GOOD

The Case For Staying Calm About North Korea

Any game of nuclear chicken is incredibly unwise — but the nation remains as broke and isolated as ever.

The likenesses of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin at a German parade. Photo via Marco Verch/Wikimedia Commons.

The current flare-up over North Korea’s missile tests and Donald Trump’s belligerent response is frightening for many, but anyone worried that Pyongyang wants to start a war is – fortunately – mistaken.


For all its fighting talk, missile tests, and mooted plans for an attack on the U.S.’s Pacific territory of Guam, North Korea is all bluster and little bite. And while most Western audiences are well aware that an attack by Pyongyang on South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. would be suicidal, what they often miss is that North Korea wouldn’t actually be able to go to war with one of its rivals – even if it wanted to.

The north is too often misunderstood as an unpredictable rogue state led by a dynasty of mad dictators. This is an inaccurate analysis, and perpetuating it is irresponsible. As has been expertly documented by North Korea analysts such as Narushige Michishita, Pyongyang’s rulers are nothing if not consistent and strategic in their approach to the rest of the world.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]North Korea is all bluster and little bite.[/quote]

When trying to understand the regime’s behavior, it’s crucial to distinguish between strategy and tactics. Yes, North Korea frequently uses surprise as a tactic, and it is well-practiced at striking fear into the hearts of Western populations. But these aren’t spasms of demented rage; they are part of a very consistent national strategy to keep the regime going.

The north has at least three goals: to keep the world’s attention in the hope of one day securing a peace treaty with the U.S. and its allies; to demonstrate the credibility of its military deterrent; and to deflect attention away from critical domestic problems that could lead to social unrest or even revolution.

As North Korea expert Hazel Smith has pointed out, the Pyongyang government is far from a one-man band, or even a family affair. Rather, since its establishment in 1948, a number of leading players have both competed and cooperated to preserve the existing governance structure. So while there are few checks and balances on the abuse of power, the leadership’s priorities remain the same: keep the country relatively stable, head off political risks, and avoid a financially ruinous military conflict.

Feeling the pinch

The north is well aware that even in the crude terms of oil and supplies, it almost certainly lacks the funds to pay for any kind of sustained military campaign, despite having one of the world’s largest standing armies. It could in theory be bankrolled by China or Russia, but those countries no longer share the powerful ideological interests that drew them into the Korean War on Pyongyang’s side. China in particular has been seeking to reduce tensions, not escalate them – not least for its own commercial reasons, which include the economic colonization of North Korea’s northeastern ports and other parts of its industrial economy.

If Pyongyang’s confrontational rhetoric is little more than brazen attention-seeking, its motives are at least partly economic. Short-term military posturing and scaremongering, for example, may offer a longer-term path to economic concessions from the rest of the world. Even the newer packages of sanctions might quickly be dropped, dialogue increased and later foreign direct investment secured if the potential for sustained de-escalation and increased trade were deemed rich enough.

It’s therefore logical to assume that for the sake of its own security, North Korea will not risk escalating beyond the point of sporadic missile and nuclear tests. The missiles supposedly being readied for an assault on Guam are little more than a means to show off a new strategic capability, in this case the capacity to launch an accurate strike on a strategically important U.S. target.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]For the sake of its own security, North Korea will not risk escalating beyond the point of sporadic missile and nuclear tests.[/quote]

At the same time – assuming that Donald Trump can be trusted to act as rationally as Kim Jong-un – the north can rest assured that until U.S. citizens or their allied counterparts are actually killed with North Korean weapons, the U.S. is highly unlikely to risk military action on the Korean Peninsula. There is simply too little domestic appetite for a mission that could easily spiral into a politically dubious, economically costly, and militarily hazardous war.

The outside world needs to apply a different kind of pressure: a diplomatic and economic push for regime-led reforms, commercial investment, and reduced military spending. The discussion should focus on political freedom, economic growth, and greater peace and prosperity. Fixating on Kim’s weapons of mass destruction helps nobody – and least of all, everyday North Koreans.

Articles

When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture