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Up Front

Examining North Korea’s Recent Heated Rhetoric

Jonathan D Pollack, Strobe Talbott, Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O’Hanlon


As the United States and South Korea undertake joint military exercises, North Korea has responded with harsh rhetoric, saying that its people are “burning with hatred” for the United States. Brookings President Strobe Talbott leads a discussion with Richard Bush, Michael O’Hanlon, and Jonathan Pollack focusing on the latest saber rattling by North Korea and exploring the intentions of Kim-Jong Un, North Korea’s young leader.

Strobe Talbott: Do you think that the current bluster (and more) from Pyongyang represents more of what we’ve seen before from North Korea or is there a real danger of conflict? If the latter, what should the U.S. be doing to prevent that terrible prospect and what would happen if it comes to blows?

Michael O’Hanlon: I recently wrote on the subject in Politico following the third nuclear test in an effort encourage the U.S. against overreaction given Kim Jong-Un’s youth and inexperience—and his potential for moderation/change as he ages (I hope!). My proposal was to make any additional sanctions temporary, partly as a way to induce Chinese support and partly as an incentive to North Korea not to test again (since the new sanctions would only sunset in the event of no further tests or big provocations).

But, of course, that’s not quite the same as an answer to your question. In light of the above thinking, my own druthers would be to make any upgrades in our capability quietly—even secretly—so as not to provoke the action-reaction cycle we are now in (e.g., sending F-22 aircraft to bases in South Korea to improve the effectiveness of any initial air strikes, but not telling anybody except Seoul).

Richard Bush: The consensus opinion among specialists is that North Korea’s recent actions are the same old-same old, the typical way North Korea responds to U.S.-ROK exercises every year. Specifically, because the regime portrays the exercises as a segue for a U.S.-ROK attack, even nuclear attack, then it must make at least verbal threats about what it will do when that war happens. The intensity this time may have been dialed up a bit because Kim 3.0 is feistier than his father was, but it’s a question of degree.

What may happen (or may not) is a limited conventional strike at the DMZ, against a ROK naval ship, or against one of the West Sea Islands (like the one that preceded our November 2010 visit to Seoul). The ROKs have pledged retaliation, which does create the problem of escalation, but how it might play out is speculative at this point.

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Talbott: Thanks, Richard. Most convincing and, to a point, reassuring.

O’Hanlon: Yes, to a point, indeed. “Consensus among specialists” is not always a concept I find reassuring, though! I am glad, Richard, that you seem willing to deviate somewhat from that consensus yourself (at least to some extent). This is probably the same old-same old….until it’s not, that is. I actually do worry that the U.S. default approach of tit-for-tat with North Korea (and the imposition of additional, permanent sanctions after the third test), while of course morally defensible, may exacerbate the situation in this particular case—which feels somewhat different to me than past periods of bluster.

Talbott: Interesting point, Mike. I’d be interested in your assessment of Kim-Jong Un, or Kim 3.0 as Richard calls him. His recent rhetoric and actions show that he is willing to test the boundaries of what is internationally acceptable. But, I had the impression that he was subject to a lot of supervision from the North Korean military, meaning he doesn’t have much autonomy, especially, one hopes, when it comes to declaring the Korean War back on and taking other actions that would significantly escalate the situation.

O’Hanlon: Right and Kim-Jong Un wants to be friends with Dennis Rodman and he grew up largely in Europe—and he doesn’t strike me as the suicidal type, so I’m hoping that someday he’ll want to be the next leader of a “reform from within” movement as in Vietnam years ago, Burma of late, etc. Obviously a long-shot concept at the moment though….

Jonathan Pollack: The reality is that we don’t really know very much about what animates Kim 3.0, so we must infer from what we can observe about his behavior. He seems very much like Kim Il Sung and may even be modeling himself on his grandfather. (He has his physicality and extroversion; even his body language seems reminiscent of the grandfather.) Very few foreigners have met 3.0. The Chinese blessed his succession at an early date (November 2010, as I recall), when a then serving member of the Politburo Standing Committee was on the podium with young Mr. Kim. So far as I can determine no senior Chinese official has met with him since then, and he has not been invited to visit China. In contrast to the distinct warming in China-SK relations (including several messages between Xi Jinping and Pres Park), there is a decided coldness/distancing in China-NK relations. I think Beijing early on calculated that there was a potential opening with 3.0 (as did we—witness the abortive February 29 agreement), but this seems largely a dead letter at this point.

The most troubling possibility is that he is very full of himself, listens to few others, and is now consorting regularly with the North Korean military leadership. Despite some early hopes for reform in the North, he has now wrapped himself in the “military first” rhetoric every bit as much as his father did. Worse yet, he has a successful satellite launch and another nuclear test under his belt, with clear expectations that more could be in the offing.

As I wrote in the Foreign Policy program’s Big Bets-Black Swans project, there needs to be a much more determined effort by the United States and ROK to deal fully with China in the event that things go from bad to worse in Korea. Now is definitely the time, lest we find ourselves in an acute crisis. That said, North Korean propaganda always spikes whenever the U.S. and the ROK are in the middle of major exercises, so perhaps the latest campaign will subside as the exercises wind down next month. But the tone and threats are particularly worrisome at present – even they are intended largely for domestic effect.

O’Hanlon: That’s an excellent point, Jonathan, if I may say so (the focus on consultation with China).

I can’t disagree with any of the analysis, and of course, you know the dynamics in the region very well. However, I still would venture to say that our February 2012 hopes (just two months into 3.0’s rule, when he still hadn’t even turned 30 years old as I recall) were unrealistically optimistic that early in his tenure within a Stalinist system, and we should remember how unlikely glasnost and perestroika would have seemed (or Chinese and Vietnamese economic reform) a few years before they occurred. But that’s a footnote, not a central argument, of course.

Pollack: I and a few others met with the State Department’s Glyn Davies immediately after the signing the 2/29/12 agreement. He remained very sober about the possibilities—and that it seemed too good to be true. Davies was careful not to oversell the agreement, which, in the end, blew up two weeks later.

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