North Korea's bark worse than bite
April 4th, 2013
05:42 PM ET

North Korea's bark worse than bite

This is an updated version of an article published on March 28.

By James Hardy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: James Hardy is Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. The views expressed are his own.

North Korea’s warning Thursday that a “moment of explosion” is nearing has further stoked already intense speculation over its motives following last week’s announcement that it was preparing to target Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Pyongyang may have moved a missile to the east coast of the country.

But the fact is that despite the bombast, and unless there has been a miraculous turnaround among North Korea’s strategic forces, there is little to no chance that it could successfully land a missile on Guam, Hawaii or anywhere else outside the Korean Peninsula that U.S. forces may be stationed.

Even if North Korea did have the capability and chose to use it, the likelihood of an overwhelming U.S. military counterattack would render any such attack self-defeating for Kim Jong Un’s regime. Indeed, as Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman tweeted a few weeks ago, any such move would amount to "North Korea basically telling the world it would like to be made into a parking lot.”

This hasn’t stopped North Korea trying to muddy the water – its threats against U.S. bases were accompanied by images of the latest drills by the Korean People's Army. Witnessed by Kim, images flashed up of female North Korean soldiers firing Type 63 multiple rocket launchers and a massed hovercraft landing on a tidal flat. The problem is that there’s a good chance the images were photoshopped. Aside from that, all we were treated to was Kim operating some pretty rickety computer systems.

It is, of course, easy to dismiss North Korean rhetoric, because most of the time it seems so detached from the rest of the world's version of reality. But as any longtime Pyongyang watcher will tell you, underneath the verbal pyrotechnics there is an undeniable logic to the North's pronouncements.

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In this case, Kim is under probably the greatest international pressure he has experienced since taking over from his father in December 2011. February’s nuclear test appears to have been a step too far for China, which is reportedly actually enforcing the U.N. Security Council sanctions that it joined in passing earlier this month. Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea have concluded a series of major military exercises, and agreed to a contingency plan to deal with any North Korean “provocations.” This agreement is vital for the United States, which had seen South Korean patience with its northern neighbor shrivel following the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of the same year. The last thing the U.S. wants is an overreaction by South Korea that could lead to a full-blown international crisis.

Kim is also responding to the announcement by new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the continental U.S. is going to get more ballistic missile defense interceptors based in Alaska, specifically to neutralize any potential North Korean threat.

So Kim's under international pressure. And he's also probably under considerable internal pressure to maintain the Songun, or “military first” policy espoused by his father that ties the regime's success to the armed forces. Certainly, speculation that Kim's accession would see a rebalancing of the North Korean political system away from the military and toward the Korean People's Party has been rebutted by the predominantly military postures he has adopted in recent months.

But this is just some background to last week’s threats, and begs the question of whether North Korea’s bark is worse that its bite. The answer is probably yes.

North Korea doesn't appear to have the capability to carry out its latest threat to attack U.S. bases in Hawaii, Guam or the U.S. mainland. From what we know of its existing inventory, it does have Scud derived missiles that could complicate the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and they could likely reach Japan. But anything further is probably an empty threat.

For all the hoopla surrounding the Unha-3 rocket that was used to launch a satellite in December 2012, the fact remains that it was ballistic missile technology, not a ballistic missile. That leaves the KN-08, which was unveiled at last April’s military parade in Pyongyang. Hagel's announcement that the U.S. was ramping up its ballistic missile defenses on the west coast/Alaska was interesting because Pentagon officials used the KN-08 as a rationale for the move, but then refused to divulge the intelligence they have on it.

There are two possible trains of thought on this: either America knows something about this missile that means it is taking it seriously, or it is using its existence as an excuse to ramp up their Asia-Pacific facing missile defenses. The latter would tie into Washington's “pivot” plans for Asia-Pacific, but will not be lost on China, which has already signaled its lack of enthusiasm for any such moves.

All this said, the KN-08, if it becomes operational, is still likely to pose a problem for the United States in the medium to long term. But for now, North Korea is not in a position to wage a war with the United States or South Korea, and will instead have to rely on asymmetric “provocations.” What could these involve? Most likely, activities such as last month’s cyber attack on South Korean media and banks. Or, if Kim needs more bang for his buck, then another shelling of South Korea's Yellow Sea islands or even a naval skirmish.

Regardless, the logic behind them all is clear: as long as the U.S. threatens regime survival, whether by sanctions or treaty alliances, the North Korean regime will do its damnedest to make life difficult for Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. But those bases that Kim has been threatening will be safe for a while yet.

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Topics: North Korea

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. vonrock

    Planes crashed into buildings ,suicide boomers, kamikaze pilots, I know you could name all the other surprises we knew about. like weapons of mass destruction and hidden brief bombs. N. Korean is hungry and harmless....

