Has North Korea’s ability to control military tensions and manage potential crises significantly decreased?
Kim Jong Il ratcheted tensions between the two Koreas for a variety of reasons; keeping South Korea at arm’s length, diverting attention away from the nuclear issue, and increasing the regime’s power over the military and citizenry.
However, North Korea has produced unnecessary levels of over-the-top rhetoric. Several exit opportunities were presented but all were ignored. Then suddenly, and without justification, the rhetorical onslaught abruptly stopped.
While the seriousness of these threats has since been questioned, tensions may well have escalated into a conflict had the intense rhetoric continued. Moreover, North Korea appeared to have taken this risk in the absence of any well-thought-out strategy or tactics.
Doubts also remain as to Kim Jong Eun’s ability to effectively manage the issue of the Kaesong Industrial Complex . Some argue that it was North Korea’s intention to completely shut down the complex from the beginning. While the income North Korea receives from the complex is not insignificant, the North Korean economy has gradually been improving due to increasing Sino-North Korean trade. For this reason, it is argued, the regime felt it pertinent to shut the complex due to the ideological contamination of North Korean laborers by their South Korean employers.
Yet something is amiss here. Why would the regime be so concerned about the workers in Kaesong, who are under 24-hour supervision, when 80,000 North Koreans a year are sent to China where they are exposed to relatively more information from the outside world?
If the complex really presented such a danger, Kim Jong Il would not have let it run for as long as it did. Even during the war of words that broke out during the Lee Myung Bak administration, Kim Jong Il still allowed its operation. This may be read as a sign that Kim Jong Il intended the complex to remain open following his death.
While it remains unclear as to why the regime decided to disrupt the complex’s operations, it does not seem plausible that the regime made any advance decision to enforce a closure. Instead, this move was initiated with the purpose of raising tensions on the peninsula, but then soon got out of hand when the regime misjudged its timing in exiting the crisis.
Regardless of any underlying motivations, the closure of a project like Kaesong would be major disaster for any country in the early stages of economic development. International investors will get the impression that the country is unable to follow the basic rules of a market economy. This perception is unlikely to disappear even in the event of a re-start.
Moreover, North Korea’s approach has been nothing short of sloppy. One minute war threats are issued, the next minute basketball star Dennis Rodman is welcomed in Pyongyang with open arms. On March 18, in the midst of the highest tensions in recent memory, North Korea held a “National Light Industry Conference.” While such a conference is certainly needed, it occurred at the worst possible time. Additionally, their relationship with the United States was jeopardized after North Korea launched a rocket not even two months after assuring the Americans they wouldn’t.
Immune to North Korea’s saber-rattling after years of such rhetoric, no one in South Korea really expected a war would erupt. Yet we must avoid the trap of thinking Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are one and the same.
While it certainly seems that Kim Jong Eun has inherited the strategic and tactical aspects of North Korea’s foreign policy from his father, it does not appear as if he will maintain the same semblance of stability.
The periods of highest tension on the Korean Peninsula were during the 1968 Pueblo Incident, the 1976 Axe Murder Incident and the 1994 nuclear crisis. These all occurred during Kim Il Sung’s lifetime. Since his death in 1994, tensions have not reached such heights.
While the attack on the Cheonan or the Yeonpyeong Island shelling may appear at first glance to be merely reckless tactics, Kim Jong Il went ahead with them as he believed that any threat of retaliation would be neutralized should the provocation end swiftly.
Yet the actions of Kim Jong Eun this year have crossed all of the lines Kim Jong Il drew in the sand from 1995 to 2011. The young leader does not appear to understand the significance of this nor has he the ability to control the outcome. There is already a collective feeling spreading amongst South Koreans of a need to respond decisively to North Korean provocations, and it is hard to predict what direction things will go in the event that South Korea pushes back against the power-hungry Kim Jong Eun.
Should North Korea commit an even more daring provocation on the bet that China will become involved, and that the U.S and South Korea would not risk engaging in such a conflict, the outcome for the Korean peninsula would be disastrous.
In an effort to show that he is an even more dignified, strong and fearsome leader than his father, Kim Jong Eun could well take this dangerous gamble. Even if the possibility of a full-scale war remains small, it is important for South Korea to prepare for any eventuality.
The last few months have proved that the Kim Jong Eun regime is a highly dangerous one, and it would be prudent for the South to ensure a nuclear-free North Korea. A carrot-and-stick approach would prove useless if North Korea’s nuclear development continues. The current situation in Northeast Asia is such that it’s near impossible to imagine liberating the North by force. Instead, the urgent need remains to expend significant amounts of human and material resources on changing the North Korean regime via political means.