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The Peninsula

Has North Korean Rhetoric Changed Under Kim Jong-un?

Published May 1, 2013
Category: North Korea

By Troy Stangarone, Andrew Kwon, and Peter Taves

With the passing of Kim Jong-il in December of 2011, the United States and South Korea entered into a new period of uncertainty with North Korea. Shortly after Kim Jong-un assumed power, questions were raised regarding the extent of his hold on the regime in Pyongyang and what his rise to power would mean for the future of North Korea. The events of recent months have only added to the level of uncertainty surrounding the regime in Pyongyang. While the rhetoric and provocations have begun to subside, the most recent crisis has seen a shift in the use and intensity of bellicose rhetoric by the regime in Pyongyang.

North Korea has a history of engaging in threats to extract concessions from the United States and South Korea. During his time in power, Kim Jong-il mastered the art of escalating a crisis for effect, only to dial the tensions back down when the time was right to achieve his ends. Over the years, the United States and South Korea grew familiar with his patterns of behavior, much as with Kim Il-sung before him. With Kim Jong-un that same level of familiarity has yet to develop.

While the events of recent months contain elements of North Korea’s prior provocations, there has been a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in the rhetorical intensity, and a longer duration than during previous crises. North Korea has also shown an increasing ability to follow through on its threats. Though North Korea does not yet possess the technical capability to hit targets in the mainland of the United States, it has demonstrated a growing sophistication in its nuclear and missile programs. The wreckage from the December satellite launch has lead some in the intelligence community to believe that North Korea is closer to miniaturizing a nuclear warhead than was previously believed.

If North Korea’s weapons programs are growing more sophisticated, the recent crisis has also seen a shift in Pyongyang’s rhetoric. Since Kim Jong-un took power the hostility of North Korean rhetoric has increased markedly, even during times of perceived calm. An analysis of the current and previous crises with North Korea shows the use of terms such as “war,” “satellite,” and “nuclear” growing markedly more prevalent in North Korean rhetoric in KCNA than terms such as “peace,” “reconciliation,” and “dialogue” (see foot note for details)[1].

During the recent crisis that began in December, many analysts have noted the increasing volume of provocative rhetoric coming out of North Korea. However, analysis shows that the increase in rhetoric under Kim Jong-un predates the current crisis. In 2012, references to “war” in KCNA were up 190 percent from 1998, when North Korea was sanctioned for a missile test, and 107 percent from North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. In 2012, references to war never fell below 217 in a month and were over 300 in all months but January and November. In 1998, they never exceeded 166 mentions in a single month, while in 2009 they only exceeded 200 when North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors in March and when it was sanctioned by the UN in June. In the case of 2009, mentions of war decreased by 50 percent in April and 28 percent in July after spikes in the prior months (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Use of terms “War” and “Peace” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 1

While North Korea’s use of “peace” in its rhetoric is also increasing, it is growing at a slower rate than “war.” The use of peace in KCNA rose by 129 percent from 1998 to 2012 and 77 percent from 2009 to 2012 (Graph 1).

Graph 1: Ratio change and usage change of terms of “War” and “Peace” between 1998 and 2012

Rhetoric Graph 1

Interestingly, there seems to be a pattern in North Korea’s usage of the terms “war” and “peace,” which are used in tandem at a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. In 1998, war was used on average 1.98 times for every usage of peace. In 2009, the year of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the ratio rose slightly to 2.11. However, in 2012 the ratio rose to 2.38 percent, a 20 percent increase from 1998, despite relative calm for most of the year.

At the peak of the crisis over the December 2012 satellite launch, references to “satellite” grew nearly 170 percent compared to a similar period after the August 1998 launch (Chart 2).  References to “nuclear,” however, during the peak points of the 2009 UN sanctions and the most recent UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test are virtually identical (Chart 2). This difference most likely stems from the dispute between North Korea and the United States over the nature of its satellite program.

Chart 2: Use of terms “Satellite” and “Nuclear” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 2

However, looking beyond the peaks there is a notable increase in North Korea’s use of “nuclear” in its rhetoric under Kim Jong-un. References to nuclear in KCNA grew 164 percent from 1998 to 2009, and another 70 percent from 2009 to 2012. Overall, references to nuclear have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012 and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012 (Graph 2).

Graph 2: Usage change of terms “Satellite” and “Nuclear” between 1998 and 2012

Rhetoric Graph 2

North Korea’s use of more positive terms such as “reconciliation” and “dialogue” has been inconsistent (Chart 3). Mentions of reconciliation have actually fallen since 1998 by 32 percent between 1998 and 2009, though they rose by 27 percent between 2009 and 2012. This is somewhat interesting given the harsh rhetoric Pyongyang directed towards Lee Myung-bak during the period. However, overall mentions of reconciliation are down 14 percent from 1998 to 2012 and are down another 17 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

The use of “dialogue” has risen 56 percent between 2009 and 2012 and 41 percent overall between 1998 and 2012. However, over the first three months of 2013, much like North Korea’s use of reconciliation, usage of dialogue is down 41 percent over same period in 2012.

