north-korea 1362611cThe Voice of America headline reads, “North Korea threatens Japan with Attack.” Another headline reads, “US to increase missile defense as North Korea threatens strikes.” We learn about Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement of the planned installation of 14 land-based missile interceptors in Alaska by 2017. Elsewhere we read about a North Korean military leader threatening a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States (see video links at “Is War Brewing on the Korean Penninsula?”). We also see chilling video footage of the young North Korean dictator telling military officers, “Throw all enemies in the caldron, break their waists and crack their windpipes.”

Such has always been the rhetorical style of the North Korean regime. For the last 15 years North Korea has been promising to engulf South Korea in a “sea of flame” while threatening the United States with inevitable nuclear destruction. The North Korean government has gotten a lot of attention, and has won aid in the past by alternating threats with the promise of peace. The greater the threats, the greater the harvest when the prospect of peace is held out. In fact, it is an old game. Yet one may ask if one day a North Korean princeling, deluded with power, will take his own rhetoric seriously. At what point does rhetorical style transform itself into calamity?

North Korea is a socialist country of a different type. It has remained hardline and Spartan in its determination to confront the capitalist enemy, with a huge army and massive missile forces. And as everyone knows, a war on the Korean Peninsula would have devastating economic repercussions for Asia and the Pacific. While America worries whether North Korea has missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities, the Japanese and South Koreans are left in no doubt. A North Korean missile can hit Tokyo with a biological or nuclear warhead at any time.

What is the source of North Korean militancy?

The ideology of North Korea was originally Marxist-Leninist and consistent with that of the Soviet Union and China. In 1972 the ideology was officially changed to something called “the Juche idea,” first set forth in the 1950s by the founding dictator of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. The ideology proposes military strength and national self-reliance. Juche has its roots in Stalin’s idea of “socialism in one country” combined with Mao’s principle of “regeneration through one’s own efforts.” Since man is the master of all things, North Korea might well take an independent stand against imperialism and capitalism. Of course, this stand isn’t truly independent because North Korea has always received its weapons from China with occasional economic or technical support from Russia. The regime has also used threats (including the threat to build a nuclear weapon) to get economic assistance, money and food from the United States and South Korea. Perhaps it is mistakenly attempting to use the threat of nuclear war to for a similar purpose today.

North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries despite possessing a large and powerful military machine. Making economic isolation and autarchy into a virtue, the North Korean economy has withered. In the 1980s the government pushed a program to produce ten million tons of grain per year. To their dismay, they only produced four million tons. (It is estimated that six million tons are required to feed the North Korean people.) Nevertheless, North Korea has managed to create an enormous army with over 153 divisions and brigades, including 60 infantry divisions/brigades, 25 mechanized brigades, 13 tank brigades, 25 special Operation Force brigades, and 30 artillery brigades.

When a country only has weapons, and little else, what do you suppose its policy relies upon? Threats come naturally. The entire psychology of the country’s leadership is alien to peaceful pursuits. It is, indeed, oriented toward war. And if war is impractical for the moment, then the orientation is toward the threat of war. The most natural thing in the world, therefore, is that North Korea’s leaders should issue dire threats. As for the question of whether they are bluffing, the answer should really be placed in reverse. Are the South Korean, Japanese and Americans bluffing in their commitment to resist North Korea? And furthermore, are they willing to purchase peace for a price? If so, the North Koreans will sniff them out. And another thing is certain: The North Koreans will attack if and when their opponents weaken. Let no one be mistaken on that score.


 Jeffrey Nyquist is the President of the Strategic Crisis Center and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Political Science at the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought.

Originally published on March 18, 2013, at financialsense.com.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.