LTU Podcast: North Korea’s Aggressive Posturing

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La Trobe University Podcast Series
See original podcast page here.
 
Special thanks to Matt Smith for putting this podcast together.  Ben.
 
 
 
 
 

Transcript

Matt Smith
The North Korean government announced on the 26th of March via its Korean Central News Agency that it is placing strategic rocket units and long range artillery units on their highest alert status. The press release further claims that these units are capable of striking American military targets in South Korea and its vicinity, as well as US bases in Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States. Earlier this month the North declared its right to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike at the stronghold of its aggressors. I’m Matt Smith. You’re listening to a La Trobe University podcast and my guest today is Dr Ben Habib, Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University and expert in international relations with a research interest in the politics of North Korea. Ben, thanks for joining me today.
Ben Habib
Thank you.
Matt Smith
I just read the opening from a piece you wrote for a publication called The Conversation and it was published on the 27th of March. What has led North Korea to take this stance?
Ben Habib
Well, they’ve threatened even more since that declaration. They’ve told foreigners to get out of Seoul. I don’t know how they feel authorised to make that statement. They’ve put two missiles on mobile launchers, ready for a possible missile test on the east coast, so they’re really cranking up the rhetoric at the moment. But we need to take a step back from these threats and these small-scale mobilisations and see why they’re trying to do this and obviously the international media’s got all kinds of theories flying around this at the moment, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my own.
But what we have here is a leadership that prioritises its own survival above everything else. This underpins all its foreign policy behaviours and a lot of its domestic policy actions. It also sees its external security environment as inherently hostile, so they think that the only way to preserve their security and deter their enemies, is through the acquisition of hard military power, and that means for them, nuclear weapons and the kind of missile capabilities that they’re developing at the moment.
At the same time as this, you’ve also got a country that’s been muddling through economically for the best part of twenty years, so the incoming government of Kim Jong-un is really taking some decisive steps to try and transform North Korea’s decrepit economy into something approaching a more developed industrial society. But they feel that they can’t do this unless they secure their external strategic environment, so for the North Korean government, nuclear weapons and economic development are symbiotic, go hand in hand.
Matt Smith
Is it the fact that he’s trying to differentiate himself as well from Kim Jong-il?
Ben Habib
Well, I think the fact that he’s been so decisive, or his leadership in any case, has been so decisive in the things that they’ve been doing since they’ve took over, really does differentiate them, and just as a personal figure, Kim Jong-il was quite a reclusive, he never made any public speeches, which is the opposite of his son. Kim Jong-un appears to be quite charismatic. He’s very happy to appear in public and give speeches, and appears more confident. So if you’re looking for brand differentiation, it’s quite stark.
Matt Smith
What was it exactly that triggered this stance then? It’s hard to nail it down to one event sometimes but was there something that finally made them take this stance?
Ben Habib
Yes, I think the key here is that their nuclear missile capabilities are not quite where they want them to be, to be an effective deterrent, so the big question going into this year was, did they have the technology to miniaturise a nuclear bomb, to make it small enough, yet powerful enough, that it could be fitted on top of a rocket, which could then be accurately deployed to a target. Since December, we’ve seen a long range missile test, which was successful. It’s the first time they’ve been able to successfully launch a multi-stage rocket, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ready to roll them out and deploy them, but it is a technological advancement. And likewise the nuclear test that they conducted in February. By all accounts, it was probably a smaller device, so they’ve made progress on miniaturisation, but it was also a more powerful blast than the second nuclear test in 2009, so clearly they’ve made progress there. But the best estimates suggest that they’re not quite ready to actually deploy these systems, so they’re not yet ready as a full scale deterrent to secure North Korea’s security in the way that they want it to.
Matt Smith
Why are they feeling so insecure? Why do they see this as something they need to do? Is it a result of the US activities in South Korea?
Ben Habib
