Threats of conflict coming from North Korea have increased international scrutiny of untested young dictator Kim Jong Un, as the isolated nation announced today that it will restart a facility capable of expanding the regime’s nuclear arsenal.
Kim’s talk of war, after decades of provoke-and-retreat behavior driven by leadership politics in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, is forcing world leaders to assess whether belligerent rhetoric signals a genuine prelude to hostilities.
Still, even bluster carries risks of misjudgments or accidents if Kim, no older than 30 and new to power after his father’s December 2011 death, isn’t skillful at managing the crisis he’s created with missile and nuclear tests, threats against South Korea, and videos depicting attacks on the U.S., said David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
“What I fear most of all is that he does not have an ‘off ramp’ to be able to ratchet back the tensions,” Maxwell said in an e-mail.
North Korea said today that it will restart facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear site shut by a 2007 disarmament accord, including a uranium enrichment facility and a 5-megawatt reactor that can provide more plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Kim has rattled nerves by declaring North Korea’s withdrawal from the 1953 armistice that ended Korean War combat, cutting military hot lines with the South, ordering rocket forces on alert, and threatening strikes.
White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday said the U.S. has seen no troop movements or other changes in the North’s military posture to back up its threats. At the same time, he said, the U.S. takes Kim’s threats “very seriously.”
South Korean stocks extended losses today following the state-run Korean Central News Agency’s report about Yongbyon, with the benchmark Kospi index losing 0.5 percent to close at 1,986.15. The won was 0.3 percent weaker at 1,117.98 per dollar, the highest since March 22.
Kim is following the same “six-decade-old playbook” used by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and late father, Kim Jong Il, raising tensions in an effort to split the U.S.-South Korean alliance and to win political and economic concessions, said Maxwell, a retired Army special forces colonel who spent time stationed in South Korea.
The North also has a record of stoking strife at times of transition in South Korea, such as February’s inauguration of President Park Geun Hye.
Neither of his elders made good on threats to restart the Korean War, which the 60-year-old United Nations armistice accord suspended yet didn’t end.
The last time tensions were this high, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul “into a sea of flame.” That 2010 flare-up followed the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, and North Korea’s shelling eight months later of a South Korean border island, in which four people were killed.
Kim is more of a wild card than were his grandfather and his father, retired Admiral Dennis Blair said. The third-generation dictator has the unique challenge of being measured against a grandfather revered as the “Great Leader” -- who led North Korea into war and ran the nation for more than four decades -- and an erratic father, the self-proclaimed “Dear Leader” who sought nuclear status and military might while maintaining a centrally planned economy that impoverishes most North Koreans.
“He’s an extremely isolated young man,” said Blair, a former director of national intelligence in the Obama administration and former head of the U.S. Pacific Command. “He’s treated like a god. His father and grandfather were pretty savvy, pretty cold and calculating. I’m sure he’d become that way over time. But this is his first rodeo. He’s pretty inexperienced. I think it’s dangerous because of his inexperience and his youth.”
The situation is “more dangerous than it has been at any time since 1976,” when the U.S. and North Korea nearly came to blows under Kim’s grandfather, said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute, a research group in Berkeley, California.
In that incident, American soldiers pruning a tree in the demilitarized zone were attacked, and two were killed by North Korean border troops. The U.S. responded with a show of military force, including flying B-52 bombers in the direction of North Korean airspace, and Kim Il Sung subsequently expressed regret for the incident.
A dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea probably poses a higher risk than the Korean situation of accidental escalation, Robert McNally, president of the Washington-based Rapidan Group said in an interview. Both would be a “second bearish risk” to world markets after the Euro crisis, McNally said.
No one claims to have a good reading on Kim Jong Un, who rules a reclusive, militarized nation that’s trying to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles -- while most of its 24 million people suffer privation, hunger and repression.
Kim is thought to be 29 or 30 -- his father didn’t inherit leadership in the dynastic succession until he was 53 -- and may be raising the perceived foreign threat in an effort to bolster his domestic standing.
