By Teresa Welsh |
There is no question that in recent weeks Kim Jong Un's bark is worse than his bite. North Korea's supersized threats to abandon the armistice, launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States, and cut its enemies at the waist have raised tensions and readiness, but have not been accompanied by action. The threats are incredibly outsized compared to North Korea's capabilities.
But just because Kim Jong Un cannot deliver on his country's threats does not mean that there is nothing to worry about. North Korea is expanding the spectrum of types of aggression that the United States and South Korea must deter, from low-level provocations in maritime areas and along the demilitarized zone marking the border between North and South Korea to North Korea's unremitting progress toward attaining the capacity to actually launch a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea's high-volume threats raise the possibility of miscalculation and reveal the vulnerabilities of a North Korean political leadership that may not be fully consolidated. In addition, North Korea's brinkmanship strategy of threatening apocalypse before seeking payments for dialing down the tensions is increasingly facing the law of diminishing returns.
What should be taken seriously is South Korea's response to North Korea's saber-rattling, which has grown increasingly intolerant following North Korea's third nuclear test. Unwilling to become a hostage to nuclear blackmail from North Korea, South Korea's new leadership is matching North Korea's threats. The U.S. government, likewise, has provided a show of force by publicly calling attention to its bomber fleet and beefing up its Pacific presence near the Korean peninsula. These moves also come at China's expense, and serve as motivation for China to weigh in more decisively to rein in North Korea.
In this way, North Korea's saber rattling may come with real costs, but primarily to the one who is holding the saber, not to the targets of the threats.This is a circumstance that North Korea most of all should take more seriously, since it has the most to lose.
About Scott Snyder Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
Philip Yun Executive Director of the Ploughshares Fund
Ed Royce Republican Representative from California