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Four reasons not to take North Korea’s threats of nuclear war too seriously

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
South Koreans photographed earlier today at the border observation post seemed unconcerned about impending nuclear destruction.
KaesongPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

Today North Korea declared itself in a “state of war” with South Korea. Rockets are reportedly on standby to “mercilessly strike” the United States. Pyongyang has progressively cut off various military hotlines that connect it to the US and Seoul, threatened to close the Kaesong industrial complex staffed by workers from both Koreas, and torn up the armistice agreement that ended war between them in 1953. Tension has been high since February when North Korea completed a third nuclear test.

But here are some reasons not to worry—at least not yet.

1. It’s a kind of tradition

Threatening crisis is how North Korea wins concessions from its neighbor to the south and other powers. It has engineered some form of military provocation within 12-14 weeks of the inauguration of every new South Korean president since 1992. (Park Geun-hye took power last month.) Rhetoric also usually ratchets up around the time of the annual US-South Korean military exercises, writes Scott Snyder, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This time, Pyongyang’s more aggressive stance belies vulnerability, Snyder says. The military exercises follow the approval of new, stricter UN sanctions and the establishment of a UN commission inquiry into the country’s human rights record. These tarnish the reputation of North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, aged 28. The fear of war helps rally the North Koreans behind him. ”The widely held belief is this is for internal purposes,” an unnamed Obama administration official told CBS News yesterday.
The map in the background is North Korea’s supposed “US mainland strike plan” incidentally included in this photograph released by state media.

2. With what nuclear missiles?

North Korean state media says Kim has put nuclear missiles aimed at the US mainland, as well as Hawaii and Guam, on standby. But analysts have long said there’s no evidence the country has missiles with such range, or the ability to mount nuclear warheads on them. Last year Pyongyang showed off what it claimed were intercontinental ballistic missiles, but some arms experts who examined the parade footage think they might have been fakes.

Still, it’s true North Korea is closer to building a weaponized missile than it has been. After four failed attempts, it launched a satellite last year, using technology similar to that of ballistic missiles. But there is debate within the elite ranks of the Korean Worker’s Party over whether North Korea should be a nuclear state, analysts say, with some advocating for the country to negotiate its way out of international isolation.

3. South Korea doesn’t seem too bothered

Yesterday the South Korean stock market closed 0.6% higher, and has risen 0.4% over the past month despite heightening tension with the north. Online, South Koreans have reacted with a mixture of worry and derision. Southern officials have repeatedly dismissed the North’s threats as rhetoric intended to put “psychological pressure” on Seoul. (And, said President Park, the Pyongyang government will be “erased from the earth” if it goes through with nuclear war.)

4. Next month’s payroll

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the border and staffed with both South and North Koreans, is still running, despite various threats to close it. Kim probably doesn’t want to jeopardize Kaesong, which generates about $2 billion a year in trade between the two countries. That said, the latest of the hotlines that Pyongyang cut off, two days ago, is used to coordinate the travel of South Koreans to Kaesong.

Still, there could be violence

If North Korea’s tough talk has any logic, it’s to coerce South Korea into giving the north economic aid and more trade, with minimal concessions on Pyongyang’s part.

But that’s if logic plays a part. And it’s not like the Pyongyang government has never acted on its threats. In 2010 troops exchanged fire on the border, and a torpedo, which Pyongyang denied was North Korean, sank a South Korean warship, killing 46. The north also has enough conventional weapons stationed near the border to kill thousands in Seoul.

Neither South Korea or the US is likely to be turned into a nuclear sea of fire, then, but a smaller-scale act of irrational violence isn’t ruled out. And with inexperienced leaders in both Koreas, there’s that much more chance of a mis-step escalating into a confrontation.

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