Is Kim Jong Un more bellicose than his dad was?
May 23rd, 2013
09:17 AM ET

Is Kim Jong Un more bellicose than his dad was?

By Troy Stangarone, Andrew Kwon and Peter Taves, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Troy Stangarone is the senior director of Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Andrew Kwon is a recent Masters of International Security graduate from the University of Sydney. Peter Taves is a Masters of International Economic Relations candidate at American University. The views expressed are the authors’ own.

Whether threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” or describing the recent summit meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye as a prelude to war, over-the-top rhetoric has become almost an art form for the leadership in Pyongyang. Under Kim Jong Il, the United States and South Korea grew accustomed to North Korea engaging in threats to extract concessions as Pyongyang mastered the art of crisis escalation, only to dial tensions down when the time was right to get what it wanted. But if the language used under Kim Jong Il was calculated for effect, the thinking behind Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric is much less clear.

While the events of recent months contain certain familiar elements, there has been a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in their intensity, and a longer duration than in previous crises. This is reflected in an analysis of the rhetoric used in current and previous crises in North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which shows the use of terms such as “war,” and “nuclear” far more prevalent than terms such as “peace,” and “reconciliation.”

Yet even though the volume of provocative statements coming out of North Korea has been particularly high in recent months, the shift under Kim Jong Un predates the crisis of the past few months. Indeed, as early as January 2012, Kim Jong Un’s first full month in power, there were almost as many references to war in KCNA as during the height of the 2009 nuclear crisis – and they have only increased from there. In 2009, for example, mentions of war in KCNA only exceeded 200 during the months when Pyongyang evicted International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and it was sanctioned by the United Nations. In 2012, however, references to war never fell below 217 in a month, with more than 300 every month except January and November.

More from GPS: What next from North Korea?

Interestingly, there seems to be a pattern in North Korea’s use of the terms “war” and “peace” – they are used in tandem, at a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. In 1998, during an earlier crisis, war was used on average 1.98 times for every usage of peace. In 2009, the ratio rose slightly to 2.11. And in 2012, the ratio rose to 2.38, despite relative calm for most of the year.

There has also been a notable increase in North Korea’s use of “nuclear” in rhetoric under Kim Jong Un. Overall, references to “nuclear” have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012, and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012. Meanwhile, North Korea’s use of more positive terms such as “reconciliation” has been inconsistent. Mentions of “reconciliation” fell between 1998 and 2009, yet rose between 2009 and 2012, only to fall again over the first three months of 2013.

North Korean rhetoric under Kim Jong Il, while certainly bellicose, was calculated, predictable, and occasionally even conciliatory – First Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan at one point even argued that dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons without a peace treaty would be “unreasonable.” As recently as 2005, Kim Jong Il’s government talked of the potential for “friendship” between the United States and North Korea, with Kim Jong Il admitting later that he thought “favorably” of the United States.

Kim Jong Un, in contrast, has consistently opted for escalation. Where Kim Jong Il’s threats were largely innocuous and vague, with references to “effective countermeasures,” his son has designated specific targets or even threatened pre-emptive war.

The big mystery is: why? Kim Jong Il, after all, clearly used hostile rhetoric to extract political and material concessions from the West, such as light water reactors and bilateral talks with the United States. Kim Jong Un’s motivations, in contrast, are much less clear.

Many analysts have suggested that, along with the need to consolidate power domestically, the regime is setting the stage for future negotiations. Yet Pyongyang has made clear that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, calling them “the nation’s life.” And, in contrast with North Korea’s previous approach, Kim Jong Un has made virtually no demands of the West other than halfhearted appeals for a peace treaty.

The events of recent months, including this past week’s multiple missile launches, have underscored how different – and much more provocative – Kim Jong Un is willing to be than his father. And the pattern of the regime’s rhetoric underscores this is not just a response to developments in the past few months. The question now is how much further Kim the younger is willing to push the envelope.

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Topics: Asia • North Korea

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    Trust is the key question here.
    Is South-Korea a trusted alliance to the West?

