Skip to main content

Kim Jong Un is not crazy

By Stephan Haggard, Special to CNN
updated 6:44 PM EDT, Tue April 2, 2013
Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low." Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low."
HIDE CAPTION
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
<<
<
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
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephan Haggard: North Korea is mostly bluffing in its threats against South Korea
  • Haggard: Escalating signals of resolve suggest nervousness as much as strength
  • He says Kim Jong Un may not have fully consolidated his authority
  • Haggard: As a result, some of the rhetoric could be driven by domestic politics

Editor's note: Stephan Haggard is professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the co-author of "Famine in North Korea" (2008) and "Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea" (2011) and co-editor with Marcus Noland of a blog about North Korea.

(CNN) -- March brought us a series of what pundits like to call "provocations" by North Korea. On closer inspection, Pyongyang has opted for rhetoric over actual military actions.

While Kim Jong Un's pursuit of nuclear and missile capability remains worrisome, escalating signals of resolve could suggest nervousness as much as strength.

So, is the regime in trouble?

Stephan Haggard
Stephan Haggard

The first round of saber-rattling came as the U.N. Security Council deliberated on a new sanctions resolution after North Korea's satellite launch in December and its third nuclear test in February. The Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a party organ dealing with North-South relations began putting out public statements in an effort to chip away at the institutions of the armistice, such as military hot lines and the stationing of a North Korean military mission in Panmunjom.

North Korea ultimately "withdrew" from the armistice, but it had done so before and it is not clear what its recent statements actually mean. The armistice is not a peace treaty, but merely a cease fire. The armistice is stable not because of verbal commitments but because of the deterrent capability of both sides.

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.



Is anything really different as a result of this "re-withdrawal"? It doesn't seem like it.

Equally unfortunate was North Korea's decision to renege on a number of North-South agreements, such as a North-South agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula. But Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons had made this and a number of other agreements moot in any case.

North Korea's bluster had little if any effect on the U.N. debate. If anything, its threats may have been counterproductive. Although the resolution was portrayed as the result of a U.S.-South Korean cabal, China also signed on and the resolution was passed unanimously.

Mack: Kim Jong Un 'an immature brat'
North Korea's advantage explained
South Korea returns rhetorical fire
North Korea military 'ready to fight'

The measure opens the door for tighter financial sanctions, and there is some preliminary evidence that Beijing may be cooperating in tightening economic exchanges with the country.

The next round of statements came as North Korea and the United States and South Korea entered an annual military training cycle. These periods are always fraught with tension, as Pyongyang denounces the routine exercises as provocative.

As the country effectively mobilizes, the North Korean press is filled with pictures of Kim Jong Un directing the troops in exercises, some of which were reportedly manipulated with Photoshop to increase their effect.

As a result of these exercises, there is some background of what might be called "ritualized escalation" at work.

But North Korea did possibly make one major misstep in arguing that it might undertake a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Announcing an intention to pre-empt is dangerous because even small tactical movements can be misinterpreted. Needless to say, such statements have to be taken seriously, and, if anything, the United States and South Korea may have over-reacted by such a public display of force.

In particular, the U.S. announced a major new ballistic missile defense initiative, training runs by B52 and B2 bombers, and an updated U.S.-ROK Combined Counter-Provocation Plan. In the last few days, the U.S. was again quite public about its deployment of jet fighters to the peninsula as well.

There is a larger game at work here that probably centers on the difficult-to-read domestic politics of North Korea. It is by no means assured that Kim Jong Un has fully consolidated his authority. By ramping up rhetoric, but exercising restraint with respect to actual military actions, the regime can count on the fact that the United States and South Korea are not going to take the first step either.

The result is that North Korea's exercises and threats of retaliation have been successful in deterring attack, even though none was coming. The regime can claim some sort of victory in staring down American threats in its two big political meetings this week, the timing of which suggest that some of the rhetoric has been driven by domestic politics.

North Korea's nuclear and missile programs constitute problems that the five parties in the region—China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States—need to address through concerted action. But overheated rhetoric, however disconcerting, is not the same as an intention to attack. Coolly maintaining our deterrent and not over-reacting to hyperbole is the proper course of action. With luck, the leadership will pivot away from nuclear posturing toward economic reform, the main thing that the people of North Korea really need.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this essay said North Korea instead of the U.S. announced new military initiatives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephan Haggard.

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