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Terrorism & Security

North Korea: Foreigners on peninsula could get caught in conflict

Despite a series of increasingly dire North Korean prophecies, international reaction has been largely calm. Many suspect the North's threats are Kim Jong-un's way of proving himself.

By Staff writer / April 9, 2013

A South Korean army soldier moves a part of barricade for the media to enter at Unification Bridge near the border village of Panmunjom, that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday.

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Latin America Editor

Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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North Korea today urged all foreign visitors and businessmen in South Korea to leave the peninsula, saying the two nations are on the verge of war. This is the latest in a series of threats from the North, each one raising questions over the secretive nation’s intent and capabilities.

"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermonuclear war due to the evermore undisguised hostile actions of the United States and the South Korean puppet warmongers and their moves for a war against" the North, said the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a North Korean state agency.

There have been no signs that Pyongyang’s Army is preparing itself for war. And despite threats of an impending “merciless, sacred, retaliatory war,” the Monitor reports that most people in South Korea don't seem to take them seriously. South Korea's capital, Seoul, was bustling today with traffic and people, according to Reuters. Analysts see an attack on Seoul as “extremely unlikely” according to the Associated Press.

Today’s threat comes on the heels of a series of others: advising embassies in North Korea to evacuate before April 10, stating plans to restart a long-unused nuclear reactor, and announcing the removal of North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an important “symbol of hope” for cooperation on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang has also threatened to target US military bases in Hawaii and Guam.

The international reaction has been largely calm, despite what the AP calls “a torrent of North Korean prophecies of doom and efforts to raise war hysteria.”  Many suspect North Korea’s aggressive threats are an attempt to improve the standing and reputation of the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, who is still believed to be proving himself. 

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters today that “The government is making utmost efforts to protect our people's lives and ensure their safety.” Japan deployed Patriot missiles in it capital early this morning. Agence France-Presse reports Japan’s response has been largely low key, with today’s stationing of surface-to-air missile launchers the most extreme step it has taken thus far.

"As North Korea keeps making provocative comments, Japan, co-operating with relevant countries, will do what we have to do,” Mr. Abe said.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said over the weekend that no country should “be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” (According to The Christian Science Monitor, “That was a slap at both North Korea and the United States, whose current military maneuvers in South Korea first prompted Pyongyang’s vitriolic response...”)

The US and South Korea have raised their own defense postures, drawing up plans to react with an immediate and proportionate response to any North Korean attack.

The Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale notes that “In a sense, North Korea is really just making the same threat in different ways and looking for an extra kick to its effort to keep tensions high. But every time it does so it makes it clearer exactly what it’s up to.”

That may explain the apparent lack of immediate concern in Seoul today, or even from tourists in North Korea. The AP spoke with Australian traveler Mark Fahey who said he wasn’t worried about possible war. "I knew that when I arrived here it would probably be very different to the way it was being reported in the media," Mr. Fahey said.

In an opinion published on CNN, David Rothkopf, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the FP Group that publishes Foreign Policy magazine, said North Korea is walking the line between being a rogue state and “a parody of a rogue state.”

Pyongyang's bluster is as comical as its nuclear threats are implausible.

This does not mean the United States should take the threats lightly. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has explained, when a country with a big army and nuclear weapons starts getting reckless, it is irresponsible to dismiss the possibility that it would actually do something insanely self-destructive. But the bigger concern has to do with why North Korea is rattling its saber. The reason may reflect more on the United States than we care to acknowledge.

It is possible that North Korea is threatening America because it thinks that there is little cost in doing so, that the United States is less likely to strike back than ever before….

What the United States appears to be willing or unwilling to do is often more important to world affairs than what we actually do. More often than not, our posture is our policy.

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