In the past few weeks, North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un, has engaged in increasingly belligerent rhetoric directed towards South Korea and the United States.
According to official statements made by government, North Korea considers itself to be in a "state of war" with its neighbor to the south and has gone so far as to threaten the United States, whose "aggressive behavior" it sees as a threat to its national sovereignty, with a nuclear attack. In addition to these statements, it has recently conducted its third nuclear test, abrogated the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War, and is, according to some reports, about to launch a missile capable of striking targets as far as away as Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam.
Yet, it remains unclear what the real intentions are behind these recent actions and statements. Many find themselves doubting the situation.
Is this young leader really prepared to follow through on the threats he has issued? Do recent sanctions imposed by the U.N. against the North warrant the "stern physical actions" promised as a response to "any provocative act"? Or, is this new leader merely beating the war drum in order to gain attention and extract concessions from the U.S?
Although recent military exercises and the deployment of anti-missile defense system by the United States and its allies in the region, principally Japan and South Korea, indicate that they are taking the threats seriously, many scholars believe that the gestures by Mr. Kim's government do not amount to much. "I do not believe we are on the precipice of an intentional conflict." comments Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If a conflict were to happen, it would be more through stumbling."
Many South Koreans, who would be among those most directly affected by any type of military flare-up, seem unperturbed by the tough language coming from the North. According to Andrei Lankov, a Professor of History at Kookmin University located in Seoul, "It is difficult for [foreign journalists] to find any South Koreans who are panic-stricken. He goes on, "The farther one is from the Korean Peninsula, the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here."
Still, Mr. Kim's actions are causing leaders from around the world to take note. Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said that his country is "very concerned" about the recent actions and is considering "whether we have to take further European measures against North Korea beyond the United Nations sanctions." The White House has made clear that it will support its allies in the region and that North Korea's belligerence has only served to drive it further into isolation.
This state of isolation is made worse by the fact that North Korea's sole ally, China, has begun to question its relationship with this "rogue state". High-ranking members within the Communist Party have begun make statements that go beyond the standard phrases--which typically emphasize dialogue and stability--issued in similar crises involving the North. China's president has recently stated, in an indirect but clear statement aimed at Mr. Kim's government, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains."
Even though China is losing its patience, it cannot ignore the North's geostrategic significance: as a buffer between China and South Korea, North Korea's stability is of the utmost importance to the government in Beijing. For a fall of the North Korea regime would lead to a unification with the South, and the last thing that China wants is a unified Korea, allied with the U.S., right at its doorstep.
The leadership in Pyongyang is keenly aware of this as it rattles it saber, but the question then remains: to what end?
World leaders have no choice but to reckon with this nation headed by a young and inexperienced leader as it continues to advance its nuclear program and issue belligerent statements. Experts who have long studied North Korea's foreign politics caution that this type of behavior is nothing new. They see it as yet another attempt to extract concessions, in the form of economic aid, from the U.S. and its allies. One of those experts, a veteran in international affairs, Henry Kissinger, asserts that treating Mr. Kim's statements with gravity "gives them an importance that they do not deserve."