When North Korea’s Kim Jon-un recently proclaimed that South Korea was the nuclear-capable dictatorship’s next target, the people in South Korea’s capital city let out a collective yawn. Yet Seoul lays a mere 30 miles from the North’s battle-ready garrisons, just on the other side of the demilitarized zone—that narrow swath of land that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War.
But while that divide may separate the two geographically, many in the democratic south consider that the strip of land is transcended by the ancient blood relationship that joins the two sides. One expert told me, “They are our blood brothers.” And that is one of several reasons why many here believe that, in spite of the bluster and even the occasional armed confrontation, their North Korean kin will never follow through on Kim’s bellicose threats.
Even last week, Kim Jong-un warned that the North would take “strong physical counter-measures” against South Korea if it takes “direct part” in imposing the new round of sanctions being sought against North Korea. South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun-hye, responded by saying that she would deal directly with the North’s provocations (whatever that means) and that she would dispatch a high-level delegation to consult with Washington. These amounted to routine responses to a routine threat. And one wonders what, if anything, South Korea should or can do besides to restrain the North.
Last week, Kim Jong-un also announced that (surprise) North Korea’s December rocket launch was not actually part of North Korea’s “peaceful space program,” as the regime had long maintained. Indeed, the regime acknowledged that the three-stage rocket test was part of a comprehensive plan to develop the capacity to deliver nuclear warheads across the Pacific—to obliterate the US, should that become necessary. In case you missed it, here’s what the regime’s National Defense Commission had to say, in a statement carried by the state news agency KCNA: “We do not hide that the various satellites and long-range rockets we will continue to launch, as well as the high-level nuclear test we will proceed with, are aimed at our arch-enemy, the United States.” “Settling accounts with the US,” the statement helpfully added, “needs to be done with force, not with words.”
After the North’s threats against South Korea and the US, however, the discussion in Seoul focused on how the US would respond to the potential threat of a nuclear missile attack—an attack that could not be launched for years. On the other hand, there was no discussion on the seemingly much more realistic threat that the North might unleash its massive army, huddled a few miles to the north, to invade the South and obliterate it. Well, North Korea threatens that sort of thing all the time.
For its part, the US dutifully condemned the missile test and resumed diplomatic efforts to isolate the rogue regime by pushing ahead with tougher sanctions to thwart North Korea’s effort to expand its capacity to conduct intercontinental nuclear warfare. But as to the threats made against America’s allies in South Korea, the US State Department did not scramble about or commence any shuttle diplomacy to ease tensions between an ally it’s sworn to defend and a belligerent dictatorship bent on war.
Think, for a moment, how the US would respond if President Putin threatened to invade a “sworn enemy” on its border—an enemy that was also an ally of the United States. NATO member Latvia, for example. It would not be business as usual at the State Department. But of course Putin—for all his authoritarian impulses and his antagonistic anti-American and anti-democratic policies—is not the third Kim to rule a dictatorial dynasty sustained by its enslaved population and defined by a history of saber-rattling uninterrupted by even an occasional outbreak of sanity.
It’s clear why the US does not respond to North Korea’s threats with the same urgency as it might to Russia’s. Threats must be credible to be urgent. For a generation, North Korea has made threats routine policy to achieve ends unrelated, thus far, to war.
For that same generation, the Korean Peninsula has thus been frozen, more or less, in a routine where threats are delivered from the impoverished and militarized North by the Kim dynasty’s warmongering dictatorship and received with general eye-rolling by the South’s citizens, who for the moment seem numbed by the monotony of it all. For this and other reasons, when the prospects for some distant unification with those blood brothers is mentioned, the whispered question is: as long as North Korea’s threats are empty, why not just ignore them and maintain Korea’s divided status quo?
For the American security establishment, the unification concept might conjure up fantasies of a distant Korean ally, whole and democratic—and an American ally right on China’s border.
But South Koreans have robust and efficient economic and political systems that have thrived under America’s security blanket—and with their northern brothers buffering them from China, a historic enemy vastly more proven and serious than their blood kin in North Korea. It’s no wonder South Koreans ask about the cost-benefits for reunification when they consider the economic cost of assuming responsibility for their impoverished, starving kin, as well as the potential security cost of being an American ally on China’s border.
Now that could be a threat.
Yet for all the sanctions proposed by the US and the consultations between Seoul and Washington, there is little—short of the unlikely use of force or the seemingly unlikely help from China—that will break the cycle of Kim’s missile development program and warmongering. Then again, China, North Korea’s keeper, just reversed itself and threatened to stop food aid to the starving regime. It’s North Korea’s move.
Photo Credit: Globaljuggler