Thursday 21 September 2017

North Koreans don't want war - to them, nuclear arms are simply a bargaining chip

The North Korean Hwasong 12 is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea earlier this year Photo: AP
The North Korean Hwasong 12 is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea earlier this year Photo: AP

Anna Fifield

Between American threats of "fire and fury" and North Korea's vow to unleash a "historic enveloping fire" on a US territory, the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington has suddenly raised fears of escalating into an actual war.

Between American threats of "fire and fury" and North Korea's vow to unleash a "historic enveloping fire" on a US territory, the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington has suddenly raised fears of escalating into an actual war.

It also has brought a rush of speculation about the brinkmanship at play - including trying to understand the moves and motives of the North's leader, Kim Jong-un.

With his unequivocal words, Donald Trump appeared intent on sending a message to North Korea - and to its backer China - that enough was enough, according to administration officials.

But with Mr Kim, the endgame is above all seeking to stay in power, analysts said. The 33-year-old leader inherited control of the totalitarian regime from his father and grandfather, who founded North Korea with Soviet and Chinese backing after World War II.

"What Kim Jong-un really wants is to improve his missiles and nuclear weapons and to keep the country under his leadership," said Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch website.

Although the Western caricature of Mr Kim is of a pudgy madman, he has been a textbook dictator, making rational decisions for someone who wants to retain absolute power.

On Thursday, South Korea's National Security Council urged North Korea to calm down, offering the prospect of talks, while its military issued a much sterner warning.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea would suffer "strong and resolute retaliation" from allied US and South Korean forces if it mounted an attack on either country.

The warnings came after North Korea earlier made an unusually specific threat. In a statement attributed to the North Korean army's strategic forces commander, Pyongyang threatened to fire four Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles over Japan for "3,356.7km for 1,065 seconds" - nearly 18 minutes - by the middle of this month, saying they would land within 30km-40km of Guam, the American territory in the Pacific.

This threat was not made in response to Mr Trump's "fire and fury" remarks but rather in reaction to the US launching a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on August 2.

Japanese leaders denounced the threat and residents in the three Japanese prefectures named as on the missiles' flight path expressed fear.

A war still remains in no one's interest - especially not in the case of the 25 million South Koreans who live within range of North Korea's conventional artillery - but the combination of two tempestuous leaders with nuclear codes has created an atmosphere where anything seems possible.

'The risk in north-east Asia stems from both Trump and Kim Jong-un," said Koo Hae-woo, who was a top official at South Korea's intelligence service until 2014 and now runs the Korea Institute for Future Strategies think tank.

"Kim is ratcheting up the tension to the maximum level, while President Trump doesn't rule out war as an option," Mr Koo said.

The Kims have kept a tight grip on North Korea internally through a brutal system of repression and fear, and have increasingly kept the outside world at bay by developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. This has traditionally been viewed as a deterrent to fend off the kind of fate that Saddam Hussein suffered in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi endured in Libya.

Since taking over the reins at the end of 2011, Kim Jong-un has accelerated the development of North Korea's weapons programme. Last month, North Korea launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles believed capable of reaching the US mainland, and American intelligence officials have concluded that they are now able to attach nuclear warheads to them, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a fully-fledged nuclear power.

While these weapons might work as a deterrent, it would be suicidal for Mr Kim to actually use them and risk retaliation by the much more powerful US military.

"Kim Jong-un is not trying to pick a fight," Mr Madden said, adding that Pyongyang was well aware that Mr Trump had a habit of speaking - or tweeting - off the cuff. "North Koreans are not taking this seriously. They're saying that Trump is saying these kinds of things because he hasn't 'consolidated his power' yet'," he said - using a line that American experts usually use to describe questionable things that Mr Kim does.

Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korean leadership expert at the left-leaning Sejong Institute in the South, agreed that Mr Kim does not want actual conflict with the US.

"North Korea is not developing ICBM technology to start a war with the US," he said. "This is all about preventing the US from intervening in any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It wants to influence American decisions. The US does not want to be criticised for risking American lives to protect its allies."

Others see a ploy by North Korea to ratchet up the tensions and make the most progress on its weapons programme before sanctions bite and it is forced to return to the negotiating table.

"The US will only agree to talk with the North if it thinks a physical clash is imminent," said Mr Koo.

"The North is not aiming for a clash but increasing the tension to create an environment for negotiation."

The closest analogy to the North Korea situation is Pakistan, he said. Rather than following the Cold War model of mutually assured destruction, Pakistan has adopted a strategy of "asymmetric escalation" - being able to use a nuclear arsenal against a conventional attack. "The fact Kim Jong-un is rational doesn't necessarily lead to good outcomes," said Van Jackson, an expert on North Korean security at Victoria University in New Zealand.

"Rationality takes us to a more dangerous place right now." (© Washington Post syndication)

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