North Korea Is the Boy Who Cried Wolf: There Will Be No War
Image Credit: Flickr - Creative Commons License (yeowatzup)

North Korea Is the Boy Who Cried Wolf: There Will Be No War


North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.

1. Goaded into Conflict?

The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished North Korea would pull some stunt so that South Korea would finally give North Korea the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.

In fact, this is why I think the language this time is so over-the-top, such as nuking the U.S. homeland directly. Because North Korea has such a rich history of extreme rhetoric, they must be more and more extreme in each crisis, or no one will pay attention to them. North Korea is the boy who cried wolf. So many threats about a “sea of fire” in Seoul and “merciless” strikes against imperialism pass with no follow-through that no one listens anymore. If you have seen any of the Korean-man-on-the-street interviews in the media, again and again South Koreans say it is no big deal, they are not really paying attention, and so on. Hence, only more and more outrageous North Korean talk will get our attention.

The danger here is that this may paint North Korea into a rhetorical corner where they must lash out – not because they actually want to, but because their credibility as a player in the region, as well as before a riled-up domestic audience, will require some follow-up to tough talk.  For example, the North Korea Central New Agency (KNCA) has said that North Korean teenagers are swarming into recruitment stations in eager anticipation of smashing the Yankee Colony (South Korea). If public opinion is whipped up like this, does it not require some kind of outlet? All the nationalist hysteria stoked by Pyongyang has to go somewhere. In China, the party lets students raise havoc at Japanese facilities as steam control. What will North Korea do with its now-energized population? Are dreary “mobilizations” for the coming planting season really a substitute for military action after months of tough talk? This is why I think some sort of provocation is likely; a missile test seems likely, but will that be enough?

The Kaesong closure, I believe, demonstrates this rhetorical entrapment problem. As North Korean war-talk reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks, the South Korean media responded with derision, saying we’ve heard all this before, they don’t mean it, it’s all just talk. If the North did mean it, they would take action that showed a real willingness to incur costs for this feud, specifically, closing Kaesong. (Closing the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial zone is costly, because the South Korean companies that operate there do not pay their North Korean employees directly, but the regime, and in dollars. So it is huge cash cow for the otherwise hard currency-poor North.) So contemptuous was the Southern commentary, that the DPRK foreign ministry released a hyperbolic counter-statement decrying exactly this commentary and threatening to close Kaesong. A short time later, they did.

Jen Whitten
April 5, 2014 at 20:18

The author makes the common mistake of assuming North Korea’s leadership is rational and will avoid starting a war because they know they will lose it. But the author must be aware that Hitler started a war against Britain, it’s empire and Russia, and must have suspected that the US would eventually join the Allies. That is a war that a rational person would know could not be won, but Hitler was not rational and paid with his life and the lives of approximately 200 million others. There is also the possibility that despite China’s recent umbrage with North Korea that if war starts they may be so unwilling to see the US on their border that they give military support to North Korea. There is nothing rational about war but they happen all the time.

[...] of the FX market. That NK and its rapidly accelerating missile program, which just generated a major global crisis this spring, would be ranked a danger below reduced exports is shocking myopia. Such servility before [...]

May 13, 2013 at 11:03

[...] Diplomat: “North Korea Is the Boy Who Cried Wolf: There Will Be No War” by Robert E. Kelly, April 10, [...]

April 17, 2013 at 01:19

If China considers encroachments of other nations' EEZ as a form of respect, I shudder to think what it would consider disrespectful.

[...] few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as [...]

robert sawyer
April 14, 2013 at 21:39

This saber rattling is connected to the budget negotiations ongoing in congress. The american military budget is in danger of being cut. North Korea knows that if they play the boogeyman really hard right now, they can help the american military complex maintain its fat expenditures, and they know they will be paid off with aid/loans/food later on down the road because their boogeyman act will have helped scare the taxpayer and thereby manufacture consent for cutting social programs instead of the military.

This timing is no coincidence. The budget cuts this year in the american budget will be the deepest in a long time. And North Korea has played this game before. But this time they are really hamming it up. Because the budget cuts are the most severe threat to the MIC.

Follow the money.

Cui Bono.

April 14, 2013 at 07:29

No.  Have you ever read John Chan's, Liang1a's, Bankotsu's… comments?

April 13, 2013 at 18:43

Wow, wouldn't it be something, if this were all a collaborated attempt to drive a wedge in the alliance between U.S, S.Kor, and U.S. and Japan? Ofcourse such a idea is really quite ridiculous and if conceaved, would be doomed to fail,and probably have the reverse effect, maybye even lead to better relations between japan and S. Korea; but if? I bet N Kor. or China would feel pretty stupid right now, it would be quite an expensive failure, I am glad they would not dream of such a thing, talk about your miscalculations. Peace on the seven seas. 

American Patriot
April 13, 2013 at 10:16

Like I said before John Chan, all your talk is cheap and means nothing, please, rein in Japan, we Americans dare you to try and do it. Spouting out threats just makes you like North Korea, all talk and no action. Actually, it seems like NK and China are like two peas in a pod, both can talk tough, but always back down when confronted with the military might of the USA and Japan.

Generally Amazed
April 13, 2013 at 03:11

" Blood is thinker than water, North Koreans and South Koreans are kin."

And Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V were cousins. That didn't stop 37 million people from dying. 

Jen Whitten
April 5, 2014 at 20:23

Russia alone lost 20 million. The total death-toll including those from disease and starvation attributed to hostilities and including the Sino-Japanese war was somewhere in the region of 200 million.

April 13, 2013 at 02:47

The USA has no right to demand other countries can't build nuclear weapons to defend themselves when they themselves build and use them with wild abandon, like in ww2,

Also we need to remember, if America does incite a war by flying their "training" runs with nuclear capable stealth bombers it could have dire consequences,

China has nukes and is an ally of N korea, Russia is also a nuke superpower who hasent exaclty been bffs with America, americas allies, france germany etc will launch theirs in response to china/russias attack on america etc.

Basically America could, in the next few years, make the world what it has threatened to make it since they discovered nuclear weapons, a barren wasteland with america, russia, most of europe and asia wiped from the map.

I still think america finding out how to make nukes was like a child finding his fathers gun and running out to try and rule the street, it isnt gonna end well

April 13, 2013 at 01:12

Does my comments have to be either neutral or pro-U.S. in order for it to get posted?

John Chan
April 12, 2013 at 22:42

@American Patriot,

Are you admitting USA is no long able to control Japan? If so, please leave Asia-Pacific, so that USA will not get hurt when China starts to rein in Japan, we just don’t want a crying baby pointing fingers when its toys get smashed during the process the grownups sorting out their disputes.

John Chan
April 12, 2013 at 22:34


Are you saying the Western wisdom “Blood thicker than water” is fallacy? No wonder Western culture is a hypocrisy.

April 12, 2013 at 16:04

Exactly what I was thinking and a simple misjudgement on either side during this sort of dangerous nonsense and there you have it.

April 12, 2013 at 14:26

@ John Chan

I believe that one day China will finally be in the wests "good books" so to speak. We could consider China a non-hostile commie regime one day. In order to finally be at peace with the west, China should at least start showing some good faith by ending the NK regime either by force or by a total food and oil blockade. If it does that, it will still not be enough to become a friend of the west, but it will at least earn them a pad on the shoulder. Maybe one day, China could even become a member of the westpac if it gets more pads on the shoulder.

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