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The Peninsula

Is There a Connection Between North Korean Rhetoric and Action?

Published April 26, 2012

By Chad 0Carroll

North Korea continues to ratchet up its belligerent rhetoric against South Korea, this week threatening to destroy a range of South Korean targets including the Blue House and the offices of various (and named) conservative newspapers and television stations. Rather spectacularly, DPRK state media claimed its military would “reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations to ashes in three or four minutes, in much shorter time, by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.”  As if this wasn’t enough, yesterday KCNA went one stage further and posted a series of eight cartoons depicting Lee Myung-bak‘s bloody death, head super-imposed on the body of a rat each and every time.  On one side, anyone following North Korean statements for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that the Koreas were coming ever-close to major war.  On the other, some long-time North Korea watchers will just dismiss the latest rhetoric as nothing more than bluster.  However, there is a range of reasons why both South Korea and the international community should remain on guard in the coming months.

While North Korea has often been derogatory about South Korean leaders, the latest bluster is much more militant than what we have seen in recent years.  Indeed, the most recent threats have shown a specificity in targets not seen before (including a long list of Conservative media outlets), while the “cartoon” series shows just how far Pyongyang’s disdain for Lee Myung-bak has come since him taking the Presidency in 2008.  On the surface, the harsh reaction seems to be a tit-for-tat retaliation to Lee Myung Bak’s recent farmland advice to Kim Jong-un, his suggestion that North Korea could have used its rocket-launch budget to instead alleviate hunger, and the South Korean militaries’ decision to showcase extended-range cruise missile to international media last week, capable of reaching “anywhere in North Korea.”  Beyond these triggers, internal factors are likely also contributing to the increase in North Korean rhetoric, with the government either trying to divert attention from the failed satellite launch or attempting to increase tension in order to bolster flailing support for new leader Kim Jong-un.

But should we read anything particularly into this? Of course, this is not the first time belligerent rhetoric has been used against Seoul, with North Korea threatening to spill seas of blood and destroy imperialist lackeys for many years now.  In fact, on most days there is language published on KCNA which might in one way or another be construed as being threatening to South Korea or the U.S and as a result, some are on record as saying these threats are little to worry about.  This is presumably why one report from 2010 suggested that most young people in the ROK remain unconcerned about North Korea, despite heightened tensions even after the sinking of the Cheonan. Of course, decades of threats make it relatively easy to disregard them.  But is there a risk to assume that North Korean rhetoric is something that can be safely ignored?

On occasion, the language in North Korea’s threats becomes far more belligerent than what is usually the norm for even its own fiery style. Often, this type of belligerent language includes threats of “Holy War”, “Seas of Fire”, “Bolstering Deterrence”, and “Physical Retaliation”.  A close look at the chronology of events on the Korean peninsula since 1994 (when Google News records first recorded Pyongyang’s first- use of its famous “sea of fire” threat) shows that it is imprudent to simply dismiss DPRK threats as bluster.  An inspection of 15 of North Korea’s most well-reported threats (that use belligerent rhetoric as described above) since 1994 show an alarming number of “incidents” that occurred subsequent to warnings:

Table: North Korean Threats and Actions
[table id=3 /]

From this table we can observe that from a total of 15 major threats, 8 subsequent incidents took place (5 if you count the 3 occurring between February – July 2003 as a single response).  Caveat: this is only using a small range of threat terms – there have been times when North Korea has made good on other less belligerent threats and many other times when it has not.  And while it is difficult to know if we can link specific warnings to incidents like naval clashes or the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, some are obviously very clearly linked (for example, nuclear test warnings).

So should we be worried about the current increase in threat from North Korea?  With elections forthcoming in South Korea, Pyongyang has a strong motivation to try to manipulate the South Korean populace.  It’s no secret that the DPRK prefers a liberal administration in the Blue House so Pyongyang will be keen to demonstrate to South Koreans that keeping the conservatives in power will create unnecessary future complications. As a result, these recent threats might be designed to make South Korean voters think twice when voting at the next elections, especially after the conservative’s recent (albeit marginal) victory in April’s parliamentary elections.  But if is true that North Korean threats will no longer make an impact on the future voting behavior of South Korea, might Pyongyang have a stronger motivation to actually make good of its latest range of threats?

Pyongyang’s claim that their newly threatened special actions will be “unprecedented” implies that nuclear tests, naval skirmishes, and border incidents along the DMZ are unlikely to comprise the core of their most recent threats.  If these threats are to come to fruition, perhaps we can expect  unconventional means, like those used on  Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, or large-scale cyber-attacks on South Korean online media and government.  “Limited” actions such as these appear far more likely than major aggressions like the outright shelling of targets in Seoul, perhaps explaining why South Korea has stationed around 240 officers around aforementioned media offices.  Either way, with the Blue House and South Korean military promising severe retaliation to any provocation, the risk of escalation remains severe if North Korea goes ahead even with even limited physical attacks.

Although reading into North Korean threats is like attempting to read tea leaves, one should not be too hasty in dismissing them entirely.  With Kim Jong-un’s uncertain hold of power, there is a stronger chance than ever that brinkmanship between the two Koreas could prove highly dangerous this year. The sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island have changed the dynamics on the Korean peninsula and South Korea may be unable to show the restraint it has during past provocations. .  However, while Seoul shouldn’t pander to North Korea’s belligerence, it should also be cognizant that for the moment it seems it is the hardliners who are behind the wheel of North Korean foreign policy.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

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