Serious armed clash on the Korean Peninsula unlikely

Author: Andrei Lankov, Kookmin University and ANU

If the world media is to be believed, the Korean Peninsula is now on the brink of war. Indeed, over the last few days the North Korean government has been engaged in some seriously bellicose rhetoric.

Kim Jong-un inspects North Korean Army Unit 1501 at an undisclosed location in North Korea, 24 March 2013. (Photo: AAP)

The DPRK stated that it withdrew from the armistice treaty on 11 March 2013 and cut the phone hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul. It also withdrew from its non-aggression pact with South Korea. Meanwhile, Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North Korean government, ran an editorial in which it stated that the glorious North Korean army, newly equipped with world-class nuclear weapons and missiles, would transform both Seoul and Washington into seas of fire — presumably as soon as the supreme commander gets around to giving the relevant order. According to reports from North Korea itself, the populations of major cities are undergoing frequent, high-intensity air raid drills.

Officially, all this is a reaction to the UN Security Council resolution that condemned the third nuclear test, conducted by North Korea in February. The resolution introduced some new sanctions against the DPRK and has been described by Pyongyang as an ‘act of war’.

The international community is worried, to be sure, and some media outlets have begun to dispatch their correspondents to Seoul on the assumption that a conflict might break out very soon. But these media companies are likely to be wasting their money. The likelihood of any confrontation, let alone war, in Korea remains pretty low. What we are seeing now is just another round of political manipulation by Pyongyang. The DPRK’s show of menacing bellicosity is a performance aimed at both foreign and domestic audiences.

This is well understood in Seoul — not only by the government but also by the public at large. While the South Korean media dutifully report the gothic threats that emanate from Pyongyang, the general public pays surprisingly little attention to these outbursts and seeming signs of danger. It is also telling that the South Korean stock market has not reacted in any noticeably negative way to the ‘crisis’.

The reason for this calm is simple: South Koreans have seen this many, many times. As a matter of fact, they see such histrionics as often as once every year or two. North Korea has claimed that the 1953 armistice is null and void on a number of occasions in the past — the last time such statements were made was in May 2009, as part of a reaction against an earlier UN resolution, which, like the recent one, condemned a nuclear test.

As for the recent promise to transform Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’, it has been repeated a number of times. It was first used in 1994 and repeated in 2003. Sometimes, the North Korean media has not limited itself to such general threats, but has become very specific about their supposed targets. For example, in July 2012, the North Korean official media threatened to blow up the headquarters of a major South Korean newspaper, which had published articles and materials not to Pyongyang’s liking.

But nothing has happened to the newspaper’s headquarters or, for that matter, to the South Korean capital itself. North Korea has never made good on its threats, so the South Korean public is probably right to take another Pyongyang broadside very lightly.

So why does North Korea behave this way? There seem to be at least two reasons behind Pyongyang’s noisy behaviour. First, this rhetoric seems to have become a standard reaction to UN Security Council resolutions that condemn nuclear and missile tests in the North. In spite of its high pitch this is a diplomatic gesture, a way to express North Korea’s dissatisfaction with the resolution and its resolute unwillingness to bow to outside pressure.

But there is another reason for the DPRK’s verbal bellicosity. The North Korean populace has to be regularly reminded that their country is surrounded by scheming enemies. Otherwise, they might start asking politically dangerous questions — for example, they might wonder why their country, once the most industrially advanced in all of continental East Asia, is increasingly lagging behind China and, especially, South Korea. Outside threats are the best way to explain away never-ending economic difficulties, and an air raid drill or two does wonders when it comes to keeping people afraid and stopping them from having heretical thoughts. It will also remind North Koreans of the need to maintain discipline and unite around the current leader and his ‘glorious’ family.

It therefore appears that the world has overreacted somewhat to North Korean rhetoric. This does not mean that the Korean Peninsula is a peaceful place. On the contrary, as decades of experience teaches us, we can be pretty sure that from time to time some clashes (of relatively small scale) are bound to happen on the land and sea borders between the two Koreas. But right now the chances of such clashes are low. The noise emanating from Pyongyang is, well, just noise.

Andrei Lankov is Professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian National University.

This article was first published here at Russia Behind the Headlines.

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