Will North Korea’s War of Words Become a War of Guns?

If words were weapons, the United States and North Korea would already be at war.

Tensions escalated after the U.N. imposed sanctions on the hermetic Communist regime following a banned nuclear test. Since then, North Korea has threatened the U.S. with nuclear attack, even identifying targets, including the unlikely Austin, Texas.

No one believes North Korea can do that, but the U.S. is rushing missile defense systems to Guam in the South Pacific. It has stepped up joint military exercises with South Korea and has sent  “two radar-evading Stealth bombers on a first-of-its-kind practice bombing run over South Korea,” according to Reuters.

“They have ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric and some of the actions they’ve taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said.

Two important things you should know. First, the Korean War never officially ended; a truce stopped the fighting, and troops from the two Koreas have eyed each other warily over the Demilitarized Zone for nearly six decades. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are in South Korea.

Second, 30-year-old Kim Jong-un, the son of the late Kim Jong-il and grandson of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, seems singularly unprepared for the role of Supreme Leader. The newest Kim appears cut from a whole other cloth than his ruthless father or charismatic (to North Koreans, at least) grandfather. He’s a blank slate in a country that’s a black hole.

Missiles on display during a 2012 parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Flickr/Boaz Guttman.
Missiles on display during a 2012 parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Flickr/Boaz Guttman.

Still, North Korea has the world’s fourth largest army, and as Foreign Policy reported:

North Korea today can threaten all of South Korea and parts of Japan with its conventional missiles and its conventional military. The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict (italics added).

The consequences of war could be grave, warn Keir A. Leiber and Daryl G. Press in Foreign Affairs:

Although Pyongyang’s tired threats are probably bluster, the current crisis has substantially increased the risk of a conventional conflict–and any conventional war with North Korea is likely to go nuclear. Washington… must rapidly take steps — including re-evaluating U.S. war plans–to dampen the risks of nuclear escalation if conventional war erupts.

The big unknowns now are what does the young Kim really want and what will China do to rein in its loose cannon of an ally?

For China, North Korea has been a buffer zone on its border and a useful rogue state that can tweak its traditional adversaries Japan and the U.S. China’s new  leader Xi Jinping has a delicate balancing act—keep the U.S. off guard while preventing North Korea from melting down to the point where hundreds of thousands of starving refugees  try to cross China’s border.

As for Kim, the Christian Science Monitor asked:

But just how confident can Pentagon officials be about whether Mr. Kim is a rational actor? Could he, in fact, be young, reckless, without great political savvy and in grave danger of making a move that could set off a chain of events – including an inadvertent war – with dire consequences?…

And is he, in fact, in charge? Or could he be vying for power with, say, North Korean military leaders?

Notice all the question marks, because that’s all we’ve got—questions with no answers, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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