Yes, I think that’s a great question, and no doubt … I mean, we’ve got a rivalry on the Korean peninsula that goes back to 1945 and the division of the peninsula, and that’s an economic, strategic, ideological rivalry that has extremely deep roots now. And there’s over sixty years of competition between the North-South, and also the North and the United States, which is South Korea’s security guarantor. And when you have this long history, there’s been plenty of flare-ups through that time. At the moment, one of the events that seems to be prominent in North Korean propaganda at least is the joint US South Korean military exercises that have been going on over the past month, called Foal Eagle. And now that’s basically a simulated war games scenario, involving air force, army and naval forces from both countries. And now this happens every year. They have these training exercises every year, and every year the North Koreans ramp up their rhetoric and put their military forces on alert in response. But this year in particular, the North Korean escalation at this time has been much higher than what we’ve seen in the past.
Matt Smith
So the US didn’t have to do these military exercises right in North Korea’s backyard. Is it a bit of posturing and provoking on their part?
Ben Habib
Well, that’s certainly what North Korean media releases claim. They always talk about American aggression and imperialist aggression. But, on the other hand, you know, South Korean, American military forces in Korea, they need to be combat ready, so they need to train. And the other thing is, a lot of strategic mirroring going on here, so both sides for their deterrence posture to work, their adversary needs to actually believe that they will attack, otherwise the deterrence has no value. So both sides want to keep their enemy on edge if you will, because that’s how deterrents work.
Matt Smith
So looking at the threats and the tests that they’ve done, is what they’re saying something they can do? Can they act on what they’re saying.
Ben Habib
Yeah, that’s another good question. Their threats about hitting Hawaii and the American mainland, clearly at the moment their long range missile capabilities are not up to the mark. But if we look at their short range and medium range missiles, these are systems that are already developed, so they’re already well capable of targeting missiles at targets in South Korea and Japan. So the key question here is, do they have a nuclear weapon that can be put on top of these short range and medium range missiles, to carry through on the nuclear threats that they’ve been making.
So, that’s an open question too. But clearly they do have the short and medium range missiles that can hit targets in the near region. We have to be careful about inferring intentions from capabilities. Now just because North Korea has the capability to hit targets in the near region doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to, or that it would be, strategically speaking, a good idea to do that.
So a great example I like to see, in the media we always see the concentric ring maps, documenting the missile ranges of North Korea’s missiles. And their longest range ones clip the top end of Australia on these maps. Now does that mean that Darwin’s under threat from North Korean missiles? No, because there’s no strategic rationale for doing that. So we need a lot more information before we can infer an intention, or infer what the North Korean government intends to do with the capabilities it has.
Matt Smith
Western countries went to war in Iraq just on their claim, no matter how valid or allegedly or accurate, that there were weapons of mass destruction there. North Korea clearly have this capability, are threatening to use it. Why are the western world seemingly not taking it as serious?
Ben Habib
Yeah. Two points arise out of that question. The first one is, now that North Korea actually has demonstrated that it’s got a nuclear weapon, it’s too late to go in and disarm them because effectively they’ve got this nuclear deterrent in place although questions still remain about how deployable it is. But essentially the window for pre-emptive military action to disarm North Korea has closed.
But the other point, which is far more important, is a geo-strategic one. Now, the South Korean capital city Seoul, is only forty kilometres, thereabouts, from the demilitarised zone, from the border, and on the other side of the DMZ, the North Koreans have got numerous artillery and short range rocket pieces heavily dug in, targeted on Seoul. So, the South Korean capital is essentially indefensible from a North Korean attack. So that really constrains the type of military measures that the US and South Korea could use in response to the North, because they’d really be playing Russian roulette if you like with the South Korean capital city, so that’s over ten million people, it’s the nerve centre of the South Korean economy, any military action by South Korea and the Americans carries a high risk that it could escalate to a full scale war, and that would be devastating for South Korea.
Matt Smith
So the threat is being taken seriously though?
Ben Habib
Yeah, of course. And as it should be. As it should be. But I think the response from respective governments has been a measured response.
Matt Smith
What’s your take on how the media are reporting this, and how Kim Jong-un is being portrayed?
Ben Habib
Yeah. One of the issues with studying North Korea, is that coming across good information about how the country operates and about what its thinking is, is difficult to come by, because unlike other governments, it doesn’t leave a paper trail. It doesn’t provide data for journalists and academics to look at. So we have to infer what they’re doing from putting together a jigsaw of lots of secondary sources. Now for media organisations, this means that in a situation like now, where the North Koreans are making all of these threats, there’s not a lot of other corroborating information for media to go on, to validate what they’re saying so you tend to get a lot of worse case scenarios. And also I don’t think some sections of the media do themselves or their readers any favours by continually concentrating on the, North Korea as a crazy man, meme. If you describe a leader or a country as crazy, it means you remove any imperative to actually figure out what is driving the decision making of that leader or of that country’s leadership. And clearly in the North Korean case, although what they’re doing does seem strange from an external observer’s point of view, there is a decipherable logic to what they’re doing, and there are reasons that are driving their behaviour.
