On the Verge of Another Korean War?

Photo Courtesy: AMVets[1]

By: Garrett Redfield

With the rhetoric heating up from North Korea, should the United States, South Korea and Japan be concerned? Are these nations on the verge of a possible Part 2 of the Korean War with North Korea? (In case you are wondering, the reason why Russia and China are not listed is because North Korea has established stronger relations with these nations. Additionally, they do not pose a threat to North Korea’s government stability).

The answer to these questions is a simple, unequivocal no. Correct, you did read that right, no.

Let’s analyze some aspects of North Korea’s recent rhetoric:

1)      North Korea has threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States.

First of all, North Korea has shown no evidence that they have the capability to effectively deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States, nor have they proven that their missiles are highly accurate (hopefully this status will not change).

Secondly, what would North Korea gain from launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States? Nothing. The dynastic rule of the Kim family has been in place since 1948. The goal of the elites in Pyeongyang (Pyongyang) is to sustain the current North Korean regime, and launching an attack against the United States or any ally of the United States would spell an end to their government.

2)      North Korea says it ‘nullified’ the 1953 Armistice that ‘ended’ the Korean War.

This is not be the first time that North Korea has threatened/claimed to have done this. There have been multiple instances when North Korea has said it withdrew from the Armistice,[2] and nothing came of it. The purpose behind this and previous threats is to make the United States take North Korea seriously by re-engaging in diplomatic talks. Dennis Rodman even stressed this point by claiming that Kim Jeong Eun (Kim Jong Un)wants Obama to call him.[3]

3)      North Korea claims it has ‘cut-off’ the hotline with South Korea.

The hotline is a reference to the line of communication located in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border between North and South Korea, and is used to communicate with North Korea twice a day. South Korea usually calls “around 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to mark the beginning and end of work hours.”[4] South Korea’s Ministry of Unification stated “that attempts to contact the North by telephone at 9 a.m. had failed.”[5]

Does this mean that North Korea is no longer willing to communicate with South Korea? No, because there are still two other working hotlines that run between the North and South. One of them is a military hotline that is still functioning.[6] According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the military hotline is used “to allow hundreds of South Koreans to cross the border to a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border town of [Gaeseong].”[7]

So what was the purpose of North Korea ‘cutting’ one of the lines of communication? It was more of a symbolic gesture than it was practical. It was a very calculated maneuver by North Korea to prove its serious intentions. If the North Korean elites were dead set on their claims of cutting communication with South Korea, they would have stopped all communications.

*Update: North Korea has closed the last remaining military hotline, however there still remains a civil aviation hotline between the North and South. The last time North Korea cut of all military hotlines with South Korea was in 2009.

4)      North Korea has threatened to shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex

The Gaeseong Industrial Complex (GIC) is a historic site where the capital of Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty was located. Today, the GIC is positioned just across the DMZ in North Korea, about an hour commute from Seoul. This is also an extremely symbolic site in terms of prospects for future reunification, because it was during the Goryeo Dynasty that all of Korea was first unified under one leadership (except for the provinces under Yuan control).

The main purpose behind the GIC is to promote economic cooperation between North and South Korea. It is also a place where North and South Korean workers interact on a daily basis, helping to produce goods for both nations’ benefit. From 2005 to 2011, “aggregate output of the complex [totaled] $1,226,500,000.”[8]

What makes this cooperation especially unique is that it has not closed once, even during times of heightened tension such as the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Therefore, if North Korea was serious about closing down the GIC, it would have withdrawn its 47,000 workers and would have closed border crossings into the North. Additionally, if Part 2 of the Korean War were going to take place, North Korea would have taken the 800 South Korean workers at the GIC hostage. However, because North Korea has done neither, the beliefs that there might be an imminent war with North Korea are unfounded.

Thus, since North Korea has not escalated tensions beyond the point of no return, the U.S. needs to take a more proactive role in engaging North Korea bilaterally. The main thing North Korea truly desires from the U.S. is recognition and respect, especially guarantees of non-aggression. Unfortunately, this is something the U.S. has proven very reluctant to agree to considering the fact that it has been involved in reckless acts of aggression such as using the North Korean flag for target practice.[9] Therefore, until the U.S. takes a more active role in engaging North Korea, do not expect of a much change in the North Korean rhetoric.

*Update: North Korea has denied access to South Korean workers to Gaeseong. North Korea has also withdrawn all their workers from the Complex. However, there are still some South Korean workers who remain at Gaeseong. It should be noted that they are free to leave and are not hostages.


Garrett Redfield is a Master of International Affairs Candidate at the School of International Affairs at The Pennsylvania State University. As an adopted Korean American, he has a strong interest in Korean Peninsula affairs, and focuses on Korean Reunification. Garrett has lived in Korea for an extensive amount of time, mainly as a former ESL instructor. He is proficient in Korean.

[1] http://www.amvets.org/essay-contest-honor-korean-war-veterans-win-trip-korea/.

[2] Yonhap News, Chronology of major North Korean statements on the Korean War armistice, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2009/05/28/46/0401000000AEN20090528004200315F.HTML (March 2013).

[3] Caitlin Dewey, Why Obama can’t just call Kim Jong Eun, as Dennis Rodman suggested, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/04/why-obama-cant-just-call-kim-jong-eun-as-dennis-rodman-suggested/ (March 2013).

[4] Jung-yoon Choi, North Korea cuts off hotline, says cease-fire annulled, http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-north-korea-hotline-ceasefire-drills-20130311,0,4458378.story (March 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Stephen Haggard, Reviewing the Bidding: the North Korean Statements, http://www.piie.com/blogs/nk/?p=9702 (March 2013).

[7] Hyung-Jin Kim and Foster Klug, U.S.-South Korea Military Drills Begin As North Korea Threatens War, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/us-south-korea-military-drills-north-korea-threatens-war_n_2852118.html (March 2013).

[8] Ministry of Unification, Gaeseong Industrial Complex, http://eng.unikorea.go.kr/CmsWeb/viewPage.req?idx=PG0000000535 (March 2013).

[9] Yonhap News, Pyongyang denounces U.S. for firing at N. Korean flag, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/06/25/65/0301000000AEN20120625000500315F.HTML (March 2013).

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