Panic on the Peninsula: Overreacting to the North Korean “Crisis”

Isozaki Atsuhito [Profile]

[2017.06.26] Read in: 日本語 | Русский |

The North Korean situation remains volatile, with the secretive regime testing new missiles at unpredictable intervals and showing no signs of abandoning its nuclear weapons program. A dispassionate analysis of the situation in the country, though, shows that Pyongyang has been showing restraint, in its own fashion. Did the global community overreact to developments in April 2017?

Little Information to Go On

Shedding light on the North Korean government, now headed by Kim Jong-un, is an even more difficult task than it was during the rule of his father, Kim Jong-il. This is because we are only five and a half years into the younger Kim’s rule, and have yet to amass enough information to allow us to recognize patterns in his policy approaches. Furthermore, when it came to Kim Jong-il, we had a wide variety of statements on the leader from people who had been close to him before leaving North Korea, including members of the “royal family”—his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, and Song Hye-rang, aunt to Jong-nam—as well as the high-ranking government figure Hwang Jang-yop and even Fujimoto Kenji, who was Kim Jong-il’s personal sushi chef in the 1990s. By comparison, there are no first-degree contacts with Kim Jong-un for us to draw on. The number of defectors from the North has plunged dramatically, drying up that source of information on conditions in the secretive country.

If we are to investigate the Kim Jong-un regime in conditions like these, we will need to go back to the traditional approach of examining the primary literature on North Korea, diligently comparing it to the policies we can actually observe.

Many Signs of Restraint to Be Seen

While following the tenor of discussion on North Korea, I found some of the Japanese media coverage of the country in April, when there was talk of a “crisis” that could lead to war, seriously out of sync with the reality of the situation. This is because there were clear signs, at least in mid-April, that Pyongyang was doing what it could to show restraint to avoid conflict.

First is the restraint shown by Kim Jong-un himself. Many of the articles carried in Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece newspaper for Pyongyang, were statements from North Korean foreign ministry spokespeople and the like promising never to back down from battle with the United States, or with American troops stationed in Japan. The Japanese media took these stories and ran with them. Here it is more important, however, to note that no such statements were labeled as coming from the “Supreme Leader,” or Kim Jong-un.

On April 15, the 105th birthday of North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, the current leader—his grandson—made no speech at the military review ceremony to mark the occasion, despite the presence of global media, including Japanese TV stations, that had been invited to cover it. This marked a departure from the precedent he had set five years earlier, when North Korea celebrated the centennial of the national founder’s birth. If he had spoken in public, he would likely have been pressed to stake out a violently hardline stance against the United States in order to underscore his authority. It appears that he avoided doing this to prevent such a speech from impacting the domestic situation in North Korea, where the supreme leader’s words are absolute.

Second, while the foreign ministry officials’ statements may have promised not to back down from war with American forces, a speech by North Korean Premier Pak Pong-ju proudly noted that it was the nation’s economic prowess that represented its true power. Choe Ryong-hae, vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Military Commission, stood alongside Kin Jong-un at the military review. The speech he delivered there was subdued in tone, promising only that North Korea would strike back if the United States attacked it first, rather than stating that the North would land the first blow. When analyzing the messages that come out of North Korea, it is vital to note who is speaking or writing in addition to the channel through which they deliver those messages.

Third, on April 11 the Supreme People’s Assembly relaunched its Diplomatic Commission after a nearly 20-year hiatus. This body had operated through 1997, but following Hwang Jang-yop’s defection to South Korea in that year, the Kim Jong-il regime revised the country’s constitution to abolish it. We can see this revival as a sign that North Korea is once again ready to carry out diplomacy on the level of assembly members interfacing broadly with opposition political parties and other organizations friendly to the socialist cause around the world.

Fourth, soon after making his scheduled appearance before the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 11, Kim Jong-un reviewed the military procession on April 15. Other public appearances around this time included visits to a pig farm and a factory producing daily necessities. There was no sign that he was keeping a low profile, a sign of how confident he was that there would be no American attack. North Korea was clearly not preparing for war at any moment.

Fostering a Crisis Mindset in Japan

In the United States, meanwhile, the administration of President Donald Trump—which had been increasing its focus on North Korea due to the possibility that American territory was within range of the small country’s newest missiles, and would not discount the possibility of an American first strike on North Korean targets—began in around mid-April to send clear messages that it was not seeking to effect regime change in Pyongyang.

All of this means that media reporting on the “North Korean crisis” was overblown. There are a few simple reasons for this excessive reaction.

First is the tendency among some media commentators and researchers to sound the alert for very little reason. How many times have we heard the prediction that North Korea is on the cusp of collapse in the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War? “North Korea in crisis.” “The North could be ready to blow.” “The regime may be about to implode.” Statements like these are emblematic of the one-sided, negative stance that Japanese media figures take to appeal to the domestic mentality on North Korea. We must take note of the way that this mentality has come to play a larger role than actual analysis of the situation on the ground. Today, researchers in Japan run a larger risk if they dare to make public statements like “the North Korean regime is stable” or “North Korea will instigate no war.”

