War of the Words: North Korea and its threats machine

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Over the last couple of weeks tension has been rising in the Korean peninsula with a new leader teasing another and provoking another. You can’t get away from North Korea and their rhetoric; it’s on every major news outlet and is currently the hot topic (although Margaret Thatcher’s death has pushed it further down the news bulletins).  I’ve never seen Lucy Williamson’s, the BBC’s Seoul correspondent so much on TV.

With the sensationalism this can lead to and false reporting, I thought it was important to fully assess just what is going on.

Different Leader, Same Threats 

Kim Jong-Un continued the Kim’s family dynasty of leadership when he took over from his father Kim Jong-Il in December of 2011. The chubby and somewhat fresh faced youngster (in his late twenties) came to power after much fanfare and was crowned ‘Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army”.

International media saw his succession with a glimmer of hope, the fact that he was educated outside of the country (in Switzerland) could bring out much needed reforms. Alas, these were dashed with the continuation of the same military first policy his father and grandfather had focused on. Although he has tried to introduce changes to bolster the North Korean economy these have had no radical changes to the ordinary lives of the people.

As a relatively unknown leader, the young Kim wants to bolster his image amongst his people and they key figures in the Workers Party.  Of course many people thought his older brother; Kim Jong-Nam would naturally be the successor. Unfortunately due to losing favour though a bizarre fake passport incident in Japan Kim Jong-Un was the chosen one.

He knows that any talk of his lack of leadership could lead to no confidence from the countless generals and party minions that surround him thereby affecting his ability to rule. Like his father before him, he threatened ‘merciless attacks’ on South Korea and its ‘puppet masters America’.  This rhetoric has been seen so many times and it usually comes under an appointment of a new South Korean leader.  Park Geun-hye has only been in the job for a short while but Kim Jong-un made it his mission to remind her of who he is.

More to lose

Unlike past rhetoric, the world has changed and new alliances have been formed. The North Koreans only have a few friends in the international community with China being their main sponsor. China has always been the one to seek calm whilst also supporting North Korea’s right to exist. However new premier Xi Jinping recently stated that no country should be allowed to cause chaos for selfish gain. The foreign ministry of China also added that it wouldn’t allow troublemaking on its door steps. These words brought came as a surprise and show that China is getting tired of North Korea’s actions. Although aid and supplies are still being transported between the two countries, China like a father had to reprimand its naughty child North Korea.

The North has a lot more to lose, with potential food shortages and lack of fuel they cannot afford to become even more isolated and lose any of their backers. With the closure of the Kaesong Industrial complex by North Korea, the North is losing its major income source. Although how long it will be closed remains to be seen, however it is important to note that most of the managers are South Korean. Although they will be affected, they can still potentially find cheap labour elsewhere.

Finally, as China wants to take over from America’s role as number one in the world any provocation would lead to instability in the region hampering their goals.

Yes the North Korean’s could inflict major damage to South Korea (with Seoul in the direct line of fire) any war would see them lose terribly. Their military capabilities are lacking with supplies unlikely to last long term warfare and soviet era weapons.

Dangerous reminder

Most of the time, stories on North Korea focus on just how strange and otherworldly the place is. Also there is a focus on just how much the country has not progressed since the Korean War. In fact, North Korea is largely ignored by the media unless something dramatic happens. These threats serve to remind the world that they exist and also as a reminder ‘of what they are capable of’. We all know what that is and it is frankly not much. We cannot be flippant and dismiss the problems and threat that they pose to the world. No one wants to see a crazy man with weapons of mass destruction.

It’s all Psychological

North Korea’s propaganda department must be working overtime with the current creative threats and videos they have developed.  The claims are more outrageous backed by laughable videos with vehement praise for the leaders and showcasing just how every citizen is ready to fight for their country and supreme leader. Sure, it’s not like the past 60 years have seen them do anything else. They have essentially been in a perpetual state of war with propaganda telling them that war is imminent at any point. The Americans are trying to destroy their great nation. You can’t help but laugh and also feel sorry for the citizens who have to go along with it or risk their entire family’s lives.

Furthermore they have tried to dampen the image of South Korea through this tension. By speaking of war and asking all foreigners to leave Seoul due to the ‘impending war’ they have tried to present South Korea in a negative light. Assessing the language it is very specific, and they wanted to create a sense of panic in Seoul.

They also stepped things up a gear by telling diplomats to leave their embassies in Pyongyang to avoid the war. Of course many including Britain ignored them and saw their comments as just war mongering, the Swedish (representing the EU) put it simply “The EU does not share the threat assessment presented by North Korea, and does not consider that the current situation calls for an evacuation.” Basically stating, stop talking rubbish.

