Kim’s Nuclear Threat Reflects Regime's Instability
Focus on arms development proves costly mistake
By: Shim Jae Hoon
Blasting cruise missiles over the Yellow Sea and firing a barrage of artillery shells along the maritime border with the South, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un appears anxious to convince the world that he is ready for war, even a nuclear war if he is forced to. The regime fired another batch of cruise missiles on January 28, including one which appeared to be launched from a submarine. This missile, a South Korean military spokesman said, appeared to be the latest model of strategic missiles capable of being fitted with a nuclear device.
Alerted by what appeared to be progressively more dangerous provocations, US officials have raised the North's baiting to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a recent meeting. Neither the US nor South Korea, however, is showing panicky signs. In Seoul, officials repeated views that North korea's recent actions appear more like political blackmail than a sign of immediate threat of war. If any side appears desperate or tense, it is the north.
“The North is more likely nervous over the recent military exercises by the combined naval power of the US, Japan, and South Korea,” said North Korea expert Rhee Young Il. Other analysts repeat the theory that Kim is seeking to alarm Seoul and Washington ahead of their key election campaigns, in Seoul for the April parliamentary elections and the US presidential election in November. Seoul remains calm and confident, largely on the strength of its powerful conventional forces. South Korea boasts the world's fifth biggest armed forces, especially with ultra-modern fighter jets, backed by its economic size which is 50 times bigger than the north's.
Speaking at the year-end Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers Party on December 30, Kim – who turned 40 early this month – claimed he was abandoning the policy of peaceful reunification, termed South Korea his “principal enemy,” and reaffirmed his intention to “annihilate and pacify” the South for good in the event of another conflict.
It was a strange Dr No-style of warning coming from a leader struggling to feed his 25 million hungry people. With food shortages presumably turning worse in recent months, he told a new year Politburo session that the North’s provincial economy was turning “critical,” a rare admission of failure potentially threatening the stability of his regime. Food shortages are nothing new in North Korea, as a massive famine in 1996-1998 decimated an estimated three million people, flooding China with hungry refugees looking for food. South Korea has accepted over 30,000 of these refugees who had been stranded in China, and still more are filtering here by way of third countries such as Laos and Thailand.
At the root of this continuing economic crisis hobbling the Kim regime lies its total concentration of state resources to pursuing high-cost weapons programs such as missiles and nuclear arms. With criminal collusion from Pakistan and other rogue states, North Korea has managed to create a formidable arsenal for potential invasion by diverting economic resources to its war machine.
In a desperate move to earn foreign exchange, Kim has begun exporting artillery shells and missiles to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. In return, Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to visit Pyongyang shortly to discuss more military technology.
Any income derived from exporting shells and missiles to Russia is expected to go for developing the North’s arsenal, with food shortages unlikely to be allayed. Reports of a looming famine have followed indications of near bankruptcy of government coffers, with the Kim regime concentrating its meager resources on developing high-cost weapon systems such as solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of being fitted with nuclear weapons.
Yoon’s defense minister, Shin Won Sik, has called for massive retaliation in case of another serious attack. Shin has abolished past policies requiring prior approval from the top chain of command before responding to North Korean shelling. Now, South Korean troops first respond to provocations and report later.
The North’s policy has produced a situation substantially inimical to its overall defense posture. The US, South Korea and Japan have formed a three-nation military axis primarily aimed at frustrating North Korean attacks and provocations. In the face of Kim’s nuclear saber-rattling, the US and South Korea have launched what is called a Nuclear Consultative Group to watch for the North’s provocations, especially nuclear ones. The NCG this year is holding its first nuclear posture review on how to respond to nuclear attacks. In exchange for South Korea’s pledge not to develop and acquire its own nuclear arms, the US has pledged to use nuclear weapons in response to possible first use by the North. The US has served a clear warning to Kim Jong Un that his use of nukes will be met by an overwhelming response, so powerful it will mean the end of Kim’s regime.
With the US-Korean alliance so strengthened, especially with the participation of Japan in regular military exercises around the peninsula in recent years, combined deterrence has been greatly strengthened. Especially noticeable is the combined naval power of the three countries capable of blocking North Korea. Against that backdrop, the Yoon government has formulated a new three-stage response policy towards potential armed provocations from the North. Defense Minister Shin has outlined it as 1) immediate response, 2) overwhelming response, and 3) pursuit of deterrence to the end.
The first test came on January 5 when North Korean troops along the west coast maritime border fired 200 rounds of artillery shells inside its borderline. It was the first such shelling since November 2010, which killed a number of civilians and marines on the nearby island of Yongpyong-do. Earlier in March that year, a North Korean torpedo attack sank a South Korean navy corvette with the loss of its 46 sailors.
This time, under President Yoon’s three-point counterattack policy, South Korean marines fired back a barrage of 400 rounds of artillery fire, doubling the North’s number, a demonstration of the new policy of no tolerance to new provocation. At the same time, Defense Minister Shin Won Sik served notice that the 2018 military agreement “desisting” from the use of firearms across the border will no longer be honored.
In Seoul, Yoon told a cabinet session that the North should no longer be treated with leniency, for Kim is pushing a false premise that he will use nuclear weapons. “Kim is pushing this false narrative of war and peace, and we should not fall for it.”
Analysts here mostly agree that Kim Jong Un is facing the curse of his own massive arsenal created at the expense of economic survival. He has belatedly discovered that pursuit of nuclear bombs and missiles has proven impossible to blackmail the US and South. “Kim has been cursed by his own bomb,” said Rhee Young Il, a Seoul-based analyst.
Other analysts say Kim’s timing indicates he is trying to create trouble ahead of South Korea’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for April. He may also hope to stir trouble in advance of the November U.S. presidential election in the hope of helping former President Donald Trump, who Kim thinks is amenable to the withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops still based in South Korea.
South Korea countering the North with soft power, smuggling in USB sticks containing K-pop culture of songs and dances. It seems to be working. A recent report from the North said the regime has punished a couple of youngsters with prison sentences of 12 years each for possessing South Korean USB sticks. It was not the only sign of internal restiveness. A recent report from China said North Korean contract workers rioted when their government back home took big chunks off their remitted salaries. It seems more and more North Koreans appear unafraid to stand up to their government.