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
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT