Why North Korea's Threats Could Lead to an Actual War, This Time
North Korea traffics in threats. Its latest: A declaration of a "state of war" between itself and South Korea. South and North Korea have technically remained at war since 1953, but the new threat promises a new war. The reclusive communist dynasty has used threats of war against South Korea, Japan and the United States for decades, both for internal reasons and for external purposes. Internally, threats help keep the people unified around and against common foes. Externally, threats extort food and fuel aid from the US and our allies. North Korea has not been able to feed itself for going on 20 years, despite its juche self-reliance propaganda.
Up to now, there has been little reason to take Pynongyang's threats very seriously. North Korea's military could be expected to inflict severe damage on Seoul, South Korea's capital city, in the early stages of a conflict due to its artillery positioned in the mountains just north of the border. But South Korea's modern military and the overwhelming might of the US could be expected to come down on the North quickly and, with Japan's assistance in the mix, pound the Kims' forces into oblivion before too long, provided China stayed out of the fight.
But this time could be different. North Korea's new leader, Kim Jung-Un, is the least prepared and least tested head of state the North has ever had. Kim Il-Sung, the dynasty's first and founding leader, led the fight against Japan during World War II and then led the fight against the UN and the US during the Korean War. After that, he had nothing to prove to the outside world or to the generals around him or the people of North Korea. Kim built a personality cult around himself to entrench his power, but there was at least a grain of truth to the tale that he had personally fought to preserve the people. Each successive generation of North Korea's leaders have had less connection to past military success, leading now to the current Kim. Kim Jung-Un comes to the helm with no military experience. He is a pudgy man of only 29 or 30 years old. He may be relying for much of his authority on his resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung. The new Kim may intend to prove his bona fides, or he may have to proves his bona fides, to his generals by engaging in military conflict.
South of the border and to his west, Kim may see weak leaders instead of formidable foes. South Korea has just elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye. Kim Jung-Un may see her being a woman as itself a weakness. It would not be the first time a male dictator has made the mistake of seeing a female leader as weak. Park is not new to politics or to North Korea's brutality. She has been around the South Korean presidency since her father was president in the 1970s. A North Korean assassin murdered her mother, the First Lady at the time, on August 15, 1974. Park has even been attacked by a knife-wielding criminal herself, in 2006. It would be a mistake to see Park as weak, but Kim Jung-Un may see her that way just because she is a woman. One thing Park does lack, though, is any military experience.
In the US, we have President Barack Obama. He never served in the military. He knows nothing of military strategy. He is an ideologue who has made habits of apologizing for perceived American sins and weakening our relationships with staunch allies like Japan. Obama led from behind during Libya, showing a strong aversion both to putting US boots on the ground and to telling the American people the truth about conflict, and has yet to take any decisive action one way or another on Syria. Obama heralds ending wars, but never strives to win them. Domestically Obama has ushered in a policy, sequestration, which he and his former defense chief advertised to the world as a policy that will weaken the US military. His new defense chief, Chuck Hagel, is also not a proponent of a strong American foreign policy. Hagel does have military experience, but it was in Vietnam, and that defeat has made him a defeatist and skeptic of the use of US force for good. Hagel and Obama helming the US military may lead Kim to conclude that whatever the Americans say in response to his threats, and however many of our slick airplanes we send to Seoul, we aren't likely to actually do very much. America is very unlikely to risk ground troops under Obama. Given the weakness of our economy, how much of a conflict we could afford to take on halfway around the world is a real question.
The Kims have always believed and propagated the myth that South Korea would welcome rule by the North. If you're Kim Jung-Un, you have an unrealistic understanding of the world outside your hermit kingdom and you need to burnish your military credentials, there may never be a better time than the present to do that than now.