Commentary | April 11, 2013

EastWest Direct: North Korea’s Cacophony of Threats

EWI’s Thomas Lynch interviews EWI’s Chief Operating Officer James Creighton, the former Chief of Staff of the Eighth U.S. Army in South Korea, about the escalating tensions on the peninsula. 

What do you feel is the motivation for this recent ratcheting up of the rhetoric and threats by the North Korean leadership?

In this situation, we have a young leader who feels he has to prove himself—in particular, to his generals. Kim Jong-un wants to solidify his claim to authority after his father’s death. He also has to prove himself internationally and I think he is being advised that this is the way to do it. You can look at similar actions that have occurred earlier – the 2006 and 2009 nuclear bomb tests, for example. They’ve also shut down Kaesong City before, as they did earlier this week. These things were done in the past to demonstrate the nation’s sovereignty; they also seem to think that this bolsters the country’s reputation in the world. I think the difference this time is that everything is happening much quicker. The pace is greater in terms of the amount of rhetoric and the threats to South Korea, the region and even to the embassies in Pyongyang.

Are these actions being taken seriously by the international community?

If you look at reports out of Pyongyang, the embassies have not fled, so it appears that foreign government officials have become immune to the rhetoric. On the other hand, I know the United States takes it very seriously. It’s one of those situations where the probability of an attack is pretty low, but the risk of large scale casualties and damage is dramatic. So you need to take actions appropriately, factoring in the tremendous risk if you get it wrong.

Based on your experiences in South Korea working with the U.S. military, can you offer an estimate of North Korea’s offensive capacity?

Their initial capacity is rather large: there are estimates of up to 7,000 artillery tubes that can reach Seoul, which could produce millions of casualties during an initial assault. On the other hand, the counterattack from the combined forces command would be devastating to North Korea. I believe that they know that. The only thing that they could do is to inflict a huge amount of casualties in Seoul and then the combined South Korean and U.S. forces would attack rather quickly and it would be pretty ugly for North Korea.

So that’s your assessment of the worst-case scenario?

The worst case scenario would be an an artillery and ground attack on Seoul. There would be immediate casualties in South Korea followed by a decisive coalition counter attack. Withan armyof over 600,000 soldiers, South Korea would provide the primary ground troops. The air and naval forces associated with that attack would be strongly supported by the United States.

Setting aside government propaganda, how do you think the average North Korean citizen views the current situation?

North Korea is a country that has been isolated for well over 50 years to an incredible degree. In 1953, the average North Korean and average South Korean were very much alike, even physically. Today the average North Korean is about three inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the average South Korean. There has been a policy of starvation for three generations. I think North Koreans support the government because that’s the only thing they know. If average North Koreans had a greater understanding of the outside world and could see the dramatically higher standard of living that South Koreans enjoy, I think they would be opposed to their government’s actions. But, of course, that’s why they’re kept isolated.

Given China’s role as North Korea’s only ally, do you think that it will work to lessen tensions? There were some recent comments from President Xi warning North Korea indirectly not to stir up trouble.

China stands to lose a huge amount, as does the entire region, if the situation spins out of control. The enormous economic progress we’ve seen would be jeopardized. Like President Xi, Russia’s President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel cautioned the North Koreans to avoid provocations. I think that, if needed, both Russia and China would take stronger actions to try to stop Pyongyang from doing something foolhardy.

EastWest Direct is an ongoing series of interviews with EWI experts tied to breaking news stories.