Saber-rattling can once again be heard reverberating from
the Korean Peninsula as the North Korean government renews its
aggressive rhetoric against its southern counterpart and American
ally. The country has threatened nuclear war, and current rumors
suggest North Korea’s intentions to launch another controversial
missile test. Long ago labeled “The Hermit Kingdom” for its
isolation from the West, North Korea honors economic
self-sufficiency as a central principle of the government’s
foundational juche philosophy that reveres the ruling Kim family by
deification. Treatment of the North Korean people, including the
construction of large prison camps that employ forced labor, has
spurred global controversy and discussion, further perpetuating the
country as a pariah among nations. The totalitarian government has
maintained a remarkable hold over the flow of material and
information within its borders but has been marred by consequential
economic realities, especially food shortages. According to
Benjamin Cohen, Professor of Political Science at UCSB, this
provides the impetus for much of the North Korean government’s
bluster. “North Koreans have made it a kind of business to
periodically make a lot of threats and allow themselves to be
bought off,” Cohen said. “The pattern in the past has always
resulted in some kind of concession or concessions to North Korea.”
Past concessions with North Korea have involved food or other types
of aid in exchange for continued peace or Potemkin negotiations
over its nuclear weapons program. Continued development of nuclear
weapons acts as the centerpiece of all interactions with North
Korea, Cohen said. It has sought nuclear weapons as a bargaining
chip and method to increase the credibility of its military
threats, since its conventional forces, though great in number, are
largely decrepit. This has been especially important since the
collapse of the Soviet Union, whose support was vital to the
regime, and it has since successfully detonated a nuclear bomb. The
United States refused recent demands from North Korea to be
recognized as a nuclear power, insisting that the program be
dismantled as a condition for negotiations. According to Cohen,
this progress is precisely what sets the current bombast and
threats apart from similar instances in the past. Cohen said their
threats do not possess enough credibility since they are not
mobilizing their armed forces and lack a sufficient delivery system
for a nuclear warhead. “There is really nothing new qualitatively …
what’s new is that they are closer to actually being able to
deliver on these nuclear threats,” Cohen said. “They are not there
yet, but they are getting closer with each new year that they try.”
Cohen also said another dimension to recent events is the
ascendancy of the young Kim Jong-un as Supreme Leader, who may feel
the need to prove himself or assert his authority among party
apparatchiks and generals. “This is a very good way for him to
solidify his image of leadership,” Cohen said. “He will be able to
say, ‘I stood up to the Americans.’ … There was bound to be
something of this kind in his first year or so as a way of building
his credibility.” Perhaps integral to the situation for the U.S.
and its allies is North Korea’s relationship with China. Though
ideological ties have ossified, China has nonetheless remained a
critical provider of economic and diplomatic support to North
Korea, and acts as a mediator for traditional diplomacy between
North Korea and the U.S. Cohen cited recidivist tendencies and
vested interests as an obstacle for North Korea to reform, noting
that changes in China triggers changes in the behavior of North
Korea. “They have changed their leadership … but we don’t know how
much actual change there will be,” Cohen said. Additionally, Cohen
said China’s interests in the peninsula are far more practical than
ideological. “The day is long gone when [China] needs to have a
socialist ally,” Cohen said. “They don’t need North Korea, but they
do need stability … and the last thing they want is the collapse of
the regime in North Korea or war on the Korean Peninsula, which
would create a major swell of refugees into China, or worse.” As a
result, Cohen said he does not expect much change in China’s policy
toward North Korea as they continue to provide support and seek to
avoid any escalation of conflict, as evidenced by their rebuke of
North Korea over the most recent speculation of impending missile
tests. Meanwhile, other nations are at an impasse with a perpetual
cycle of intimidation and concession as North Korea advances its
nuclear capabilities. According to Cohen, short of war, states are
left with relatively weak instruments of policy, made all the less
effective against North Korea due to its totalitarian system. “From
a U.S. point of view, I think the best policy possible is a
combination of firm diplomacy, drawing the lines, making the lines
clear and together refusing to offer any kind of bribery,” Cohen
said. “We haven’t yet gotten the ability to exercise economic
coercion because they are basically not part of the world economy,
and the only country in a position to exercise economic coercion on
North Korea is, of course, China.” Cohen cited the cooling down of
Pyongyang’s recent rhetoric and said he sees promise in a united
front to refuse concession. Thus far, Washington and Seoul have
stood firm but restrained. The U.S. responded to the missile
threat, saying it would deploy missile defense systems to the
region but also commenting that in large part the threats lack
credibility. In the long run, Cohen said, cracks in the edifice of
the North Korean State will emerge. For instance, some have pointed
to a growing black market middle-class as an incipient source of
power outside Pyongyang. According to Cohen, it appears that if war
is to be avoided in the meantime, few options exist but to stand
firm and signal to North Korea that the cycle of easy concessions
to purchase peace will not continue. It has been said that
“patience is the companion of wisdom,” but as the threat of a
potentially nuclear war looms, the wisdom of patience is far from
certain.   Tanks roll through the
streets of a North Korean city. This is part of the totalitarian
state’s renewed aggressive rhetoric towards its counterparts. Tanks roll through the
streets of a North Korean city. This is part of the totalitarian
state’s renewed aggressive rhetoric towards its
counterparts. PHOTO COURTESY OF A
version of this article appeared on page 3 of the Tuesday, April
30th, 2013 print edition of
the Nexus.