Skip to main content

Kim Jong Un is not crazy

By Stephan Haggard, Special to CNN
April 2, 2013 -- Updated 2244 GMT (0644 HKT)
Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low." Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low."
HIDE CAPTION
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephan Haggard: North Korea is mostly bluffing in its threats against South Korea
  • Haggard: Escalating signals of resolve suggest nervousness as much as strength
  • He says Kim Jong Un may not have fully consolidated his authority
  • Haggard: As a result, some of the rhetoric could be driven by domestic politics

Editor's note: Stephan Haggard is professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the co-author of "Famine in North Korea" (2008) and "Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea" (2011) and co-editor with Marcus Noland of a blog about North Korea.

(CNN) -- March brought us a series of what pundits like to call "provocations" by North Korea. On closer inspection, Pyongyang has opted for rhetoric over actual military actions.

While Kim Jong Un's pursuit of nuclear and missile capability remains worrisome, escalating signals of resolve could suggest nervousness as much as strength.

So, is the regime in trouble?

Stephan Haggard
Stephan Haggard

The first round of saber-rattling came as the U.N. Security Council deliberated on a new sanctions resolution after North Korea's satellite launch in December and its third nuclear test in February. The Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a party organ dealing with North-South relations began putting out public statements in an effort to chip away at the institutions of the armistice, such as military hot lines and the stationing of a North Korean military mission in Panmunjom.

North Korea ultimately "withdrew" from the armistice, but it had done so before and it is not clear what its recent statements actually mean. The armistice is not a peace treaty, but merely a cease fire. The armistice is stable not because of verbal commitments but because of the deterrent capability of both sides.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Is anything really different as a result of this "re-withdrawal"? It doesn't seem like it.

Equally unfortunate was North Korea's decision to renege on a number of North-South agreements, such as a North-South agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula. But Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons had made this and a number of other agreements moot in any case.

North Korea's bluster had little if any effect on the U.N. debate. If anything, its threats may have been counterproductive. Although the resolution was portrayed as the result of a U.S.-South Korean cabal, China also signed on and the resolution was passed unanimously.

Mack: Kim Jong Un 'an immature brat'
North Korea's advantage explained
South Korea returns rhetorical fire
North Korea military 'ready to fight'

The measure opens the door for tighter financial sanctions, and there is some preliminary evidence that Beijing may be cooperating in tightening economic exchanges with the country.

The next round of statements came as North Korea and the United States and South Korea entered an annual military training cycle. These periods are always fraught with tension, as Pyongyang denounces the routine exercises as provocative.

As the country effectively mobilizes, the North Korean press is filled with pictures of Kim Jong Un directing the troops in exercises, some of which were reportedly manipulated with Photoshop to increase their effect.

As a result of these exercises, there is some background of what might be called "ritualized escalation" at work.

But North Korea did possibly make one major misstep in arguing that it might undertake a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Announcing an intention to pre-empt is dangerous because even small tactical movements can be misinterpreted. Needless to say, such statements have to be taken seriously, and, if anything, the United States and South Korea may have over-reacted by such a public display of force.

In particular, the U.S. announced a major new ballistic missile defense initiative, training runs by B52 and B2 bombers, and an updated U.S.-ROK Combined Counter-Provocation Plan. In the last few days, the U.S. was again quite public about its deployment of jet fighters to the peninsula as well.

There is a larger game at work here that probably centers on the difficult-to-read domestic politics of North Korea. It is by no means assured that Kim Jong Un has fully consolidated his authority. By ramping up rhetoric, but exercising restraint with respect to actual military actions, the regime can count on the fact that the United States and South Korea are not going to take the first step either.

The result is that North Korea's exercises and threats of retaliation have been successful in deterring attack, even though none was coming. The regime can claim some sort of victory in staring down American threats in its two big political meetings this week, the timing of which suggest that some of the rhetoric has been driven by domestic politics.

North Korea's nuclear and missile programs constitute problems that the five parties in the region—China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States—need to address through concerted action. But overheated rhetoric, however disconcerting, is not the same as an intention to attack. Coolly maintaining our deterrent and not over-reacting to hyperbole is the proper course of action. With luck, the leadership will pivot away from nuclear posturing toward economic reform, the main thing that the people of North Korea really need.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this essay said North Korea instead of the U.S. announced new military initiatives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephan Haggard.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT