Real Threats or Just More North Korean Saber Rattling?

As noted in How About Adding a North Korea Crisis to the Mix? published on February 26th, the DPRK is showing multiple stress points – at least some news of revolts in Arab Lands has become available domestically, food shortages seem to be worsening and there have been limited popular protests. Meanwhile,  efforts directed toward another nuclear test are progressing and one may not be far off.


The DPRK is not known for reticence when it comes to threats. Recently there have been more. South Korea and the United States presumably have contingency plans to deal with those threats, although in light of recent surprises and ill considered intelligence it is far from clear that they will be adequate.

The United States and South Korea plan to begin joint Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills involving 200,000 South Korean and 12,800 US troops on Monday, February 28th. The DPRK has warned that its “‘unprecedented all-out counteraction’ . . . would turn the South’s capital Seoul into a ‘sea of flames,’ the Korean Central News Agency said Sunday.” That could happen if the Kim regime and the DPRK military (which may have different views) are willing to suffer the consequences.

Key Resolve, a command post exercise involving computer simulation, will last until March 10. Part of Foal Eagle, a joint air, ground and naval training exercise, will continue through April 30.

The exercise reportedly includes scenarios such as localised provocations, tracing weapons of mass destruction, a sudden regime change in the communist state and an exodus of refugees, Yonhap news agency reported.

It also said the US planned to deploy it 97,000-tonne aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan for the drills.

Also stirring the pot are the psychological operations activities being conducted by South Korea.


Conservative opposition politician Song Young-Sun, citing a report from the defence ministry, said on Friday balloons carrying humanitarian supplies such as medicine and clothes were being launched across the border by the military.

She said the balloons also carried news of civil uprisings against repressive regimes in the Arab World and were aimed at getting information to the people of North Korea, who are largely cut off from the outside world.

. . . .

The North threatened on Sunday it would begin firing on border areas where the South’s activists and military launch the balloons.

“Our army will stage a direct fire at… sources of the anti-DPRK psychological warfare to destroy them on the principle of self-defence, if such actions last despite our repeated warning,” KCNA said.

Pyongyang tightly controls access to the Internet and attempts to block other sources of information about the outside world. But DVDs and mobile phones smuggled from China have been eroding barriers.

A survey by two US academics of some 1,600 refugees from the North found that roughly half of them had access to foreign news or entertainment — a sharp rise from the 1990s.

This piece by a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul suggests that having made best efforts to isolate the country from all outside news, particularly and most recently that of disruptions in Arab Lands, the Kim regime is very concerned that the South Korean psy-ops campaign will be effective and will underscore the anticipated massive failure of its announced plan to convert the DPRK into “a powerful and prosperous state with a revolutionary spirit and virtues, and with the fighting style of the Korean People’s Army” by the end of 2012.


Of course, actually achieving this is far easier said than done. No one, likely not even anyone in North Korea, believes the 2012 goal will be met. The fact that the regime’s failure to deliver on its promises is so obvious makes its chances of survival all that more uncertain.

In an effort to ensure dissatisfaction doesn’t inspire a repeat of what occurred in Egypt, the government has been heavily censoring news of the uprisings in the Arab world, underscoring the concern with which events there are being viewed. But just as bleak economic prospects and an external stimulus quickly transformed the situation in Egypt and pulled the rug from under the regime, North Korea’s elites will be aware of the potential unrest resulting from the country’s unfolding economic disaster.

Dictators, it’s often said, rarely die in bed. But should Kim perish quickly—whether naturally or as the result of discontent—it’s virtually impossible to predict how events will play out.

We may have better information on which to base predictions shortly.  We can hope — although with less than total confidence — that the Obama Administration has better information than has become publicly available.

If we have learned nothing else, it should by now be obvious that again caving in to the DPRK’s demands for “humanitarian” assistance and amelioration of sanctions is a species of  enabling and would be ill advised. Cancellation of the scheduled joint exercises would also further embolden the DPRK. President Obama, with his hands already full in other foreign venues, where situations are slipping through his fingers, and with his attention more focused on his domestic initiatives than foreign concerns, is in an unenviable position; so are we.



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