Jean Lee: Leader's chilling nuclear threats may be more bark than bite
Published 30/03/2013 | 05:00
Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for "death to the US imperialists" and urge the people to fight with "arms, not words".
But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on US targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.
None of the key players in the region wants or expects another Korean War – not even the North Koreans.
But by seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations, Pyongyang is aiming to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula.
It's all part of a plan to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and build unity at home – without triggering a full-blown war if all goes well.
In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with the US and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarised Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.
In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world's 15th largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left.
But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the US and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invasion.
On Thursday, the US military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the US Air Force's largest conventional bomb – a bunker-buster powerful enough to destroy North Korea's underground military tunnels.
Mr Kim reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the US actions continue.
However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the US – and a peace treaty. As threatening as Mr Kim's call to arms may sound, its target audience may be the masses at home.
For months, the masterminds of North Korean propaganda have pinpointed this year's milestone Korean War anniversary as a prime time to play up Mr Kim's military credibility as well as to push for a peace treaty. By creating the impression that a US attack is imminent, the regime can foster a sense of national unity and encourage the people to rally around their new leader.