GPS speaks with Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, about the latest developments in North Korea.
The past few weeks have seen North Korean threats of striking the United States, turning a South Korean island into a sea of fire, and “cracking the windpipes” of the country’s enemies. Is this the usual saber rattling that we’ve come to expect of North Korea, or is there something more to this?
It’s usual in the sense that we’ve grown used to North Korea’s blustery rhetoric, threatening others. So that part of it is normal. 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. 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.
Is this rhetoric largely for a domestic audience? Is it a sign that Kim Jong Un is struggling to stamp his authority?
Certainly, part of the explanation could be a domestic one, in the sense that he needs to demonstrate his legitimacy as a 28 year-old that is taking over power. But the other thing that I think from a U.S. national security perspective is that this speaks to how unpredictability is really the new normal in dealing with North Korea. North Korea may have seemed unpredictable before. But for policymakers, Pyongyang was actually fairly decipherable. The thing is that now, no one would have predicted that Kim would sit there and spend a whole day with Dennis Rodman, but wouldn’t even meet the chairman of Google. If this guy is really interested in reform, then even just a handshake with the chairman of Google would have signaled that he was somewhat serious. But no, he didn’t do that. So it’s that aspect of it that is concerning and also makes it difficult to say for sure that he is doing this just for domestic legitimacy.
Back in 2010, we saw the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel. South Korea’s response was, I think it’s fair to say, pretty restrained. Would they be so restrained if something similar happened again?
No, I think if there were another provocation that resulted in a loss of life in the Republic of Korea, then there would be a kinetic response from South Korea. I think they’ve made it clear in the aftermath of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong events, and I think the military has rewritten their rules of engagement, such that they are hardwired to respond in a way that it’s a military decision and not a political decision as it has been for the past 40 years.
Do you think North Korea senses this and so will avoid stepping over the line South Korea has drawn in the sand?
One hopes that’s the case. In spite of all the rhetoric, there are a couple of things that point to the possibility of at least some restraint in North Korean behavior in the near future. The first is that the U.S. and South Korea are in the middle of military exercises, and I think even the North Koreans know that it’s not smart to do something in the middle of military exercises.
I think the second thing is that one of the roles that China has been playing has been, through their own channels, to tell the North Koreans – especially after the Cheonan sinking – that they think the South Koreans will respond. It is much more credible if the Chinese say that to the North Koreans than if the South Koreans say that or we say that.
So I think those two things are positive. And I hope that it will lead to more moderate behavior in the near term. But we did a study at CSIS that showed that North Korea does do a military provocation within 12 to 14 weeks of every South Korean presidential inauguration, going back to 1992. That means within the next three weeks or so, we may see something else from the North. That is a striking pattern. The South Korean president was inaugurated on February 25, so start the clock.