    Remember, we live in a kind of segregations kind Community living in the Western World.
    Eg.; Jewish community,
    Korean community,
    Chinese community,
    Italian community,......

    Here, each community cares only for its own.
    That is why Jewish gave a priority for their own brave and lazy people, whenever there are Government job available. Proof? Look around. Jewish are using Orientals, specifically, Fillipinos as a back or as a cover-up, to do evil things.

    No doubt, jewish will become worst enemy to the West and Christians in general, if they got full oppertunity.

    Currently, Jeffrey (jewish-Canadian) Federal Agent, got caught Red-handed, when he tried to sell and negotiated top Canada's secrets to Russia for $70,000.00.

    Thought motives against Canada by Jewish?

    Yes, jew are holding back and sticking with their past negative experiences, the same as they are sticking with Hitler issues.
    They were being told:-
    1) jewish and Dogs, not allowed in our BEACHES. Because, they both carrying diseases.
    2) jewish never closed their Eyes, we better not to trust them.
    3) Before HIV/AIDS was discovered in 1984, jewish were being infected with it in 1982 by Red-Cross blood transffusion.
    However, as we all know, Billions of Dollars and other favouritism has been granted and given to Jewish from the year 1995 until recently by Canadian and American Governments.

    Few days ago, Ryan (Jewish) purposely and carelessly, offered the Russian Agent Million Dollars just to cause problems between Russia and America.

    The motives are:-
    1) jew still holding back the past negative treatments by U.S.A.
    2) Currently, jew wrote Book about past American President Grant Ullysis. Jew says, "General Grant expelled Jews".

    So, Jewish must be monitored very-well, by concerned Americans.

    May 23, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • The Decline

      Dude, what are you talking about??? This article is about DPNK and you are spewing antisemitic BS???? What is wrong with you? How disgusting....

      May 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Loganberry

      Ha! Another brainless anti-Semite who sees Jews behind everything. Listen, slick – you want to know who's responsible for your pathetic life? Look into the nearest mirror.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
    • Papalaz

      Agree 100%

      May 25, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • David

      youree making me laugh I rather protect Isreal its the holy city in the christians view according to the bible

      May 25, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
    • Sammy

      C'mon, I think you've got some Jewish blood in you. I can tell.

      May 25, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  2. The Maeven

    Promoting genocide is an arrogant, hateful, disgusting thing to do, thus you are disgusting. This opinion thread is not a forum for hatred of the Jewish people/state. It is to discuss North Korea. Shame on you, you hate-monger. Some of the most intelligent and hard working people I know are Jews. You, however are neither.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  3. John

    USA should not engage in any activity with Koreans. Neither North, nor South Korea are no trustworthy partners, and any collaboration is not legal according to international laws, and not aligned with the NATO alliance.

    May 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  4. Ira Besserman

    I heard Un has already turned over a new leaf:

    May 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  5. giggig

    USA should not engage in any activity with Koreans.
    Neither North, nor South Korea are no trustworthy partners,
    I guess you wanted to say:

    USA should not engage in any activity with Koreans. Neither North, nor South Korea are trustworthy partners.
    1945 by UN mandate as a resolve of WW2 we were assigned and had agreed to occupy SK.Nobody was questioning the trustworthyness of SK.. NK was the protectorate of Stalin and no engagement was in effect to any inter-actions with NK.
    After each nation proclaimed, it becomes very interesting what you claim here.After Jun 1950,when stalin this thug organized a aggression war, the UN had to mandate a coalition to re-install Souveranity and Justice over the war parties.
    Further your statements regarding Intl.Law and NATO :
    any collaboration is not legal according to international laws,
    and not aligned with the NATO alliance.
    Needs time for me to reseach , i will answer later in this blog.

