Tensions on the Korean peninsula are nothing new — historically, North Korea frequently rattles its saber for one reason for another. But the recent escalation in tensions between the North and South have experts worried that this time might be different, that the threat of the United States being drawn into a devastating war with the nuclear-armed North is real in a way that it might not normally be. At the very least, it’s worth paying special attention this time around.
The escalation of tensions began in mid-February, when North Korea conducted its third-ever nuclear test. While the North’s ability to strike the United States is limited at best, the Obama administration interpreted the test as a violation of international law, and pushed throughstricter, though still porous, sanctions on North Korean elites.
North Korea responded in turn by threatening to nullify the armistice that ended the original Korean War, reverting the North and South to a legal state of war. Two days ago, it shut off the last remaining line of communication between the two Korean militaries, warning that “Not words but only arms will work on the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces.”
Thursday night, the United States responded in kind, conducting a bombing drill with two B-2 bombers over South Korea. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described the thinking behind the move: “The North Koreans have to understand that what they’re doing is very dangerous.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un got the message Friday morning. He ordered his country’s missile arsenal be readied to strike South Korea and the United States if necessary. While North Korean Unha-3 missiles could theoretically reach the West Coast, it’s not clear the missiles actually work. Moreover, North Korea lacks the technology to arm the missiles with nuclear warheads and to deliver them accurately even if they can get them in proper working order.
So how is this different from the last 60-odd years of North Korean provocations? Many think it isn’t. Writing in the National Interest, Rajon Menon says the current Northern provocations are an example of the Hermit Kingdom’s “measured madness,” an attempt to wring more concessions out of an overcompensating international community.
But North Korea experts Victor Cha and David Kang disagree. They argue that Kim Jong Un’s inexperience (he’s only been running the country since December 2011), together with the South’s new President and more aggressive military stance, means there’s a greater risk (not certainty by any stretch, but risk) of escalation this time around:
So why worry? Two reasons. First, North Korea has a penchant for testing new South Korean presidents. A new one was just inaugurated in February, and since 1992, the North has welcomed these five new leaders by disturbing the peace. Whether in the form of missile launches, submarine incursions, or naval clashes, these North Korean provocations were met by each newly elected South Korean president with patience rather than pique. The difference today is that South Korea is no longer turning the other cheek…for half a century, neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs. The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience.
So how do we know where this is going? The Washington Post’s Max Fisher suggests that you watch the joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Plant, which he believes the North would shut down in advance of any war. Of course, states have gone to war with far less economic foresight, though there are other reasons to believe the North won’t go as far as war. It’s likely we’ll just have to wait and nervously see.