Second is the Japanese government response to the North’s missile launches. Each time a projectile goes up, it is not the defense minister, but no less than Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who announces that this represents a challenge to the world order, and that Japan will stand sternly against this North Korean provocation. Of course the government must be aware of potential crises and stand ready to do everything possible in response to them, but when the prime minister himself repeatedly makes this sort of statement, it makes it difficult for the Japanese people to discern when a credible threat of war arises. And while Abe may not have been fanning the flames on purpose toward this end, there is little doubt that the sense of crisis he helped to foster in April pushed the national debate on constitutional revision in a direction he liked.

Weapons Development to Keep Kim in Power?

Kim Jong-un’s five and a half years in power so far have been characterized by dramatic policy shifts and rapid change. His regime is also marked by growing unpredictability, due to the lack of information that I described above. North Korea has in the past taken its own moves to heighten the crisis on the peninsula, such as by announcing in March 2013 that it was invalidating the Korean Armistice Agreement. At that time the broad consensus was that the North was likely to take provocative action against South Korea. No serious incident took place, though, and the two Koreas gradually drifted back into dialogue mode. In the New Year greetings by Kim Jong-un published at the start of 2014 and 2015, he called on Seoul to engage in bold dialogue with Pyongyang.

Of course, we must avoid overly optimistic readings of the situation. So long as North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons, a program it is pursuing with more vigor than before, we cannot deny the possibility that it will restart its testing of nuclear devices. Still, in the nine months since September 2016, when it carried out its last test, there have been no follow-up detonations. We can view this as a sign of further North Korean restraint in the face of hardline statements from the Trump administration in Washington.

We should also note the difference in the nature of North Korea’s missile development program as it is being pursued by Kim Jong-un and as it was by his father before him. In March 2013, the younger Kim spoke about the significance of the country’s weapons development. This is generally presented as “lessons for North Korea from the Balkans and the Middle East”; I will explain it briefly with the example of Libya, which was the focus of many articles in Rodong Sinmun around this time. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi had sought to develop nuclear weapons, but succumbed to American and British persuasion to abandon this quest. The result was the collapse of his regime. Therefore, according to Kim Jong-un, nuclear-tipped missiles are essential for maintaining the regime in North Korea.

A second reason for Kim’s dogged pursuit of a nuclear capability is his youth and relative inexperience as his country’s supreme leader. If he can present himself to domestic audiences as the man who boxed the Americans in and prevented a US attack, he will be able to further burnish his image among those living under his rule.

Questionable Analysis of North Korean Motives

Given the importance of nuclear weapons and missile development for Kim Jong-un as a means of perpetuating his regime, we clearly cannot dismiss his quest for these weapons as a mere diplomatic bargaining card, as it may have been during the Kim Jong-il years, when the six-party talks were still underway as an international means of addressing the North Korean weapons program. The after-the-fact “analyses” that examine each new missile launch in terms of what North Korean historical anniversaries are being commemorated, or the ongoing diplomatic calendar involving South Korea, Japan, and the United States, are not particularly productive—a fact that is clear if we look at how Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests have played out in the past.

The Kim dynasty has for many years now kept a close watch on international affairs, learning as it did from Libya’s collapse from many other examples of crumbling authoritarian regimes in order to more effectively prop up its own continued rule. Kim Il-sung carefully observed the way Joseph Stalin was denounced in the Soviet Union following his death in 1953, as well as the 1971 “Lin Biao incident” in the People’s Republic of China, the failed coup d’état by the chosen successor to Mao Zedong. The lessons of these perceived failures led him to establish his son as successor while he was still in control. Thus he established the first dynastic power structure in the socialist world. Kim Jong-il, for his part, drew his own lessons in 1989 from the fall from power and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania and the Tiananmen Square protests that took place in Beijing. These developments inspired him to cement the songun (military-first) policy, emphasizing the roles of the military, secret police, and police organizations in managing crisis and maintaining order domestically.

Despite being subject to isolation by many world powers and economic sanctions by the United Nations, North Korea still maintains diplomatic ties with more than 160 countries around the world. This is a country that has steadfastly analyzed global conditions while shrewdly charting its own course. Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is certainly a bothersome situation for Japan to have to deal with, but from the North Korean perspective, it is no provocative act, but rather a vital step to be taken for the continuation of the Kim dynasty, now in its third generation.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 12, 2017. Banner photo: Kim Jong-un observes a test of a new anti-aircraft weapon system in May this year. From the May 28, 2017, digital edition of the Rodong Sinmun; © Jiji.)

  • [2017.06.26]

Associate professor at Keiō University. Born in 1975. While enrolled in Keiō’s Faculty of Business and Commerce, studied Chinese at Shanghai Normal University. After returning to Keiō to earn his master’s degree, did doctoral research at Seoul National University. Has worked as a senior researcher at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, a special analyst in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Intelligence and Analysis Service, a visiting scholar at the Sigur Center of George Washington University, and a Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. Specializes in North Korean politics. His works include Understanding the North Korean Regime and Shinpan Kita Chōsen nyūmon (New Introduction to North Korean Studies) (coauthor).

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