    May 23, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
    • giggig

      Nato saved us in th cold war,to win the cold war.Nato made peace possible in Kosovo and accomplished the end of a brutal dictator in Lybia. International law does not provide articles that p prevent Treaty's ,pacts.agreements. There would have never Kuwait invaded by Saddam mnever Southkorea invated by Stalinand china. If Natin would follow intl LAW.The war of aggression is a violation of intl LAW and to enforce it
      mandates by UN become relevant .And in most cases USA becomes relevant if accepting such mandate and using force.

      May 25, 2013 at 12:32 am | Reply
      • Cathy

        If USA are part in NATO alliance, then USA can not act alone. Neither, USA can not be in collaboration with South Korea, if not approved from NATO. No nonsense talk, please.

        May 25, 2013 at 6:53 am |
  6. Joseph McCarthy

    If Kim Jong Un is more bellicose than his father was, can anyone truly blame him? Yes they can, by reason of the politics of hunger applied to his country. We need to become more reasonable and engage this man in talks.

    May 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
    • JoeP199

      We have been more than reasonable. It's up to Kim and the rest of the North Korean government to grow up and deal with the rest of the world like adults.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  7. pnm9pnm

    most likely he,ll wate till i die an keep it up till i am 16 like veitnam did yet it,s a long way down king kong of asia,.pnm,.

    May 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    It looks as if Kim Jong-un breaks the family tradition. His father and grandfather made huge efforts to maintain good relations with China. As a result of the young Kim's flexing muscles recently the Bank of China has closed the account of North Korea's main foreign exchange bank, sending a signal that Beijing is losing patience with Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un would better stop ignoring China's demands and creating instability on the Korean Peninsula.

    May 24, 2013 at 9:06 am | Reply
  9. And

    And much fatter too!!!!

    May 24, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
  10. amerkle

    If you want foreign aid all you have to do is ask nicely N. Korea.

    May 24, 2013 at 10:12 am | Reply
  11. Heine

    No business with North Korea. No business with South Korea. No "Koreans" in Western World.

    May 25, 2013 at 3:06 am | Reply
    • Anonymous

      Yeah, because not engaging with one of the most technologically advanced and wealthy countries in the world is a benefit to the West.

      May 25, 2013 at 8:34 am | Reply
  12. desert voice

    Normally, in the rational world, policies that prove fatally flawed over many decades, are discarded by the subsequent leaders. Kim Jong Un however decided to test them once again ... against the nuclear option. It failed again, dramatically. So I say to my friend, Kim: don't try to outsmart the world of human experience! Go back to what may work!

    May 25, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
  13. John McLemore

    Who's to say that saying "war" more means anything? Couldn't it be that the North Koreans are just using propaganda more frequently? What seems to me that would actually indicate any important change would be a significant shift in the ratio between "war" and "peace," which you indicate hasn't changed much ofver the years. That would say to me that nothing has changed other than the Koreans willingness to use propaganda. The data presented doesnt look like it really means anything other than that. North Korea is the same as its always been in that regard, as far as i'm concerned, and i've been following it for 15 years.

    May 25, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  14. John Doughboy

    Is Kim Bellicose? He may be belligerent and at the same time have a large BELLY because of his general appearance. He doesn't seem to be starving from the photos seen in the media.

    May 26, 2013 at 1:26 am | Reply
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      August 29, 2017 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  15. lweba

    I'm told Kim once lived in the West, as a student. Did he make any friends during his stay in the West? If he did what do his former student friends say about him?

    May 26, 2013 at 2:45 am | Reply
  16. desert voice

    Kim is under the dubious impression that the nukes "is all North Korea has." Sometimes such psychological misperceptions occur. They are called "mirages." They can also be a product of a dismally flawed critical analysis. What Kim probably has not been told, is that what North Korea needs, in terms of her "life," is not nuclear bombs, but nuclear electric reactors! This nuance is probably what skews his thinking. The West probably would have no objection for the North having nuclear energy!

    May 26, 2013 at 10:49 am | Reply
  17. chris516

    Kim Jong-Un, is an idiot, like his father(Kim Jong-Il) n' grandfather(Kim Il-Sung). None of them were/are good people.

    May 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply
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    June 24, 2013 at 7:47 am | Reply

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