Chart 3: Use of terms “Reconciliation” and “Dialogue” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 3

Despite the use of “dialogue” being down over the first three months in 2013, there may be indications in the shift of the crisis in April. Data for this study was only available through the first half of April, but in that time use of dialogue in KCNA was up 29 percent from March and at a higher level than at any point during 2012.

Despite the potential positive sign in North Korea’s usage of “dialogue” over the first half of April the overall rate of usage of terms such as “war” and “nuclear” are growing at a faster rate than “reconciliation” and “dialogue.”

Beyond the increasing usage of rhetoric by the regime in North Korea, there have also been changes in the tone of the rhetoric. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korean rhetoric while certainly bellicose was calculated, predictable, measured, and occasionally even conciliatory. In earlier periods of the North Korean nuclear crisis, efforts to allow inspectors from the IAEA were rhetorically deemed almost diplomatically as “unreasonable” and Kim Kye Gwan argued that dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons without a peace treaty would be “unreasonable” as well. As recently as 2005, Kim Jong-il’s government stated a potential for “friendship” between the United States and North Korea, and Kim Jong-il admitted that he thought “favorably” of the United States.

The rhetoric under Kim Jong-un has not been so friendly.

In place of intermittent conciliatory language, the regime under Kim Jong-Un has opted for escalation. Kim Jong-il’s threats were largely innocuous, typically referring to “effective countermeasures” in a defensive response to an American attack. Media threats under Kim Jong-un, however, designate specific targets and even threaten pre-emptive war. Whether these too are innocuous remains to be seen.

Less clear is the intent of the rhetoric. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea used provocations and hostile rhetoric to extract political and material concessions from the West, such as light water reactors and bilateral talks with the United States. With Kim Jong-un the motives are more opaque.

Many analysts have suggested that, along with the need to consolidate power domestically, the regime is setting the stage for future negotiations. However, Pyongyang has made clear that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, calling them “the nation’s life” and, in contrast to the past, has made virtually no demands of the West other than halfhearted appeals for a peace treaty.

Prior to the United States and South Korea offering talks, media references to bilateral discussions with the United States were nonexistent; in many respects leaving the impression that North Korea was disinterested in talks at all. In fact, the only mention of talks is from anonymous sources in China, which may not be accurate as the Economist has reported that no high level meetings have taken place between China and North Korea in months. At the same time, Pyongyang’s response to the offer of talks has been to set its own preconditions, demanding the end of sanctions and U.S.-South Korea military drills.

What has become clear in the early stage of his rule is that Kim Jong-un will be different and more willing to engage in provocations than his father. With the growth in rhetoric predating the successful satellite launch and third nuclear test, it seems likely that the shift in leadership style we are witnessing is driven more by the new leadership than North Korea’s recent successful weapons tests. However, those same weapons tests could make the regime more dangerous in the future. With the successful tests behind it, the regime could feel emboldened in the measures it could take, making future crises potentially less stable if Pyongyang continues to escalate the level of rhetoric.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute of America. Andrew Kwon is a recent Masters of International Security Graduate from the University of Sydney. Peter Taves is currently undertaking a Masters of International Economic Relations at American University. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from theADDproject.com’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] The scope of this study consists of searches of KCNA for the terms satellite, war, nuclear, peace, dialogue, and reconciliation during crisis years of 1998, 2009, 2012, and 2013. Satellite was used as a proxy for terms such as missile in the review of KCNA as the United States and other nations have viewed North Korea’s satellite launches as disguised missile tests and a review of KCNA literature shows that term missile is primarily used in tandem with satellite by North Korea. Nuclear was used as North Korea ties references to its civil nuclear program and nuclear weapons programs together. Denuclearization was not used as it is a term that has only recently become more prevalent in North Korean rhetoric. In 1998, denuclearization was only referenced 4 times by KCNA, in contrast to 42 references in 2012.Through the first three and a half months of 2013, however, there have been 51 mentions of denuclearization in KCNA. Though, it should be noted that denuclearization is increasingly used in the context of something North Korea will not do. The terms war and peace were utilized to highlight the inflationary scale of North Korea’s rhetoric. Though war and peace are generic terms, their consistency as a theme in KCNA articles, particularly in the context of the peninsula, make it an ideal set of control terms for positive and negative rhetoric. Dialogue and reconciliation were used as they represent the primary rhetorical terms for North Korea’s expressed desire for peace in KCNA.

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