From the hysterical TV portrayals of goose-stepping North Korean troops, breathless news reports of North Korean warnings of war, and maps depicting the range of imminent missile launches (complete with retired U.S. generals explaining the targets), you might think there is a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. But there is no crisis, only a farce.
This time around, it is louder and more melodramatic. But we have seen time and again North Korea throwing a political tantrum in response to annual U.S.-ROK military exercises or the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions in response to Pyongyang testing a nuclear device or launching a missile.
The notion of a “crisis”—as in the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis—is nonsense. The world is not on the brink of an imminent nuclear confrontation. North Korean troops and artillery are not about to pour across the Demilitarized Zone.
This is all nothing more than political theater. Kim may be dangerous, but he is not crazy: North Korea is not suicidal. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests are not really “provocations.” They are part of a systematic military program that North Korea has been working on for more than forty years to obtain nuclear and missile capabilities. Diplomatic concessions in the past have affected the timing and perhaps the amount of missile and nuclear tests. But they have gone and will continue to go forward because the North Koreans want to gain such weapons.
In the past, North Korean actions have been designed to create tensions in order to extract concessions. But the Obama administration and that of the new ROK President Park Geun-hye have made it clear that they have both seen that movie before and are not buying it.
So what is the point of it? The conventional wisdom to explain North Korea’s actions is that this is primarily about a new twenty-nine-year-old trying to consolidate his position by demonstrating how tough and courageous he is to the North Korean military and political elite.
That may be part of the answer. But let me offer an explanation that has been noticeably absent in the sea of commentary on North Korea in recent weeks.
It’s possible that the core reason North Korea’s new leaders decided they needed to whip up a sense of crisis—of a nation under siege and facing impending attack from outside enemies—is because they are insecure and fear a fragile internal situation that is increasingly difficult to control.
Since the end of the Cold War (and Soviet aid) North Korea’s economic system has steadily broken down. Since the great famine in 1995, there have been continual food shortages facing by some estimates up to one-third of North Korea’s twenty-three million people.
The breakdown of Pyongyang’s food-distribution system led the government to allow private markets and some private plots. There has been a bottom-up second economy taking shape. In recent years, markets have sprung up all over North Korea with a growing array of goods indulged by the regime as a coping mechanism. A fledgling merchant stratum has sprung up; it is occasionally harassed, but tolerated, and exists largely outside the government.
At the same time, despite efforts to keep the nation isolated, several factors—including economic trade and refugee flows to China, CDs and broadcasts from South Korea, and now some five million cellphones—have made its borders more porous and information flows more accessible. To the degree that North Koreans get a dose of reality about the outside world, the myths of a “socialist paradise” by which the regime misgoverns start to unravel. If the twenty-three million North Koreans realize the massive lies fed to them to sustain the world’s only hereditary Stalinist dictatorship, it could gradually undo the regime.
This is not to argue that the masses are poised to revolt. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Pyongyang still runs a terror state with some two hundred thousand in labor camps, and those caught trying to flee the country are frequently executed. But the current situation may be viewed by the regime as discomforting and fragile, with its efforts to seal off the country from reality increasingly more than fraying at the edges.
At the onset of a new leader’s tenure, how better to reassert tight control over its beleaguered citizens and whip up support for the regime than to instill fear and claim that the U.S. imperialists are on the verge of starting a nuclear war. This involved going to great lengths, including telling foreign embassies to evacuate Pyongyang and warning foreigners in South Korea to leave before the war starts. It’s great theater, and about as real as Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of a Martian invasion.
If you have any doubt about what a contrivance, a pure farce—rather than a crisis—North Korea’s antics are, how about this: North Korea has now invited athletes to a marathon and ten-day film festival in Pyongyang in mid-April.
That is an anticlimax hard to top. The administration has handled this tempest in a teapot well, with its military show of force sending a clear signal to the twenty-nine-year-old Kim that this is not a video game, and that Pyongyang should think twice before confronting the United States and its allies. So long as Kim wants his nuclear weapons, there is little room for problem-solving diplomacy.
Americans like to think that all problems have solutions. But the deep levels of distrust on both sides and an anachronistic regime trapped in its own myths leave little to seriously talk about. Pyongyang should recall that the Soviet Union had thirty thousand nuclear warheads, yet that didn’t save it from collapsing from its own contradictions.
Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor from 2001 to 2004 and as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Slowking4. CC BY-SA 3.0.