“One hopes he understands this is a really dangerous game he is playing, because there is not only that domestic audience, there is the international audience that is watching and listening and who are increasingly very worried about his behavior,” said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, who has written about the regime.
The uncertainties about Kim’s hold on power, as well as his judgment, raise the potential for catastrophic missteps amid North Korea’s threats to attack South Korea, U.S. forces in Japan and Guam and the U.S. mainland.
There are more than 1 million troops and 20,000 armored vehicles and artillery pieces, as well as more than a million land mines and numerous fortified defensive positions, within a short range of the demilitarized zone, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group based in London. Seoul, South Korea’s capital with a population of 10 million, is 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the DMZ and well within North Korean artillery range.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. According to Hayes, North Korea’s “military is characterized by centralized control hierarchies and obsolete or aged technology, more than half of it made in the two decades of post-war heavy industrialization.” He wrote in an April 2011 report for the Nautilus Institute: “Its short and medium-range missiles have a reputation for unreliability and are very inaccurate.”
As for Kim’s threats against the continental U.S., his country has no missiles able to reach those targets and has yet to arm any of its missiles with nuclear warheads.
The U.S. supports South Korea with about 28,500 troops stationed in the country, plus an over-the-horizon force that includes about 38,000 U.S. military personnel at air, naval and Marine Corps bases in Japan, a major airbase in Guam, and global strike capabilities with air- and sea-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles carried on aircraft, surface ships and submarines.
While North Korea’s forces haven’t experienced combat since 1953, Hayes wrote that the South Korean military “experienced major combat duty in Vietnam and is deployed in many ‘hot’ spots around the world (including northern Iraq).”
In an effort to deter North Korea and reassure South Korea, U.S. Air Force B-52 and B-2 bombers flew practice sorties to South Korea from the U.S. mainland, and the U.S. sent two F-22 Raptor fighter jets to the Asian nation, during an annual U.S.- South Korea military exercise that continues through April 30.
The Navy dispatched the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, to operate off the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula, a defense official who requested anonymity in discussing the move said yesterday. A sea-based radar platform known as SBX has also been mobilized for what the official described as routine operations.
The moves aren’t related to the military exercises under way in the region, the official said by e-mail.
At this point “the probability of war is still quite low due to the absolute risk faced by both sides if things escalate, and the absence of indicators that either side is considering an actual war in the near future,” the Nautilus Institute’s Hayes, a long-time Korea analyst, said in an e-mail.
Lind said Kim probably “understands that starting a war would be suicidal.”
Dubbed the “Great Successor,” Kim Jong Un has inherited a country unable to feed its people while its military consumes an estimated quarter of its gross domestic product.
North Korea, which doesn’t release economic data, has an estimated per capita income of $1,800, compared with South Korea’s $32,000, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Its network of political prison camps, where entire families are sent indefinitely for any suspected opposition to the regime, hold as many as 200,000 people, according to UN human rights investigators.
There had been some hopes that Kim would tone down North Korean belligerence and perhaps open the nation and its economy as a result of his age and experiences, such as attending a private school in Switzerland from 1998 to 2000, where classmates said he was a Chicago Bulls basketball fan. A fashionably dressed wife, who began appearing in the state media photos, also suggested change from the bland uniformity of the North Korean leadership.
So far, few economic reforms have been set in motion while the military dictatorship’s elite prospers through corruption as it maintains an aura of imminent attack by hostile powers.
State media reported that Kim presided over a March 31 meeting of North Korea’s leadership body, the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, that vowed to keep developing nuclear weapons and improve the economy.
Those goals, though, may prove to be incompatible. Not only do the country’s nuclear and missile programs divert capital and talent from other needs, they also have brought tightening international economic sanctions.
White House spokesman Carney said yesterday that North Korea still puts a priority on developing nuclear weapons “over the welfare of this own people.”