North Korea: US signals strength, but speaks softly
In response to the threats from North Korea's untested young leader, the Obama administration has sought to reassure the US public and allies alike, but without saying very much.
As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has issued increasingly belligerent statements toward South Korea and the United States in recent weeks, many North Asia analysts have concluded that the young Mr. Kim is acting to establish his tough-guy credentials with key audiences: the North Korean public, but also the military and other North Korean elites.Skip to next paragraph
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But in response, the Obama administration – while actually saying little – has also been acting to reassure the American public and key allies like South Korea and Japan, even as it tries to figure out what Kim Jong-un is really up to and the best way to deal with him, some regional experts say.
“The early superficial take-away on [Kim] is that he’s not afraid to be out front, not afraid to take risks.... He speaks more directly to the public than his father did, and after he’s established his military credentials he can then turn his focus to the economy,” says Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.
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“But the US is also sending its own messages” by responding to Kim’s rhetoric – which has included a vow to attack the US – with the inclusion of nuclear-capable B-52s in US-South Korea military exercises and a reinforcing of missile defense batteries in Alaska, he says.
The Obama administration “is sending a message of reassurance to South Korea and the American public in particular,” Dr. Walsh says, “but [it is] also telling a leader who is really breaking new ground with direct and specific threats, ‘If you keep talking like that, this is what you have to look forward to.’ ”
But besides such messaging, the US has had very little to say in response to Kim’s actions – which have included tearing up the Korean War armistice, severing a security communications line with Seoul, and publicly reviewing military planning for attacks on a number of US sites including Hawaii and Austin, Texas.
Secretary of State John Kerry will certainly have more to say when he visits Japan, South Korea, and China in mid-April, but in the meantime the administration is speaking softly as it brandishes its big sticks. A White House spokesman said that the North is further isolating itself with its “bellicose rhetoric” (last Friday) and Secretary Kerry has called on North Korea to “engage in legitimate dialogue” instead of issuing threats (early last month).