Why South Korea downplays the North Korean threat

Author: Keeseok Kim, KNU and ANU

‘A bluffing game’ may be an apt expression for the brinkmanship and tit-for-tat threats that have overrun the Korean Peninsula since the launch of a long-range missile in December 2012.

People walk through a shopping street in Seoul 12 April 2013.  South Koreans worry less than foreigners about the current North Korean belligerence. (Photo: AAP)

The two Korean leaders and the United States have engaged in aggressive rhetoric accompanied by displays of military capability, while the situation has spiralled into declarations of war and talk of a ‘pre-emptive nuclear strike’ on US territory. International headlines have proclaimed the potential for a major war or, at the very least, destructive military confrontations.

Against this rather frenzied backdrop, the contrasting scenes of normality in Seoul may be a puzzle to outsiders. Images from the streets of the city show that life is carrying on as normal. Securities and financial markets are affected, if at all, by the outflow of foreign investors, not by South Koreans.

And, according to reports, Pyongyang seems to be no different. North Koreans are engaged more in celebrating a national holiday for the birth of Kim Il-sung than in preparing for war. As the threat from North Korea soars, the gap between the words and deeds of Koreans all down the Peninsula appears to get wider.

Commentators tend to explain the puzzle by saying that North Korea’s constant belligerence over the last six decades has made South Koreans immune to frequent and escalating threats from the North. They point to further evidence of uncertainty this time round as indicating that the South has ‘seen it all before’: the youth of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the overlapping leadership changes in major regional countries, including South Korea, have done little to faze local inhabitants.

This is only partially true. The memories of tragic war and brutal killings remain in the minds of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ. And to North Koreans, the United States is the most vicious, threatening and feared country in the world — a country that invades other states to topple incumbent leaders. Another war is a formidable horror for most Koreans — indicating they are not immune to the threat.

Then why do South Koreans worry less than foreigners? It is because they do not see that the North’s leaders have any reason to risk their lives and power in a hopeless bid against the military strength of the allied forces. Attracted by the sensational rhetoric and gestures of the North, the mass media pays less attention to the hidden messages behind provocative expressions such as ‘state of war’ or gestures like cutting the North–South hotline.

But a careful study of North Korean rhetoric may reveal that the terms and expressions are designed for domestic political purposes. And they are also intended to signal to the international community that the Korean Peninsula is unstable and needs a new system for safeguarding the North Korean system and the power position of its leaders.

A low chance of war does not imply the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the goodwill of the North. Past experience should teach the region that neighbouring countries are less at risk when the North Koreans are noisy. The real danger begins to increase when tensions subside, and South Korea and the world become less attentive to the North Korean cause.

Plus, it is indicative that the North’s provocations have not been repeated, so as to evade damaging counters by its southern counterpart. The real danger is in the North deciding to exploit small, undetected loopholes in South Korean security, rather than more obvious threats like the DMZ or Seoul being engulfed in ‘a sea of flames’.

Thanks to the attention of the global media, the North Korean leadership seems to have achieved their purposes of staging a ‘battle of rhetoric’. The young leader has effectively advertised to the world, as well as to his public, that he is brave and stubborn enough not to succumb to American threats of nuclear attack. At the end of this round, Kim Jung-un will hope to gain the status of an invincible world-class leader. The North is clearly the pacesetter and will likely reap huge political gains from the bluffing game.

Since a signal of restraint has been sent to the North Korean leadership by postponing a US ICBM test and the South Korea–US annual military committee meeting, the ball is in the North Koreans’ court. The announced launch of mid-range missiles may mean the choice between an extension of the conflict and a reshuffling of the game. North Koreans bet too much on the prestige of their top leaders, and more bluffing will radically increase the danger of losses. To reshuffle the cards, President Park needs to send a sincere message that North Korea — and its leadership — can survive this latest round of tensions.

Keeseok Kim is Professor of comparative politics and Japanese political economy at the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University, and Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.