Because we do not generally associate the Russian political class with understatement, it was easy to miss Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov’s observation, this week, that things in North Korea could potentially “descend into the spiral of a vicious cycle.” If the Russians—who have vastly more knowledge of the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, than we do—are concerned that things are about to get worse, we should brace for a long spring.
The crisis on the Korean peninsula has descended so steadily, amid so many other hot zones competing for attention, and with such a sense of déjà vu about it, that it’s easy to lose sight of how North Korea’s threats to the United States and South Korea are now being made, as Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, on “unprecedented levels and with greater intensity than ever before.” It is now at its most acute moment in years.
In barely three months, North Korea has launched long-range rockets, conducted an underground nuclear test, signalled its withdrawal from the 1953 Korean armistice, and threatened a preëmptive nuclear strike against the United States. In a rhetorical innovation beyond its old promise to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire,” the North’s spokesmen have vowed to “break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.” But North Korea, by virtually all accounts, does not have the capability it is vowing to use. It has tested nuclear devices, but has no ability to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, and most experts believe it is several years away from a long-range missile with a guidance system capable of striking targets in the mainland United States. (Some analysts suspect the North might use this crisis as an excuse to test-launch the new and potentially more powerful KN-08 or Musudan missiles.)
The U.S. responded by carrying out an unusual practice exercise this week, sending B-2 and B-52 bombers across South Korea, which led Kim and his military command to order rocket forces onto the “highest alert,” prepared to strike South Korean and American targets. He announced that it was time “to settle accounts with the U.S.,” and the official Korean Central News Agency released an unusually showy photo of Kim huddled with generals over what the caption described as “plans to strike the mainland U.S.,” complete with a chart in the background depicting trajectories of North Korean missiles hitting American cities.
The rhetoric and the stagecraft has reached such a tragicomic level that it is easy to overlook the depth of the threat beneath. It has forced people to ask: At what point do we take North Korea at its word?
The answer, beyond any doubt, is not yet. Korea-watchers can tick off some of the factors that have probably driven North Korea to this point: a young, untested new leader desperate to prove his rhetorical chops around the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Korean War; a new leader in Seoul who is ripe to be tested, too; U.N. sanctions that were harsher than North Korean leaders likely anticipated; a round of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises; the establishment of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human-rights record at the very moment Kim is trying to establish his reputation in the world.
The greatest concern hangs on what we don’t know. Kim Jong-un is simply so new and unknown that it’s not clear if he has the subtle command of his forces to prevent a miscalculation, or whether he truly understands what Snyder calls “the ritualistic rules of the inter-Korean ‘threat-down.’ ” The stream of stagey propaganda stills depicting Kim in an overcoat, staring grimly into the distance like a dinner-theatre performer in the role of MacArthur, leave unclear whether he is part of a performance he does not fully control. That scenario—that Kim has lost ground in an internal political crisis—is the worst of them, the one with the greatest likelihood of war. And it is one the Pentagon has no choice but to take seriously: U.S. military commanders used their Winter Wargames last month to play out what would happen if Kim’s regime were to collapse in a coup or civil unrest, leaving his nuclear arsenal exposed. “It’s a scenario that some believe is more likely than a North Korea attack on the South,” ABC News reported. (Previous studies have suggested that the U.S. would need at least a hundred thousand troops to secure the nukes, and three times that to begin to sustain and stabilize the country—more than peak commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.)
For the moment, though, the reality is that North Korea’s objectives appear fundamentally unchanged: the North Korean regime, for all its threats, knows that a missile strike on the U.S. would amount to suicide, and it is not, as far as we know, suicidal. On the contrary, it is desperate to force the United States to the negotiating table, and to win a soft line from the new South Korean President. Jean Lee, the Pyongyang A.P. bureau chief and one of the few Western reporters on the ground, reported Friday that, even amid the latest threats, “Inside Pyongyang, much of the military rhetoric feels like theatrics.” Business was going as usual, and, she noted, “in a telling sign that even the North Koreans don’t expect war, the national airline, Air Koryo, is adding flights to its spring lineup and preparing to host the scores of tourists they expect.”
This very well may lead to a naval skirmish, perhaps off the Koreas’ western coast, where the two Koreas have battled before. Or perhaps a missile test, which is sure to bring the crisis even closer to a point with a dangerous risk of miscalculation. But neither scenario can be mistaken for the attack it has threatened on the United States. As unappealing as it sounds, the United States is in the position of waiting for North Korea to show its hand.