North Korea conducted a nuclear test in February
Aggressive statements by Kim Jong Un have followed
Some analysts think the declarations are more for his own country
Video propaganda showing the White House and Congress being blown up. Talk of hitting U.S. bases in the Pacific. The renunciation of a 60-year-old armistice that has kept the tenuous peace on the Korean Peninsula.
It seems barely a day passes without another North Korean threat, and coming after the December launch of a long-range rocket and a third nuclear test in February, the florid declarations from Pyongyang have gotten the attention of the United States and its allies.
So why now, and how nervous should you be? Here are five things to consider.
It’s an inside game ...
Numerous analysts on both sides of the Pacific attribute the aggressive posture is part of an attempt by North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un to consolidate his power in the reclusive communist state founded by his grandfather.
“First and foremost, it’s for his domestic audience,” said Jasper Kim, founder of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group in Seoul, South Korea. “Because without the support of the military, he won’t be around for much longer. And so he has to bolster his support with the brass.”
That’s a tough sell for North Korea, “where age matters,” he added. Kim is believed to be 29.
Peter Hayes, director of the San Francisco-based Nautilus Institute, says there’s also a debate going on inside the North Korean leadership about the country’s future as a nuclear state.
One side wants “to be a nuclear-armed state that is able to behave like the recognized, legal nuclear weapons states and play their game and turn the tables on them,” Hayes said.
“That is, in my view, what is going on in the test and the rocket firing,” he said. “The other policy current is associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the international faction of the Korean Worker’s Party, which is to negotiate our way out of this mess.”
A recent statement from the foreign ministry declared that North Korea would not give up its nuclear “sacred sword” as long as the United States remains hostile – a conditional statement that signals Pyongyang may be willing to give up the bomb under the right circumstances, Hayes said.
… But the talk is bigger this time
“They say a lot of these kind of things, so there’s a tendency to treat it as the kind of stream of crazy you get from North Korea,” said Jeffrey Lewis, East Asia director at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “But this is not normal. It is more vitriolic.”
A recent statement by a top North Korean general specifically talked of hitting Washington with a nuclear weapon in the event of war. “That’s a pretty direct threat,” Lewis said.
The North Korean rhetoric ramped up after the February 12 nuclear test and the U.N. sanctions that followed. Meanwhile, Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, told CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” that North Korea has carried out some sort of military provocation within 14 weeks of every South Korean presidential inauguration since 1992. South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office on February 25, “so start the clock,” he said.
“What is not normal is that the backdrop for this is about a year of very unpredictable behavior by a new leadership, and a sequence of provocations that is more concentrated over a period of time than we have seen in the last 20 years,” he said. “So in that context, although to the average listener these threats may seem like it’s just the North Koreans firing their mouths off again, for those of us that look at this more closely this is a little bit different – and more concerning.”
Their nukes aren’t useful … yet
Most observers say Pyongyang is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile. While its scientists managed to lob a small satellite into space in December, putting a working device atop a missile, launching it and hitting a target with it is vastly more complicated, Hayes said.
But Lewis, who also runs the Arms Control Wonk blog, said the North Koreans may have tried to “skip a step” with its early bomb tests and build one small enough to fit on a missile. That might explain why its first two were relatively unsuccessful.
“I think it’s plausible to think that they have a warhead design in which they are confident that’s under 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) – still not as small as you need to put on a missile and launch it to the U.S., but closer than they were a couple of years ago,” he said.
And while Washington hasn’t come out and said it, Lewis said the March 15 announcement that the Pentagon will deploy additional ground-based missile interceptors on the West Coast may signal that the North Koreans have deployed a long-range missile they put on display at a parade in 2012. Lewis said the announcement was “mostly for show,” but could reflect real U.S. concerns about those missiles.
“If you’re going to spend $1 billion to deploy interceptors, they ought to come right out and say it,” he said.
But nukes aren’t everything
North Korea also has plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles, as well as thousands of cannons, rocket launchers and tanks massed across the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South. Seoul is within range of many of those weapons, and the North has threatened before to turn the southern capital into a “sea of fire.”