Recent events in divided Korea have prompted international speculation as to the outcome. Will there be a conventional or even a nuclear war? Is all of this posturing and saber rattling steps to the first major conflict since the (unofficial) end of the Korean war in 1953? It seems apparent that North Korea is a nation used to both hyperbolic and inflammatory statements. Even the severing of the armistice and so-called ‘hotline’ between the two nations is nothing new. North Korea’s withdrawal from the armistice, essentially a cease-fire agreement that nevertheless declares the two countries to still be in a state of war, has happened no less than six times already.
The major difference now, of course, is that North Korea has proven itself a nuclear capable nation – and possibly one with an effective long-range delivery mechanism. Still, why go to all of this trouble and antagonize its neighbor and the international community? Is this time different than the many others in which Kim Jong-Il pressured and prodded both enemies and allies during his reign?
Kim Jong-un poses something of a riddle in the world of global politics. He is a young (best guesses put him between 28 and 30 years old) and powerfully placed leader with access to a sizable military force. But reports are emerging that Kim Jong-un may not be nearly as well-liked among his most important branch – the military – as we have been led to believe. There has been talk, coming from South Korean intelligence, that Kim Jong-un may have had both an attempted assassination and a possible military coup to deal with last year.The timing of these events seem suspiciously linked to the massive uptick in North Korean rhetoric we have seen lately.
Perhaps North Korea’s military tires of constantly preparing and drilling for a war they desperately want, and has never come in their lifetimes? Even more curious, perhaps they feel that Kim Jong-un does not have the political and popular clout his father did. Replacing him, as the intelligence suggests, may have crossed at least a few minds. The tensions and provocative language we are now seeing in North Korea may simply be the desperate attempts of a struggling leader to regain power and refocus his military on a task other than his removal. In some ways, maybe Kim Jong-un has no other choice but to go to war. For all our sakes, I hope that is not the case.
PhD Candidate in the Political Science program at Simon Fraser University