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.
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.