The Debate

North Korea in Ashes Threat

North Korea has threatened to turn part of the South’s leadership to ashes. But engagement was worth a try.

It’s always hard to separate the bluster (of which there is much) from the real threat with North Korea. But with the failed rocket test earlier this month, the regime of Kim Jong-un might now be more dangerous – and more likely to act on its threats – than would have been the case had its “satellite launch” been a success.

There’s simply no telling what is going on within the North Korean leadership and the extent to which Kim feels he needs a successful show of military strength to consolidate his hold on power. The fear is that he really does, which means that the latest verbal volley is being taken even more seriously than it usually would.

A message distributed Monday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, which was attributed to the “special operation action group” of the Korean People’s Army’s Supreme Command, was unusual in its specificity, the Washington Post noted.

“Once the above-said special actions kick off, they will 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,” the statement said.

Talk of turning any part of Seoul to “ashes” is particularly troubling considering that previous North Korean missile tests in 2006 and 2009 have been followed by nuclear tests, and there are reports of tunneling suggesting another nuclear test could be coming.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The heat of election campaigns are rarely the best places for formulating policy – candidates need to sound tougher than their opponents. And so it was with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who issued a statement shortly after this month’s launch.

“Although the missile test failed, Pyongyang’s action is another blatant violation of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions and demonstrates once again that Pyongyang is committed to developing long-range missiles with the potential of carrying nuclear weapons,” Romney said. “Its weapons program poses a clear and growing threat to the United States, one for which President Obama has no effective response. Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived.”

Yet despite such criticism, U.S. President Barack Obama was right to at least test the waters with the new Kim regime. It won’t have come as a shock that the new regime decided to throw the deal back in the Obama administration’s face, but with a new leader and millions malnourished, it would have been remiss of the U.S. not to have at least tried.

The depths of misery being faced by many North Koreans was underscored in a report carried by South Korea’s Arirang that said more than 20,000 in North Korea’s South Hwanghae Province alone have died of starvation since Kim Jong-il’s death at the end of last year.

With this in mind, then, the Economist is right to suggest a shift in international emphasis to the suffering being inflicted by the regime on North Koreans themselves.

“The North Korean gulag has persisted for twice as long as its Soviet counterpart did. Yet the world looks away,” it notes. “The United States expends its diplomatic energies in negotiations over the regime’s tin pot nuclear and missile program, with little to show for the effort. South Korean brethren have other things on their minds – the political left wants better relations with the North, while others just wish it was not there. As for China, an ally, it forcibly repatriates North Koreans who have fled across the border, even though they face execution.”

Lacking the information or even tools to foment their own version of the Arab Spring (only an estimated 1.5 percent of the population have cell phones), North Koreans are at the mercy of a leadership that appears detached from reality and perhaps humiliated by its latest technical failure. This comes at a time when it is meant to be officially becoming a strong and prosperous nation. And that’s a dangerous combination.