Who’s Afraid of Kim Jong-un?
Maybe we should be. What we don’t know about North Korea’s young leader may be the scariest thing of all.
A few other factors aggravate this situation. In response to Kim’s outbursts, South Korean president Park Geun-hye not only warned him that she will retaliate to any act of aggression, but also threatened to take action against the north pre-emptively if the situation warranted. Meanwhile, influential South Koreans are wondering aloud whether it might be time for South Korea to build its own atomic arsenal.*
In recent years, North and South Korean naval forces have clashed a half-dozen times over a disputed maritime border known as the Northern Limits Line, resulting in over 300 deaths on both sides. The most recent episode, in November 2010, resulted in the sinking of a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors onboard. The South Korean government held back; the conflict gradually settled. If a similar conflict broke out today, President Park might feel compelled to retaliate with greater force; Kim might feel compelled to respond in kind; and onward and upward the fighting could escalate.
Kim’s motives are further clouded by what seems to be his own growing domestic crisis. North Korea may be the world’s most closed society, but it’s not as cloistered as it once was. The past decade has seen limited, but very popular experiments with commercial markets and considerable cross-border traffic with China. Defectors have told U.S. officials that the North Korean people—probably not a majority, but still a growing number—are aware of the glaring contrast between their own lives and the rest of the world. Faced with this looming crisis, a totalitarian regime can open up further—a course that can trigger the regime’s demise (cf. the Soviet Union)—or it can sound the alarms louder still and try to convince the people that they are in constant danger from outside attack, a state of mind that can trigger pressures for attacking pre-emptively.
Some doubt that Kim would take any such action in the next few weeks, as two major U.S.-South Korean military exercises—annual affairs, scheduled routinely for around this time—are taking place: Foal Eagle, a joint field exercise involving about 10,000 American troops, most of them deployed from outside the region; and Key Resolve, a naval training exercise that includes about 3,000 American personnel. North Korea, which is always invited to observe but always refuses, mounts its own exercises around the same time. Restraints are tightly held on both sides: these are demonstrations of solidarity, theatrics of power; nobody wants them to devolve into actual conflict … usually. Again, who knows what Kim Jong-un wants?
Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, puts it this way: “North Korea provocations are very calculated. They tend to stop short of what would force serious escalation.” But the context of these provocations—the uncertainty of what lies behind them and of what they might further provoke—changes the calculus. “The talk tends to be tougher than the action,” Sneider says. “Still it’s worth being scared.”
Correction, March 13, 2013: This article originally stated that South Korean President Park Geun-hye has mused over whether her country should build its own atomic arsenal. The sentence has been updated to reflect that many influential South Koreans have speculated on this point. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.