NAALEHU, Hawaii — It’s been four decades since Pyongyang’s Kims came to understand the grave threat to their job security posed by South Korea’s rapid development.
The first- and second-generation leaders responded with campaigns to double and redouble northern output, haranguing workers with propaganda in hopes of proving the superiority of the socialist system. They failed miserably at that, but stubbornly refused to resort to the reforms adopted by China, Vietnam and other former communist countries.
For a while, pouring a huge proportion of their resources into conventional military buildup gave the northerners an edge that only US forces’ backing of the South could offset. Meanwhile, though, the South Koreans, by focusing their resources on the economy, were becoming rich enough to build a competing military financed with what to them was relative pocket change.
Experts these days don’t see North Korea winning an actual war.
After those strategic failures by his father and grandfather, third-generation leader Kim Jong Un is reduced to mind games involving shrill threats — psychological warfare that may soon be seen as a transparent ruse in part or whole but in the meantime has frightened foreign investors in the South.
Pyongyang has shown it is “capable of controlling the international agenda while inflicting significant economic harm on South Korea without firing a shot,” Seoul-based American business consultant Tom Coyner says. “We are witnessing a ground-breaking example of psychological warfare using the media.”
“If this is psywar — and I think it is — it has worked, in the sense that North Korean threats have never gotten this much American and South Korean media attention since the Korean War itself,” says David Straub, former State Department Korea specialist and now associate director of Korean studies at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“Unfortunately, much of the American reporting, especially on TV, has breathlessly given substantial and unwarranted credence to the threats,” he said.
North Korea did mobilize reservists on a war footing earlier, which sounds pretty scary. But South Korean news reports say that by the time the crisis atmosphere in the media peaked in the last week the North’s citizen soldiers were laying down their weapons and heading home to prepare for spring planting.
What the North is doing should be characterized as psywar because the country “is not about to start a hot war,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
Ron Rhodes, who started his Asia career with US Army psychological operations units in Japan and South Korea from 1966 to 1970 before becoming a Tokyo-based journalist, observes that, “in propaganda, one of the important elements is credibility. North Korea, unfortunately, has a mixed record in that it sometimes just blows hot air and sometimes does, or at least tries to do, what it threatens.”
“For psywar to work, there has to be a credible actual threat,” says Uwe Parpart, chief strategist at the Hong Kong investment bank Reorient Group, who served in the West German military.
But Parpart says North Korea’s missiles and nuclear bombs pose a genuine threat. “What upsets the US in all of this is not just North Korea but the Iran connection, Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. North Korea’s bombs so far are plutonium ones, but they could try and test a uranium one for the Persians.”
The North’s “missiles are definitely the real thing, not papier mache,” Parpart says, noting that the Musudan medium-range missile that the North may plan to test soon is based on a design by Russia’s V.P. Makeyev Engineering Design Office.
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Of course Pyongyang’s psywar is not a new phenomenon. “Most of what they’ve done over the decades has a psychological purpose to shape behavior of their rivals — rather than doing anything to really put South Korea, Japan or the US at any real risk of being defeated,” says a former US Foreign Service officer who served in Japan and has lived in Japan for 20 years. (He requested anonymity in view of a sensitive current assignment.)
“The North Koreans have long engaged in such threats and have some sense of how to calibrate them to get what they want,” the Shorenstein Center’s Straub says. “The threats this time, however, are clearly far more numerous and more extreme.”
“It may be that to some extent the North Koreans have deluded themselves into thinking that, having tested a few nuclear devices, they are somehow invulnerable,” Straub says. “But another big factor is that the regime discovered the internet about three years ago as a ready way to propagandize in the international community. The more they use it, the more they seem to enjoy the sound of their own voice, not to mention our media’s reaction to it.”
“The only problem for the North Koreans is that the United States, South Korea and other governments that have long dealt with North Korea know what the North Koreans are up to,” Straub adds. “Pyongyang is the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’”
With its antagonists no longer willing to buy off the country with benefits whenever it vents, Straub judges that the North’s psywar “is being cleverly conducted. Strategically it is idiocy.”
Bradley K. Martin, the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," is a veteran journalist who has covered the country since the 1970s.