What to make of North Korea's war threats


The North Korean flag flies outside their embassy in Beijing on Dec. 12, 2012.


Mark Ralston

SEOUL, South Korea — "We should settle accounts with the United States only with the gun barrel, not with words, as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival.”

That was the North Korean National Defense Commission's response on Jan. 24 to ratcheted-up United Nations sanctions.

Indeed, tensions are building as North Korea prepares for a third nuclear test.

Despite signing a Korean War cease-fire 60 years ago, the country is still technically at war with the South.

To hide its weaponry from satellite observation, the military reportedly camouflaged a tunnel entrance at the supposed testing ground — a development that intelligence officials say points to an imminent nuclear test, Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

Then Friday, the South Korean unification minister told reporters that, following two nuclear detonations in 2006 and 2009, a third test is even more dangerous: It signifies that the hermit state “is in the final stages” of making weapons, while the previous ones reflected more archaic technology.

Over the past two months, the petulant teenager of Asia has defied the scoldings of the world — and stepped up the militant parlance after the UN Security Council extended sanctions last week.

The UN censure was in response to North Korea’s satellite launch in December, which violated international sanctions.

So Pyongyang has once again gone into bluster mode, sending out more statements that could qualify as some of its best admonishments. The government publishes the statements through state mouthpieces, such as the party-run news service, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Method to the madness?

Some said the Jan. 24 declaration represented at least a partial break from Pyongyang’s earlier bristling. It was “almost personal in the frustration it vents,” said a report put out by NightWatch, a newsletter that tracks national security issues.

But don’t panic: Nearly all experts agree that a war with North Korea is about as likely as getting hit by an asteroid, despite the brinkman state’s provocations.

What would appear on the surface as a bald threat could, on a more careful read, reveal that the regime is pursuing a policy of carefully planned, ribald madness.

“I read this latest batch as asking for talks,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary fellow at the University of Leeds in England.

“North Korea, for various reasons, doesn’t feel secure if it doesn’t have nukes to protect itself,” he said. “But the rage is entirely fake. This is them showing that they’re equal” to the world, he added.

Other pugnacious lines? The new agency KCNA used the favorite phrase “sea of fire” — a garish war threat usually directed at Seoul — at least 18 times in English from 1996 to 2005, according to a search of the archives at NK-News.net, a website that keeps track of North Korean propaganda but is no longer updated.

“Seoul and areas north of it will turn into sea of fire in a matter of a few days,” the KCNA reported in 2003, in response to the US military presence on the peninsula. That was a year after George W. Bush placed North Korea on the infamous “Axis of Evil,” causing a spike in bombastic broadcasts.

Another fun meme: “imperialist aggressor,” a phrase that showed up 355 times in the same nine-year period.

The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), the ruling party, typically uses the moniker in reference to its two most hated enemies, the US and Japan.

South Korea, on the other hand, takes the label of a “traitor.” It’s a government of brethren who, despite being a part of the same pure Korean race, collude with national enemies for profit — or so goes North Korean thinking.

After Kim Jong Un took the helm from his deceased father one year ago, Korea watchers have called him a potential reformer thanks in part to his Swiss schooling. But are those hopes backed by the regime’s own public statements?

More from GlobalPost: North Korea decrees martial law amid nuclear testing rumors

“What we've been hearing since Kim Jong Un's takeover, such as explicit death threats against the 'rat' [South Korean president] Lee Myung Bak, is the most belligerent rhetoric I've heard since I began researching North Korean propaganda over 20 years ago,” said BR Myers, the Busan, South Korea-based author of "The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters."

Myers was referring to the pointed language employed last April, around the same time North Korea tried and failed to launch a rocket. The country went on to succeed last December at putting a satellite into orbit, though American officials report it is tumbling out of control.

Foster-Carter, the UK-based analyst, called the personal attacks “different and nasty,” pointing out that the government is even peddling violent video games. The crude smear games allow players, for example, to hang South Korean presidential candidates, and could be remembered as one bizarre legacy of the Kim Jong Un era.

“I see more continuity than change,” he added. Call the orchestrated bravado an echo of the reign of Kim Jong Il, but bringing new twists after his pudgy son has ascended to the throne.