North Korea: Old Game, New Players and Dangers

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*Cyprus, natural gas and navies are off the topic table for the weekend as I concentrate the next few posts on North Korea. *

The current crisis on the Korean peninsula is solely the creation of North Korea. Kim Jong Un holds the initiative and thus the advantage at the moment. The United States and our allies in the Western Pacific are at a decided disadvantage in having to react to North Korean moves instead of forcing Pyongyang to react to ours. The inclusion of B-2 bombers and F-22 Raptors to the latest round of US-ROK exercises hasn’t generated a positive response from North Korea. Granted, US efforts to deter and project military power have been limited. Instead of pausing, the North Koreans have pumped up the rhetoric from heated to vitriolic, going as far as to threaten a nuclear strike against the United States. This crisis is as similar to the previous ones as it is different, for a variety of reasons. These reasons could potentially shift the situation from a geopolitical crisis to a shooting conflict at the drop of a hat.

New Leadership In The North

Kim Jong Il was a master at extorting the United States, the West and the Pacific nations for sixteen years. His formula was simple: Progress on North Korea’s nuclear program inevitably brought economic sanctions to bear on the North. Kim Jong Il would respond by rattling the nuclear sabre and threatening war. The bellicose dialogue led to quiet agreements between North Korea and the West; A moratorium on the nuclear program in exchange for economic concessions. A year or two later the cycle would begin again. North Korea received enough aid to prevent a total collapse and did not have to sacrifice its nuclear ambitions to get it. Call it extortion, blackmail or whatever you wish. The fact is that Kim Jong Il’s methods were successful.

Now, his son is attempting to do the same thing and has been impressively ineffective thus far.  Kim Jong Un does not possess the boldness or experience that his father had.  North Korea’s most recent round of threats and grandstanding have failed to produce beneficial results. The concerted efforts to raise tensions in the region have only partially succeeded. Many people on both sides of the Pacific are rattled and wary. However, the United States is not overreacting to North Korea’s moves.  Diplomatic and military countermoves have been temperate and measured. On the rhetorical side, these moves have done little to assuage North Korea.

Kim Jong Un is untested. US, South Korean and Japanese diplomats and military leaders know very little about him. As a result, his strategy in this crisis appears to be an alarming mystery. Alarming because this level of tension has not been seen before, although it’s evident that Kim Jong Un is deliberately moving events in a direction which will inevitably increase tensions. The question is: Why?

The answer may rest inside of North Korea. There is evidence that Jong Un’s hold on power might not be absolute. There could be dissenting factions within the North Korean government that are moving to undermine the new leader. Add to this the already existing economic and social turmoil In the DPRK. In the midst of troubling times, the most effective tool to combat this is to unify the country against a common external enemy. This is not a new tactic, however, it is one that has not historically brought about positive results for the initiating nation-state. Kim Jong Un can unite North Koreans against the United States, Japan and the ROK and whip his people into a frenzy. The trick will be walking the tightrope between war and heightened tensions without falling.

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