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.

By , Staff writer

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (c.) uses binoculars to look at the South's territory from an observation post at the military unit on Jangjae islet, located in the southernmost part of the southwestern sector of North Korea's border with South Korea, last month.
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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.

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.

Recommended: Kim 101: How well do you know North Korea's leaders?

“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).

The US has also been working to impose new sanctions and to reinforce international implementation of existing measures against North Korea since the United Nations Security Council approved a new round of sanctions last month in response to the North’s February nuclear test.

Some security analysts accuse the US of needlessly provoking Kim with a string of military measures at a delicate moment in the new leader’s consolidation of power. (At 29 or 30 years of age, Kim is the world’s youngest head of state, having assumed power at the death of his father in December 2011.)

But many other experts say the US has acted prudently as the unknown quantity in charge in Pyongyang – who has already overseen a worrisome nuclear test and long-range missile launch – has recently issued increasingly incendiary threats.

The US is simply covering its security bases, the latter reasoning goes, while it tries to figure out who Kim is and how best to approach him.

No one can even be certain that Kim is the guy in charge in North Korea, some analysts say. “You can conclude that as a leader he seems to be quite risk-acceptant, but there’s also reason to be cautious and ask questions like, ‘Is he really in charge, or is it a family clique or council?’ ” says Walsh. “Certainly the US government is still asking, ‘What are his relations with the military?’ ”

Given the deep uncertainties about North Korea, the US public seems to be broadly supportive of the Obama administration’s approach – taking precautions militarily even as it imposes new sanctions to try to influence the North’s behavior – according to a new Monitor/TIPP poll.

But the poll also suggests that the public may be out in front of the administration by strongly favoring the kind of “dialogue” the White House is pursuing with Iran over its nuclear program but has not yet proposed with North Korea.

More than two-thirds of Americans – 68 percent – say they favor opening direct talks with the North Korean regime, according to the poll conducted March 25-30. Only 24 percent disagree with the idea of dialogue.

Even more popular is the imposition of economic sanctions. Nearly three-quarters of Americans – 74 percent – support exerting economic pressure and even increasing it with additional measures.

Much less popular among a war-weary populace is the idea of military intervention to “remove” North Korea’s nuclear installations. Still, a sizable minority of 40 percent would support such action, while 53 percent oppose.

And among self-identified Republicans, military action against the North has the support of a small majority – 51 percent.

MIT’s Walsh says he sees very little chance of US military action against the North, because he says no one involved in the current ratcheting-up of tensions wants a military confrontation – neither the US nor the North, nor South Korea.

The danger, he says, is that someone makes a mistake that gets the military ball rolling.

And more long term, Walsh worries there will be repercussions from the precautionary actions the US has taken that the Obama administration may not wish to see. President Obama could see his nonproliferation and disarmament goals set back by the US “brandishing” of its nuclear-ready aircraft, and not all of North Korea’s neighbors will interpret the US measures as a reassuring display of the US nuclear umbrella.

“Clearly one of [the US] goals is to reassure states like South Korea and Japan, ‘You don’t have to go nuclear because we can protect you,’ ” he says. “But on the other hand, my guess is that the Russians and the Chinese aren’t too happy about the US flying nuclear-capable [aircraft] near their borders.”

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