Skip to main content

Why North Korea regime is scary

By Scott A. Snyder, Special to CNN
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/17/world/asia/north-korea-un-report/index.html'>United Nations report</a> described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
HIDE CAPTION
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scott Snyder: Kim Jong Un ratchets up threats toward South Korea and U.S. to record level
  • Snyder: Bluff, followed by "charm offensive," is typical strategy but Kim gets closer to brink
  • We don't know what Kim is trying to prove, Snyder says, or what political events drive him
  • Snyder: South Korea and U.S. are tired of chest-thumping and it's not working anymore

Editor's note: Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining CFR, Snyder was a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation, where he founded and directed the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and served as The Asia Foundation's representative in Korea.

(CNN) -- North Korea, under its untested young leader Kim Jong Un, has ratcheted up the threats toward South Korea and the United States to unprecedented levels and with greater intensity than ever before.

A torrent of threats has flowed from North Korean spokesmen, including a promise of preemptive nuclear strikes on the United States and calls to "break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like."

North Korean brinkmanship, bluff, and bluster are stock elements in its diplomatic toolkit, but why have the threats become so outsized, and how worried should we be? Is North Korea playing the same game it has always played, or does the now-nuclear playbook of a rash young leader represent a new threat the we cannot afford to ignore?

Threats of annihilation normal for South Koreans

Scott A. Snyder
Scott A. Snyder

In some respects, we have seen this movie before. North Korea has long used its bluff and bluster as a form of self-defense to keep potential enemies off guard, to strengthen internal political control, magnify external threats to promote national unity, and to symbolically express dissatisfaction when international trends are not going its way.

This year, converging factors are squeezing North Korea, creating a stronger-than-usual response in the face of seemingly greater international pressure.

The U.N. Security Council resolution passing financial sanctions on North Korea following its satellite and nuclear tests were tougher than expected, and coincide with U.S.-South Korea military exercises organized to show political resolve to deter North Korean aggression. The establishment of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights situation tarnishes the standing of the new leadership. North Korea's over-the-top responses belie a sense of vulnerability.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



North Korea has a record of testing the mettle of each new South Korean leader through threats and provocation in an apparent hazing ritual that also determines its strategies toward the South.

South Korea has responded threat for threat in recent weeks to signal to North Korea that it will not be blackmailed by its neighbor's seeming nuclear advantage. Recent South Korean media reports of military plans to target thousands of statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in North Korea are virtually guaranteed to throw North Koreans into a frenzy of effort to defend and show loyalty to the Kim family leadership.

North Korea's threats: Five things to know

North Korea: Nuclear war is 'simmering'
North Korea ratchets up tension
North Korea military on 'highest alert'
How far can North Korean missiles go?

But the intensity and frequency of threats in Kim Jong Un's first year of leadership is uncomfortably high, raising questions about whether junior Kim fully understands the ritualistic rules of the inter-Korean "threat-down"; whether he might be more accepting of risks than his father, and whether he's more likely to make miscalculations that could drive a hair-trigger situation over the edge.

Moreover, no one can be sure whether internal political challenges or a need to consolidate political control are driving young Kim to walk even closer to the edge than usual.

North Korea has historically employed guerrilla-style methods in carrying out provocations, using elements of surprise and ambiguity of attribution to avoid risks of full-scale escalation. If North Korea decides to follow through on its threats through direct confrontation, however, this would be evidence that something is going terribly wrong inside its new leadership.

How can North Korea's frenzy of threats be brought under control? Past behavior shows a pattern of threats followed by diplomatic "charm offensives" designed to ease tensions and reap diplomatic gains in an environment of general relief that the situation has calmed down.

Analysis: What's Kim Jong Un up to?

Although South Korea and the United States are weary of this game, South Korea has started to provide opportunities for North Korea to climb down as spring military exercises start to wrap up.

The new South Korean government has separated humanitarian aid from nuclear weapons negotiations, and President Park Geun-hye has patiently held out an olive branch in the form of her "trustpolitik" policy, which promises step-by-step efforts to stabilize inter-Korean relations.

Given the North Korean leadership's contradictory need for South Korea to be both an enemy and a source of economic assistance, this might prove to be the more difficult phase in dealing with North Korea as its well-worn strategy of alternating threat and diplomacy continues to yield diminishing returns.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott A. Snyder.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT