Food for Thought: The North Korea Situation

Photo Credit: Peter Lewis[1]

By: Jan Burnett

At this point I’m pretty sure everyone has been following the situation on the Korean Peninsula. 24-hour news cycles are covering it, every major news media outlet on the internet is featuring a story about it, even late night comedians are making jokes. But in light of the politicians and politics, is it fair to ask “What situation?” Maybe such a question runs the risk of being too lax on the subject. However, if we take a step back from the 24-hour news stations and statements from politicians on all sides the “situation’” on the Korean Peninsula might just look like politics as usual.

What DPRK has to gain:

The way things are going now vis-a-vis the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and the U.S. plays right into Kim Jong-Un’s hands. Kim Jong-Un has two audiences to prove something to. The first audience would be his generals. While Jong-Un was clearly his father’s favorite for succession, it has been speculated that from his first day in office Kim Jong-Un would have to prove to his generals that he had his father’s political and military knowhow, tenacity, and resolve to stand up to the West and earn concessions.

This isn’t the first time that the DPRK has claimed to have scrapped the Armistice, severed the hotline with the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea), denied entry of South Korean workers to Kaesong, or shifted missiles around. Heck, DPRK has even tested nuclear weapons, shelled an island and sunk a ROK warship. Under Kim Jong-Il, such tactics were used so that the UN and the West would ask him to stop, which he would under the condition that his country would receive aid from the West. The West would give aid, and a few years later this cycle would start again. So in essence, what Kim Jong-Un is doing is right out of his father’s playbook. Sure there are some extra threats thrown in, but that may be Kim Jong-Un’s attempt to prove to his generals that along with being able to squeeze concessions out of the West he also has the courage to be even more forward and brazen in getting them.

The second audience is the people of the DPRK. The release of propaganda films has revealed that the government of the DPRK works hard to show its people that the U.S. is a violent and threatening country with Imperialist ambitions that would like nothing more than to invade DPRK and overthrow the government. Moreover, it paints the ROK as being a puppet for those U.S. ambitions.

The U.S. flying B-2s, B-52s, F-22s and moving warships off the coast of the Korean Peninsula plays right into that storyline. It makes Jong-Un’s task that much easier in maintaining popular support for him and the military against the U.S. and the ROK. All he has to do is make another propaganda video of the U.S. and South Korea in live-fire drills and bombers with nuclear capabilities flying overhead and his public will eagerly believe his claims of menacing Western Imperialists posing serious threats to the people of North Korea.

The West and military refocusing:

So what does the West have to gain from this ordeal? Well, if you are the United Kingdom or France, two countries where domestic nuclear weapons stockpiles are widely unpopular, it gives you an excuse to keep your nukes. Case in point: on April 4, 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would be putting forth a proposal to revamp the UK’s ‘Trident’ nuclear weapons program, and stressed that the UK keeping nuclear weapons as a form of deterrence was highly necessary. While such a move to refurbish the Trident program is currently unpopular in the British Parliament, public support for such a move could sway British politicians to change their minds.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, in light of budget cuts to U.S. defense spending, President Obama is increasingly having to justify his decision to shift the U.S.’s military focus to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Most security analysts believe that Obama’s “re-shifting” is an attempt to balance Chinese power in the region. That said, the decline of public popularity for defense spending could present Obama with some difficulty in pursuing such a policy.

The fact of the matter is that the rockets North Korea claims could hit Hawaii, Alaska, or even Guam have never been tested. Additionally, some security analysts believe that the DPRK has not yet even developed a missile system that could deliver nuclear warheads. However, having 24-hour news stations cycle sound-bites of the Secretary of Defense claiming that the DPRK presents a “real and clear danger” could work to convince the U.S. public that refocusing military might on Asia and the Pacific is necessary. Hence, Obama would have an easier time achieving his policy objectives in the region.

China & Russia…Hey, and what about Japan?:

Despite some rhetoric telling both sides to calm down and China moving military personnel to the Yalu River (its natural border with North Korea), both Russia and China have been pretty quiet. It’s not the first time China has put extra personnel on the river. In the past it has done so in cases where it was concerned with a civilian refugee spill-over from the DPRK due to public fears of an attack from the ROK or the U.S. (fears which, again, are due to the DPRK’s propaganda films and joint U.S./ROK military exercises). Neither Russia nor China has shown any urgency in getting all sides to sit down and diplomatically resolve the situation. In fact, Russia claimed that six-party talks (with Russia, China, Japan, the U.S., the ROK, and the DPRK) would be difficult and that therefore the U.S. and North Korea should work this out diplomatically amongst themselves. Not only that, but after the DPRK issued a statement telling the international community that it could not ensure the safety of foreign embassies in Pyongyang past April 10, 2013, Russia said publicly that it was unconcerned and that it had no plans to evacuate embassy staff (the UK responded the same way). These could be seen as hints that the situation is not all that dire and that Russia expects the situation to work itself out the way it has in the past (i.e. the DPRK barks, the U.S. offers a bone to get it to stop barking).

A sure sign that this situation was out of hand would be strong, quick, and pressing action from both China and Russia to see the crisis resolved. As long as China and Russia are calm it may be fair to assume that there is no crisis.

On April 4, 2013, almost a month after escalations between the U.S. and the DPRK started, Japan finally spoke up—or whispered up, if you will. Despite increasing threats from Kim Jong-Un to target the U.S. base in Okinawa, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that Tokyo would be “calmly” watching the situation. Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of urgency for this situation to be resolved—not even from a country directly threatened and in definite range of North Korean missiles.


Despite all of the rhetoric, news stories, threats, and saber-rattling I think it is fair to say that this situation on the Korean Peninsula is not much of a situation at all. All-out war is hugely unpopular in the U.S. and the ROK and would devastate the civilian population of the DPRK. Nuclear war could end in mutual destruction. While the DPRK and Kim Jong-Un have been construed in the U.S. as possibly being irrational, social sciences teach us that the primary objective of any animal, person, organization, or country (rational or not) is survival and existence. Despite its rhetoric, North Korea wants to survive; it wants to exist. Kim Jong-Un wants to have a country to rule over. It is highly unlikely that he or his generals would take actions that would risk destruction. They might test the limits, but testing limits isn’t the same as exceeding them.

What else?:

Meanwhile rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) have forced U.S., South African, and Ugandan forces to withdraw from the country and stop their search for Joseph Kony; the economies of Japan, the European Union in general, and Germany and France specifically, are in trouble; the West has been funding Syrian rebel groups that are not strongly unified and have elements of al-Qaeda fighting within them; the U.S. is getting nowhere in its negotiations with Iran; and the U.S. has five cities that made the Top 50 list of the world’s per capita murder capitals (New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Oakland—the U.S. was the only Western country to make the list), but hey, North Korea is saying bad things.

Well, let’s all focus on that then.


Jan Burnett is a security and intelligence analyst for the private sector. Jan is a graduate of Penn State’s School of International Affairs, having studied energy security and security studies in general. Jan has formerly worked as a Foreign Affairs and Defense staffer on Capitol Hill; for the U.S. Army War College; and for the San Francisco Global Trade Council, a non-profit company that works closely with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service and Export/Import Bank.


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