In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs

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Nobody does bluster better than Pyongyang. In the last few weeks the country’s hard-working propagandists declared a “state of war” with South Korea, announced plans to re-start a plutonium-producing reactor, and threatened the U.S. with nuclear Armageddon. A North Korean spokesman found the time to decry the “venomous swish” of the South Korean President‘s skirt. And Dictator Kim Jong Un reportedly urged front line troops to “break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.”

Fighting words, sure, but nothing entirely new here. For decades Pyongyang has promised to reduce to Republic of Korea to a “sea of fire,” using regular rounds of escalation to secure concessions from the outside world. Last week, as part of an almost daily barrage of threats, North Korea warned that it could not secure the safety of diplomats in the capital beyond April 10, and advised foreigners to evacuate Seoul. But Wednesday came and went, the diplomatic corps stayed put, and Seoul shrugged off the warning, more aggravated, it seemed, than genuinely anxious. “North Korea is using provocation because it has worked in the past,” Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification told TIME. “North Korea is not preparing for war.”

Tell that to the Americans. One of the strangest things about the current crisis is that it seems like the further you get from the Korean peninsula, the greater the level of fear. For weeks now the international press have been warning of “imminent” war, a claim unhelpfully bolstered by the likes of Vladimir Putin, who predicted that conflict with North Korea could make Chernobyl look “like a child’s fairytale.” Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was less colorful, but equally urgent, saying that North Korea constitutes “clear and real” danger to the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to fly into Seoul for talks this week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, findings released Tuesday from the Pew Research Center suggest that a majority of Americans think the government should take North Korea’s threats “very seriously.” 47 percent think Kim’s regime is capable of launching a nuclear missile that could reach the U.S.—despite the fact U.S. and South Korean intelligence both suggest Pyongyang doesn’t yet have the knowhow.

The fact is North Korea has little to gain, and everything to lose, from starting a war. The regime’s primary concern is self-preservation; a full-fledged fight would be dynastic suicide. John Delury, a Korea watcher who teaches Chinese History Yonsei University in Seoul, sees North Korea’s bombast as evidence of fear, not strength. “The fundamental issue is that North Korea is the weak party, surrounded by powers that are exponentially stronger and bigger than it is,” he said. “There is a constant over-compensation, they have to constantly present themselves as stronger than they are.”

North Korea watchers say the current escalation, particularly the recent threat of a ballistic missile test, has as much or even more to do with internal affairs as its external concerns. Young and relatively untested, Kim Jong Un is likely looking for ways to consolidate his own power and safeguard his family’s legacy. Next week, he may try to do both. On April 15, North Korea will mark the 101st birthday of the state’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. It is the single most important day in the North Korean calendar, an event Yonsei’s John Delury calls “semi-religious, even sacred” — so much so that in 1997 Pyongyang replaced the Christian calendar with a ‘Juche’ calendar where history begins with the birth of The Great Leader, in 1912. Last year, Kim Jong Un celebrated his grandfather’s birthday by trying, but failing, to launch a rocket two days before hosting a massive military parade.

Will Kim top last year’s showing? In Seoul today most experts played down the likelihood of an attack, saying a test was more likely. Bernhard Seliger, an economist at the Seoul branch of Germany’s Hanns Seidel Foundation, predicted Kim Jong Un might simply use the anniversary to “claim victory” over foreign aggressors, aligning himself symbolically with his grandfather, who is venerated like a God. Seliger, who estimates that he’s been to North Korea about 100 times over 10 the last ten years, predicts the tension will dissipate quickly as attention turns to spring planting in the impoverished rural hinterlands. “North Korea can’t wage war, because the soldiers are really needed in the fields,” he said.

Indeed, in recent days, while talking tough abroad, North Korean officials have reportedly toned down the domestic propaganda—which suggests a method behind the madness. In Pyongyang, which is shut to most foreign reporters, the Associated Press found little to suggest people were readying for war. “Soldiers laid blankets of sod to liven up a city still coming out of a long, cold winter,” wrote Jean H. Lee and Hyung-Jin Kim. Quietly, it seems, North Korea is getting ready for a celebration.

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One comment on “In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs

  1. im telling u that young dictator is up to something & its not just a scare tactic in which the media says it is. maybe if someone can show this young dictator some photos of the previous dictators such as sadam husan, bin laden, kadafee etc, maybe the young dictator would knock it off and join the rest of the world, sincerely the Arthur of “LondenBerg by Lord Biron.”

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