Serious armed clash highly unlikely, by Andrei Lankov

[In an article written for a Russian newspaper, historian Andrei Lankov, of Kookmin University in Seoul, believes that North Korea has nothing to gain from excessive confrontation at this stage. He estimates chances for anything serious to happen are 0.0%, and chances of a minor shooting are, perhaps, 5% at most at this stage. But this does not mean that things will remain calm in future, according to Lankov. If South Korea does not increase its payments to the North by early fall, the DPRK may indeed do a bit of shooting — just to teach the SK elite and its public an object lesson, explaining to them that paying Pyongyang is the cheaper option. We post his article courtesy the Nelson Report. –CanKor]

(Photo by NKVision)

(Photo by NKVision)

If the world media is to be believed, the Korean Peninsula is now on the brink of war. Indeed, over the last few days the North Korean government has been pumping out seriously bellicose rhetoric.

The DPRK stated that it will withdrew from the Armistice treaty from March 11, and cut the phone hot line between Pyongyang and Seoul. It also withdrew from its non-aggression pact with South Korea. Meanwhile, Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the North Korean government, ran an editorial in which it stated that the glorious North Korean army, newly equipped with the world-class nuclear weapons and missiles, will transform both Seoul and Washington into seas of fire as soon as presumably the Supreme Commander gets around to giving a relevant order. According to reports from North Korea itself, the population of major cities are undergoing frequent, high intensity air raid drills.

Officially, all this is a reaction to the UN Security Council resolution that condemned the third nuclear test, conducted by North Korea last February. The resolution introduced some new sanctions against the DPRK, and has been described by Pyongyang as an “act of war”.

The international community is worried, to be sure, and some media outlets have begun to dispatch their correspondents to Seoul, on the assumption that a conflict might break out very soon. However, these media companies are likely to be wasting their money. The likelihood of any confrontation, let alone war, in Korea remains pretty low. What we are seeing now is just another round of political manipulation by Pyongyang. The show of menacing bellicosity is a performance which is aimed at both the foreign and domestic audience.

This is well understood in Seoul — not only by the government, but by the public at large. While the South Korean media dutifully report the gothic threats which emanate from Pyongyang, the general public pays surprisingly little attention to these outbursts and seeming signs of danger. It is also telling that the South Korean stock market has not reacted in any noticeably negative way to the ‘crisis’.

The reason for this calm is simple: South Koreans have seen this many, many times. As a matter of fact, they see such histrionics as often as once every year or two. North Korea has claimed that the 1953 Armistice is null and void on a number of occasions in the past – the last time such statements were made was in May 2009, as a part of reaction against an earlier UN resolution which, like the recent one, condemned a nuclear test.

As for the recent promise to transform Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’, it has been repeated a number of times. It was first used in 1994, and repeated in 2003. Sometimes, the North Korean media has not limited itself to such general threats, but has become very specific about their supposed targets. For example, in July 2012, the North Korean official media threatened to blow up the headquarters of major South Korean newspapers who had published articles and materials not to Pyongyang’s liking.

Nothing has happened to the newspapers headquarters, and, for that matter, the South Korean capital itself though. As earlier experience shows, North Korea has never made good on its vocal threats, so the South Korean public is, in all likelihood, correct when taking another Pyongyang broadside very lightly.

But if so, why is all this done? There seem to be at least two reasons behind Pyongyang’s noisy behaviour. First, this rhetoric seems to have become a standard reaction to UN Security Council resolutions that condemn the nuclear and missile developments in the North. In spite of its high pitch, this is, first and foremost, a diplomatic gesture, a way to express North Korea’s dissatisfaction with the resolution, as well as its resolute unwillingness to bow to outside pressure.

There is, however, another reason behind outbursts of verbal bellicosity. The North Korean populace has to be regularly reminded that their country is surrounded by scheming enemies. Otherwise, they might start asking politically dangerous questions — for example, they might wonder why their country, once the most industrially advanced in all of continental East Asia, is increasingly lagging behind China and, especially, South Korea. Outside threats are the best way to explain away never-ending economic difficulties, and an air raid drill or two does wonders when it comes to keeping people afraid and stopping them from having heretical thoughts. It also will remind North Koreans of the need to maintain discipline and unite around the current leader and his ‘glorious’ family.

It therefore appears that the world has somewhat overreacted to the North Korean rhetoric. This does not mean that Korean Peninsula is a peaceful place. On the contrary, as decades of experience teaches us, we can be pretty sure that from time to time some clashes (of relatively small scale) are bound to happen on the land and sea borders between the two Koreas. However, right now the chances of such clashes are low. The noise emanating from Pyongyang is, well, just noise.

2 Responses to “Serious armed clash highly unlikely, by Andrei Lankov”

  1. North Korea Internet is Dark and… | To Inform is to Influence Says:

    […] According to Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea, the chance of an all-out war is 0.0%, in an article published here. […]

  2. China, Iran and North Korea form a nuclear stew | China Daily Mail Says:

    […] Serious armed clash highly unlikely, by Andrei Lankov ( […]

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