    April 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  2. wjmccartan

    Thank you, Mr. Hardy. Yes, North Korea does not have the capacity to launch any massive strike anytime soon, but the right-wing politicians in Washington are saying otherwise in order to scare the public. Unfortunately, they have been only too successful in that endeavor!

    April 4, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    My question is, what will China do in response to the North vs South Korean war, with the US helping the south. Can China choose to freeze US loan payments or halt banking infrastructure if they deem our actions unfair?

    April 4, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
    • johnnyvistar

      China will never jeopardise its international trade on account of North Korea's irrational war (if any). It is important for them to remain non-committal on this issue.

      This is the latest statement from China on NKs nuclear missile threat when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was asked if China would discourage North Korea from carrying out a nuclear test: –

      “Properly dealing with the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and safeguarding peace and stability of the peninsula and Northeast Asia serves the common interests and is also the shared responsibility of all relevant parties.”

      “China is committed to the realization of denuclearization as well as peace and stability on the peninsula,”

      “This position is clear and consistent. We call on parties concerned to refrain from taking actions that may escalate the tension in the region, and hope more could be done to ease the tension so as to jointly safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula.”

      China prefer denuclearisation in the Asian peninsula. Which also means China is not encouraging or happy with North Korea's nuclear missile ambition.

      April 5, 2013 at 1:17 am | Reply
      • JAL

        Thanks for taking the time here Johnny! I learned something new!

        April 5, 2013 at 6:17 am |
  4. James M

    What is to stop NK from mounting their mobile missiles on ships or into holds of ships that can travel off the coast of the US and launch from point blank range?

    April 5, 2013 at 12:16 am | Reply
  5. johnnyvistar

    Finally North Korea is expected to launch a missile attack. Wow, this is going to be great. Because we could possibly witness the destruction of Pyongyang, and see North Korean civilians living outside of the capital being freed from captivity.

    No way NK's limited nuclear bomb armed missiles (I dont believe they have any) is enough to win any war or cause a major destruction to any country. But at least it would be a reasonable excuse for South Korea and its allies to counter attack instantly. I expect US drones are also ready to seek out the enemy leaders, and exterminate them like rats.

    April 5, 2013 at 1:05 am | Reply
  6. johnnyvistar

    Outside of all the North Korean leaders' cartoonish war rhetorics lie the facts (as provided by North Koreans) that NK civilians want t to be freed from hungry – and imprisonment by a cruel NK regime.

    April 5, 2013 at 1:25 am | Reply
  7. Andrew

    The key for U.S.A. success is to discontinue collaboration with Koreans. It is not about political and ideological division, but it is about professional military strategies. No support for South Korea, would bring great benefits to the U.S.A. and Western World – we cannot deny – for wellness for our future generations. Do not worry about Koreans, they have stronger and more powerful corporations, and very strong military.

    April 5, 2013 at 6:10 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    Neither China nor Russia are pleased with the escalation on the Korean Peninsula. In fact China will have to give its own nuclear deterrent another thought.
    Russia has condemned Pyongyang's attempts to "violate decisions of the UN Security Council". Moscow is said to be concerned that the West might try to use the crisis to boost its military presence in the region, and hopes that Beijing will knock some sense into the young Kim's head.

    April 5, 2013 at 7:30 am | Reply
  9. Pete

    It's a no win situation for either Koreas because if war does start from the norths initiating than you'll see after it something that S.Korea or China doesn't want or needs,a mass migration from N Korea to other regions and thats been made perfectly clear because N Korea is a starving nation like it or not!!And remember we have off their coasts subs with nuclear capabilities well within our reach which again Un is probibly well aware of..But with great weaponry comes even greater responsibilities and is N Korea ready to run with the big boys in nuclear weaponry,I think not so tell Un to stay home till the wetness is dry behind his arrogent Koreans ears and he'll know better through time and experience as most dictators do!!

    April 5, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • johnnyvistar

      True. China simply dont want any trouble near its borders.

      Interestingly, China made that very clear to their fellow communist ally Vietnam in 1979 by invading Vietnam. The attack took place after Vietnam had just kicked out the pro Beijing Pol Pot regime and overan Cambodia in 1978..

      China's twenty-nine-day incursion into Vietnam in February 1979 was a response to what China considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies on Hanoi's part.

      One of these policies of Hanoi then was their hegemonistic "imperial dreams" in Southeast Asia, and spurning of Beijing's attempt to repatriate Chinese residents of Vietnam to China.

      I dont know what China have in mind right now about NK. But I guess Beijing should be very worried by the rising tension in the region, and the potential problem of fleeing NK refugees to their terriroty.. It would also potentially disrupt China's international trade.

      April 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Reply
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