N.Korea's War of Words Is for Domestic Consumption

  • By Kang Chol-hwan at North Korea Strategy Center

    April 11, 2013 13:42

    Kang Chol-hwan

    North Korea's war of words against the rest of the world is intensifying with each passing day. Photos of podgy young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supposedly discussing battle strategies with a group of generals with rows of medals on their chests make it quite clear that he is intentionally trying to ratchet up tensions.

    The bellicose rhetoric that accompanies these pictures suggests that North Korea has lost its military edge and is instead resorting to scare tactics to induce psychological fatigue and divide public sentiment in South Korea. Kim probably has no intention of putting the lives of his wife and newborn child at risk, and he is not a lunatic willing to sacrifice his power and glory by pushing his country into war.

    The reason he is threatening to attack the South is because the only card he has left to hold on to power is to instill a fear of war. But in order to wage war, a country needs the support of its allies, the military capability to strike the enemy and the confidence among its people that it can win. North Korea has none of these essential elements. Right now, nobody in North Korea wants war, least of all Kim himself, because he knows full well what grisly fate befell dictators in the Middle East who thought they could take on the West.

    If North Korea wants to start a war, it needs to convince China to come to its aid. Conducting a nuclear test was clearly not the way to do that. And the majority of North Korean troops, who are surviving on rations of just three potatoes a day, are incapable of fighting a sustained war.

    The most important factor is that morale among the 23 million North Koreans is at an all-time low. They grew bone-tired of the deification of the Kim family a long time ago. Watching the stellar economic development in neighboring China, most North Koreans know perfectly well that the real culprit for their dire predicament is not South Korea or the U.S. but the Kim family.

    The reason North Korea decided to gamble with the Kaesong Industrial Complex is because winning back the hearts and minds of its people is far more urgent right now than earning dollars. Rather than reforming North Korea through Chinese-style market-opening, Kim seems to believe that sticking to his father's "songun" or military-first doctrine is the only way for him to hold on to power.

    Military intervention by a foreign power would only give the North Korean a reason to rise up and overthrow the Kim regime. As a result, it is virtually impossible for Kim to consider a military provocation. The regime is internationally isolated and on shaky ground. Its increasingly hysterical threats demonstrate the sense of urgency.

    Unless the regime can win the hearts and minds of its people, resentment in North Korea will grow. If Seoul remains determined to make the regime pay dearly for any provocation, it will have no trouble defending the country.

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