Now, just because we don’t like or we don’t agree with what they’re doing, doesn’t make their decision-making irrational. It just means that they’ve got a different decision-making calculus than what we would expect them to have. So we need to understand that more clearly.
Matt Smith
I’m going to quote Joseph Camilleri’s article here. The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has been described as delusional, fruit-cake, reckless, and the actions of North Korea’s military elite as aggressive, defiant and devoid of logic. Is this kind of language in media just going to make the problem worse?
Ben Habib
It does make the problem worse. If that reflects the kind of thinking that’s held in policy making circles. Now fortunately I don’t think that’s the case. The people in the foreign ministries and defence ministries of the various governments of the region have a much more nuanced view, because they have access to better information than what the media and the general public do. But clearly this kind of language is a problem and it prevents people from coming to a deep understanding of what’s going on on the Korean peninsula.
Matt Smith
Has North Korea got any support, whether it be quiet or vocal, for their stance?
Ben Habib
No, I wouldn’t say so. Their major ally is the Chinese and there’s a lot of discussion within the Chinese foreign policy establishment about just how far they should back the North Koreans and at what point might they be willing to cut them loose. Now China has some strong strategic reasons to back the North Koreans. They like having North Korea as a buffer zone, on the Korean peninsula, because in the historic past, we’ve seen the Korean peninsula as an access way for invasions, particularly from Japan, and we saw that earlier in the 20th century.
So having the North Koreans in place, means that there’s not American troops right up on the Yalu and Tumen river frontiers, with China. Also, if the North Korean state happened to collapse, or if there was a war between North and South, then we’d likely see a very large population displacement and many North Koreans moving into China’s north-eastern provinces, in Liaoning and Jilin. These are provinces that are not quite as well developed as the southern coastal provinces. They’re also ethnically diverse and so having a big refugee influx from North Korea could have potentially destabilising social implications in these areas, so the Chinese don’t want to deal with that.
Matt Smith
The Guardian today reports that North Korea appears calm at the moment. The North Koreans, the people, do the people themselves take their leaders seriously? Do they take the threats seriously?
Ben Habib
Well, it’s difficult to know definitively, but what we do know and looking at the official media releases conveying these threats from Pyongyang, colleagues of mine from Britain have done some excellent work on this. They look at the Korean, English and Chinese translations of these particular press releases and what they see is that the message for the Americans and the South Koreans that’s conveyed in English is very fire and brimstone, but the message for the domestic audience is much more measured, it’s much more about economic development and turning the country into a strong and prosperous country which is the meme they like to use. The Chinese translation carries a message about keeping Beijing at arm’s length and stressing that they shouldn’t interfere in North Korea’s security and development project, as fraternal brothers in arms, if you like.
Matt Smith
Where is the way forward for something like this? I mean, it’s the sort of thing that can very easily escalate with the push of a button. Or it’s something that can be resolved but would take maybe more than diplomacy.
Ben Habib
Yeah, well the big danger at the moment is not that North Korea wants to start a war, but we might end up with a war through miscalculation, through a North Korean provocation that backs the Americans and South Koreans into a corner where they feel they have to react militarily. And even a limited American reaction has the possibility of snowballing into a broader conflict. So that’s the great danger at the moment. But ultimately regional stakes are probably going to have to find a way to manage North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, and the main strategic reason for that is because the South Korean capital is so vulnerable. Because military options are so undesirable in this case, that regime change à la Iraq is really off the table. So some form of negotiation and some form of regional security management would be the desirable outcome, but how and whether we get to that is an open question right now.
Matt Smith
OK, well thanks very much for your time today Ben.
Ben Habib
Thanks Matt. Thanks for having me on.
Matt Smith
So that’s all the time we have today for the La Trobe University podcast. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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