The bellicose rhetoric from North Korea in the past two weeks has been extraordinary, prompting concerns that the authoritarian regime is ready and willing to launch an attack.
To date however, with the exception of an intensification of military exercises and the alleged movement of missiles, the only points of action have been to restart the Yongbyon nuclear site and close entry to the Kaesong industrial complex, each with their own set of consequences.
The motives behind the rhetoric are harder to understand: the advantages in responding fiercely to sanctions do not equate to the impact of long-term economic and bilateral-relations challenges caused by war-mongering. This round of tensions prompted by a combination of rocket launches, sanctions and joint military exercises has indicated that Kim Jong-Un will not be an agent of change and North Korea’s leaders are moving further from much needed socio-economic and political reform.
Threats and brinkmanship
The most recent threat, one of many, has implied that foreign diplomats in Pyongyang are no longer guaranteed the immunity and safety their international status demands. Underneath the inflammatory oratory, the disconnect between rhetoric and action is clear. The technology needed to deploy fully functioning warheads is some way off, casting doubts on their actual nuclear capacity.
On a military-strategic level there aren’t any signs of mass mobilisation. While the fervour of Pyongyang’s 1.1 million troops seems unswerving the quality of their training and equipment is questionable.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t underestimate the real possibility that provocations and brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula could escalate as a result of an isolated and antagonistic incident on a military installation. North Korea has cut the last emergency telephone line between North and South making effective communication difficult if an incident needs to be diffused.
Furthermore, Japan has moved naval vessels into a position to intercept missiles aimed in their direction. The South Korean and US missile defence systems in Guam and joint air, land and sea exercises indicate they are taking the threat seriously at both military and political levels.
China remains the most interesting regional player in terms of its potential influence over the North Korean administration. Beijing continues to bankroll Pyongyang with economic support and humanitarian aid reinforcing its international image as an isolated, unstable and volatile state with serious structural concerns. North Korea still suffers from frequent food crises, labourers work in ineffective communes and up to 200, 000 political prisoners and their families are held in soviet-style gulags.
A key difference in this cycle of provocations is that the UN mandated sanctions were supported by China implying a definitive shift in their interests and an outward indication of their criticism. Chinese trade with US, South Korea and Japan is critical and an escalation would seriously damage this. Nevertheless, the unlikely event of a unified Korean peninsula that comes under the US sphere of economic influence challenges their regional ambitions.
China has remained relatively quiet in the past few weeks, although they are most likely negotiating in the background. The West’s best chances of encouraging change in the long term is through promoting an economic revolution from within and involving China. Such is the State’s control on food, commodities and every-day living that a burgeoning black-market mercantile class is emerging.
Conflict is unlikely but not out of the question. Continual confrontational language will not be the only trigger, isolated incidents, such as the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 and sporadic cross-border gunfire, are possible and the ramifications of these need to be kept under control if the peninsula is to remain peaceful.
It is likely that in this case rhetoric belies inaction. Increased risk for civilians and businesses living and operating in Korea, Japan and Guam is minimal, however, it would be prudent for organisations to review their contingency, evacuation and crisis plans should tensions deteriorate further into conflict.