Feature: Why are Americans Suddenly Losing it Over North Korea?

Tag: commentary, conflict, media hype, north korea, War

Swayed by a hyped-up media machine in the states, a majority of Americans are beating the drums of imminent war with North Korea. South Koreans, on the other hand, seem barely affected by it at all. What’s really going on here? David C. Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute and a Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, gives his take on the situation here on the peninsula.

BUSAN, South Korea -- According to a poll released by South Korean daily Donga Ilbo last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war. In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the US.

So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans are over-reacting. Hmmm… I wonder which it is.

A few comments:

Reading the entire statements by the KCNA would actually give a fairly clear view of North Korea’s position. The problem is that most North Korean statements reported in the Western press are done so with the first clause missing. That is, almost all North Korean rhetoric is of the form “If you attack us first, we will hit you back.” Incidentally, that’s what we’re telling the North Koreans, too.

If you can ignore the hilarious communist-style rhetoric about "capitalist running dogs" and the like, the situation is actually quite stable, because, despite their bluster, the North Korean rhetoric is also cast almost entirely in deterrent terms. For example, although widely reported as a threat to preemptively attack the US with nuclear weapons, the full quote from the KCNA April 4 reads:

“We will take second and third countermeasures of greater intensity against the reckless hostilities of the United States and all the other enemies… Now that the U.S. imperialists seek to attack the DPRK with nuclear weapons, it will counter them with diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style… The army and people of the DPRK have everything including lighter and smaller nukes unlike what they had in the past.”

Clearly intended to deter, clearly saying that North Korea will respond if attacked first.

Second – why are we playing this game? North Korean rhetoric should be ignored as the empty threats that they are. Perhaps there could be one or two mild statements from the US reminding North Korea that we can crush them like a grape whenever we want. But after that, why are we allowing North Korea to set the tone? Why do we let them make us react? I may be missing something here about this all being an indirect show of force for China, or something clever like that, but still. This is getting ridiculous.

Third, I remain mystified why this is a crisis. I was quite surprised a few weeks ago when everybody got upset. After all, North Korea is only talking – they haven’t actually done anything yet. There has been no attack on the US, not even a skirmish over the NLL. So why are we reacting this way now?

Finally, you can never, ever, go wrong being a pessimistic realist. This, as Professor Robert Kelly has said, is really good theoretical insight, because it allows realism to be nearly unfalsifiable yet sound ‘clear-eyed’. i.e., I don’t know, the situation looks dangerous…power is all that matters in international relations…things can get really bad, nuclear war is just one hair-trigger, slight miscalculation away. You could be 100 percent wrong, but nobody will ever accuse you of being naïve.

I think it's worthy to point out that while it’s important to be careful around the peninsula, deterrence has been extraordinarily stable for the past 60 years. Why? Because we believe what they say, that they will fight back and destroy Seoul, and I am quite sure they believe us when we say we will fight back and end the regime. Far from being one mistake away from the Second Korean War, we have experienced numerous shooting incidents in which people died but no all-out war occurred.

David C. Kang is Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, as well as director of the Korean Studies Institute. You can see a selection of his books here.

This post was originally run on Pusan National University Professor Robert Kelly's Asian Security Blog.

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