By Clifton B. Parker
North Korea’s nuclear testing and bellicose rhetoric are raising the stakes for the U.S. and its allies.
Rather than take the bait, the U.S. should act “unimpressed with the nuclear brinksmanship,” said Miroslav Nincic, an international relations scholar who studies war, U.S. foreign policy and national security.
“A minimal response,” Nincic said, “allows the ineffectiveness of attempts to play the nuclear card to sink in. This might, in a few months, lead Pyongyang to explore better ways of acquiring the assistance and respect it wants.”
It will not be easy—North Korea seems hell-bent on provoking someone. In the past two weeks, the authoritarian state has conducted an underground nuclear test, threatened to launch military strikes against the U.S. and South Korea, and renounced the truce that has kept the peace for more than 50 years in the Korean Peninsula. As a result, the U.S. and South Korea have put their military forces on high alert.
North Korea’s May 25 nuclear test came as a rude surprise to the international community, particularly after widespread condemnation for an earlier ballistic-missile launch in April.
So, why all the bizarre behavior?
“Pyongyang feels that it needs leverage with the international community to get the foreign assistance it badly needs. Nuclear weapons provide, in its eyes, the most effective form of leverage available,” Nincic said.
He explained that North Korea also recently discontinued a policy by which economic aid, especially food aid, was unconditionally given to it.
“Given the enormous economic disparity between the two Koreas, Pyongyang hopes that its nuclear capability will position it better when it comes to discussing (one day) terms of reunification with its far richer neighbor,” he added. “The nuclear blast and missile tests are partly intended to dispel any impression of vulnerability.”
On top of this, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the armistice with South Korea on May 26. “The symbolic impact is considerable, particularly as support for a rapprochement with North Korea declines among the South Korean public,” said Nincic.
The two Koreas technically remain at war because they signed a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Little is known about internal politics inside North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, but Nincic says that a power struggle is likely unfolding around its aging leader Kim Jong-il. His eldest two sons are not considered plausible successors. Though his youngest son, Kim Jon-un, seems more credible, he is deemed too young.
This may be why Kim Jong-il’s brother in law, Jang Seong-taek, was recently appointed to a key strategic defense position, Nincic said. Along with the nuclear test, both moves send the message that the eventual succession of the younger son would not weaken the military—an important power broker inside that country.
As for China, North Korea, chief benefactor, it is more concerned with economic growth than in an arms race between both the Koreas and possibly Japan.
“China’s support for North Korea is, and has been, very qualified. The last thing China wants is a nuclear-capable North Korea,” he said.
And this is the last thing Japan wants as well. North Korea’s nuclear test and missile launches may have Japan confronting a topic long off-limits—acquiring atomic weapons of its own. But those days are not yet here, said Nincic, and the world’s second-largest economy sits squarely under U.S. protection. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea and another 50,000 in Japan.
“Japan has a reasonably good anti-aircraft capability,” he said, “but nothing that would defend it against a nuclear-tipped North Korean missile.”
The North Korea crisis comes as two Americans, journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, remained in custody in Pyongyang. Accused of illegal entry and “hostile acts,” they are due to shortly face trial in North Korea after being jailed for two months. Ling attended Sacramento’s Del Campo High School.
Clifton Parker is the editor of Dateline, where this piece also appears.