North Korea’s Real Message

Understanding the real message behind DPRK threats can help to avoid any missteps that could lead to war.

North Korea’s daily over-the-top threats–including the most recent announcement on Friday  asking  Britain and Russia to consider evacuating their diplomats from Pyongyang—have many officials in Washington and Seoul puzzled over what the brash new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, hopes to achieve.   

While most analysts view North Korea’s provocations as a kind of familiar madness reminiscent of the sabre-rattling that Mr. Kim’s father and, to a lesser extent, grandfather indulged in, the drumbeat of increasingly bellicose threats seems to have gotten out of hand.

This has led some analysts to ponder whether Kim Jong-un really understands the rules of the game, at least the way his father and grandfather played it, and whether his blustering rhetoric might lead to a misstep that could lead to a war in Asia.

Yet, as shocking as Pyongyang’s blitz of threats may seem to Americans, they are actually quite ordinary to North Koreans. North Korean propaganda regularly features North Korean missiles blowing up the White House and North Korean workers sputtering vitriol against the United States and South Korea. What is new about Pyongyang’s recent bellicosity is not that it signals a change in the North Korean military posture but that Pyongyang has decided publicize its domestic bombast for international consumption.

One reason for this decision may have to do with the changing nature of the South Korean electorate. In the past, Pyongyang tended to temper its heated rhetoric due to the existence of a fairly large and influential segment of the South Korean population, made up mostly of students and intellectuals, who harbored sympathetic feelings toward the North. The lush “Sunshine years” that began with Kim Dae Jung’s presidency in 1998 provided North Korea with abundant aid and investments. Mr. Kim’s successor, Roh Mu Hyun, continued Kim’s “engagement policy” of unconditional aid and support. President Roh was also part of a new generation of progressive leaders who came of age in the 1980s and idealized North Korea while often denigrating South Korea’s past military leaders who were deemed as lackeys of American “imperialists.”

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But the collapse of North Korea’s economy in the 1990s and the failure of the Sunshine policy have turned many ordinary South Koreans, even those who once supported their country’s engagement policy, firmly against the North. Relations between the two countries were made tenser by North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean vessel and the shelling of an island in 2010.  The election of President Park Geun-hye in 2013 has merely reconfirmed South Koreans’ change of heart. Park is the former chairwoman of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) and the daughter of South Korea’s former authoritarian President Park Chung-hee whose wife, the current president’s late mother, was killed by a North Korean assassin. After the election of two successive hardline administrations, Pyongyang knows that it will not be receiving the Sunshine treatment again.

Thus freed from the restraint of winning over the South Korean electorate, and unable to motivate his own people with any coherent vision of a socialist future, Kim Jong-un has resorted to frightening the North Korean people with the prospect of war. America’s response to Pyongyang’s uncensored blusters—the deployment  of B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters, and Aegis destroyers, for example—fill the North Korean people with panic thus ensuring a pliant public while Mr. Kim works to consolidate his power.

But the deeper message in all of this may be that North Korea has given up all hope of unifying with the South. It has also made clear that the path it has chosen for its survival is not reform but terror. Recognizing Pyongyang’s unfiltered bombast for what it really is, a desperate measure to wield control over a desperate people, may not solve the country’s crisis but it can help to avoid any missteps that could lead to another war on the Korean peninsula.

Sheila Miyoshi Jager is an Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College and the author of the forthcoming book Brothers At War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.