North Korea has once again threatened the U.S. with invasion as multi-national forces gear up for an annual military exercise off South Korea. This time around, however, the threats have been more specific and bombastic, prompting some commentators to point to a new-found confidence in their cumbersome military machine. The truth of the matter, however, is that these threats are a regular part of North Korean diplomacy.
Excluded not only from normal diplomatic contact with the Western world, but also from many “back channels,” it has long been an acknowledged fact that North Korea’s only means of interaction is through threats and acts of violence. The crazier their actions and rhetoric, the more likely they are to end up in talks with the U.S. and its partners. Typically, North Korea uses these talks to demand food and financial aid in exchange for climbing down from whatever lunatic position it has assumed.
This strategy, however, is now suffering from the same kind of entropy that plagues its agricultural efforts. Robert Potter, of Harvard University, points out that the fear factor surrounding North Korea has been in steady decline for years. Initially, the nightmares of the West prominently featured a North Korea armed with nukes and performing flashpoint acts of aggression against South Korea. But now, North Korea has the bomb (albeit one that it can’t effectively send anywhere) and it has shelled, torpedoed, and otherwise shot at South Korean and U.S. assets repeatedly over the past decade and still the sky has failed to fall.
The real concern now that North Korea has been toppled from its perch as the world’s greatest threat, is that it will try to regain its ascendancy. With the U.S. preoccupied with ISIS in the Middle East and Africa, Europe grappling with mass migration, economic woes and internal political turmoil and China, North Korea’s erstwhile friend, freezing them out in favour of trade relationships with the West, there is little that the regime can do to grab the kind of diplomatic attention that it needs. Failing harvests, the collapse of re-engagement efforts with South Korea and a radically new global threat profile all seriously threaten the North Korean regime’s ability to hold on to its credibility and its power both at home and abroad.
When this threat was heightened in the past, North Korea kicked off a new campaign of intimidation by allegedly sinking the South Korean patrol vessel ROKS Cheonan. Korea watchers now warn that a new campaign of violence may be imminent. While it is not only unlikely, but impossible, that the North Korean military could pose an existential threat to the U.S., there is a real possibility that the regime could resort to actions that might unintentionally trigger a major war in the region. It is important to remember that North Korea is really just running a protection racket — they threaten in order to obtain cash and resources. While this doesn’t directly threaten any country with invasion, it poses a serious risk to the global order and should not be forgotten in the midst of our current anxieties elsewhere.
[Image via TSGT James Mossman/Defense Imagery]