to remember that China is growing more nationalistic and has reasserted its own Communist paradigm,” Clark wrote.  “My expectation is that China and North Korea, as Communist countries, will continue to rally together as defenders of Marxist ideals.”

Contact Connor Soudani at csoudani16@my.whitworth.edu

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