This is a war of words, Kim knows that he can flex his muscles here but not in a physical fight. For him psychological warfare allows him to present an idealised image of himself to his people and the rest of the world.  Although to me, he looks like a chubby teenager trying to play Action Man.

So what is he actually trying to achieve?

Kim wants to force the US to come to the bargaining table to create a peace treaty using the nuclear issue as a threat. He knows that this is his only trump card and something that America, South Korea and neighbouring nations want to avoid.  He also wants to guarantee North Korea’s status as a nuclear state. However unlike the time his father was alive, things have changed. Any nuclear threat was met with a rush to talks and concessions were given to keep the North Koreans sweet.

Now America is standing its ground, sending missiles and setting missile defence systems near Guam and Hawaii who might also be affected if a nuclear bomb is fired.  The Obama administration is not entertaining his crazy rhetoric. Note how these crazy threats began once the US and South Korea started their annual war games. With the South being sponsored by America they have a clear advantage and the thought of the two coming together in a show of military might caused some level of upset in the North. Kim sought to puff out his chest as a way to show the South what they might be up against. Like a teenage boy showing his underdeveloped chest to a fitness trainer who has been training for years, there is no competition.

The Arab Spring and various revolutions around the world have also set alarm bells ringing in Pyongyang and the government wishes to do everything to quash potential rebellion. The paranoia that the government is not safe is rife; why do you think the nation has locked itself away from the world? Of course we all know nothing like the Arab Spring can happen in North Korea due to the large number of people involved in the Workers Party. There are snitches everywhere and citizens are forced to tell on each other. No one is safe and this is brilliantly highlighted in Barbara Demerick’s book ‘Nothing to Envy’.

Furthermore the government has cracked down on those who ‘may’ have criticised them. Prisoner camps are in operation throughout the country and a whole generation of one family can be imprisoned or tortured for a crime another family member carried out (some are imprisoned due to their grandparents actions in the Korean war and the aftermath; others are the family of defectors). Most are doomed to die in captivity.  A culture of fear and intimidation exists. Kim wants to solidify his position as Supreme Leader and wants the international community to do so.

There are still defectors from the North but their rates have fallen, China has stepped up its part in monitoring the rate of Koreans coming into the country. Arrests are common of would be defectors and they are handed back to North Korean authorities to be ‘dealt with’. However some people chose to stay simply because they cannot afford to leave or the North Korean society is all they know. That and the brainwashing they receive from an early age.

So what happens next?

There are a few scenarios that could occur:

1. China steps in to diffuse tensions – this could happen as China doesn’t want to see instability in their region. However you can be sure that their involvement will be minimal. The relationship with the North is not as it used to be, Kim Jong-Il was invited many times to Beijing. The young Kim has yet to receive an invitation. The Chinese don’t want to get their hands dirty. They want stability but they don’t want to commit themselves to a war or get involved. They also however don’t want the Americans to take over. They are too busy trying to take over from America.

2. Kim Jong-Un carries out an attack – a stupid move that would cause retaliation from the South and potential see China cut off vital support to the regime and country.  Other backers like Russia could also back away making the country more isolated and eventually crumbling to its knees. This could bring about a revolution with the people no longer able to stand the hardships they are facing. This scenario is less likely.

3. North Korea stops its threats and everybody gets back to business – this scenario is more likely to happen with Kim Jong-Un and his propaganda machine hailing it a triumph against the Imperialists. Kim knows just how dangerous war would be for the regime and the country. He knows that after about a week his solders supplies would be depleted and their machinery would be outclassed by America and South Korea. Instead he would have looked tough by talking tough on the international stage. Everyone in the South and around the world would continue doing what they were doing before the threats and North Korea would remain a pariah state.

There are other scenarios that other media outlets have spoken of but one thing is clear in every scenario North Korea doesn’t come off too kindly. Western media sensationalising his threats haven’t helped either. Surely the wise thing to do is to monitor the situation but not give it any of the major attention that Kim craves so much. Surely he has access to the BBC and CNN and is probably rubbing his hands in glee exclaiming “I’ve got them nervous”.

Media speculation and buying into threats of a mad man are not going to help the situation. Dialogue and work from China – the only political power that can help things – is the only way to curve this so called ‘drama’.

Let’s hope that the situation dies down before any actual damage occurs.

What are your thoughts on the situation? If you’re in Korea how are you coping with these threats?

Leave us your comments below.

(Reference)
EU response to North Korea –http://www.government.se/sb/d/17191/a/214333
Calling North Korea’s Bluff –http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/opinion/stay-cool-call-north-koreas-bluff.html?_r=3&
Propoganda in north Korea – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22038370
North Korea history – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/22033825

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