(by Alastair Gale, The Wall Street Journal) – When North Korea tosses out another threat of violence against one of its neighbors or the U.S., it’s become routine to describe it as an escalation of Pyongyang’s rhetoric.
That description captures the fact that North Korea makes a lot of threats without following through. But is there a point where it’s not even appropriate to call new threats an escalation?
On Tuesday, North Korean state (government) media said that the country’s military command had ordered its rocket and artillery units to be on “highest alert” to strike bases on the U.S. mainland, Guam, Hawaii and other targets in the Pacific and South Korea.
Such threats, many analysts say, are little more than attempts by the North to draw the U.S. into dialogue with the strongest possible negotiating position, as well as a means to shore up domestic support.
On the surface, of course, they are alarming and they are usually accompanied by photos and video from the North of military drills for extra effect. (Some of these drills are unintentionally comical, however, as North Korea displays its aging military hardware.)
But the frequency of threats from Pyongyang since its Feb. 12 nuclear test has shown clearly that North Korea is simply running out of places and things to threaten, analysts say, undermining its own intentions. Rather than scare the U.S. and others into negotiations, such threats erode the North Korean regime’s credibility as it repeats old threats.
It’s already said a couple of times recently it might attack the U.S. mainland, including on March 5 when it said it was ready to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
On March 21, it said (not for the first time) it could attack U.S. bases in Guam and in Japan. And it’s had success in spooking the U.S. over a possible attack on Hawaii: in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. had positioned extra missile defenses around the Pacific islands because of the threat from North Korea.
As well as being a problem for North Korea, the recycling of old threats complicates assessing whether North Korea is actually signaling anything in all its tough talk.
Stephan Haggard, a North Korea watcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, calls the problem of Pyongyang’s routine belligerence the phenomenon of a low signal-to-noise ratio.
The concern is, of course, that North Korea has staged deadly attacks before. But these have usually not come with a warning. In November 2010, it shelled a South Korean island that it has been threatening again in recent weeks. And exactly three years ago Tuesday, it sank a South Korea warship, killing 46. There was no warning of either attack.
The threats against the U.S. are also hard to take seriously because hitting long-range targets is still widely believed to be beyond the current limits of North Korea’s missile technology. Putting a satellite into orbit on a long-range rocket as it did in December is a lot different from delivering a warhead to a desired location on such a rocket.
“North Korea has short and medium range missiles that could complicate a situation on the Korean peninsula (and perhaps reach Japan), but we have not seen any evidence that it has long-range missiles that could strike the continental U.S., Guam or Hawaii,” wrote James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor at IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, in a note to clients on Tuesday.
That’s unlikely to stop North Korea making fresh threats against such locations, just not new ones.
Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.
1. a) What is the capital of North Korea?
b) Who is the leader of North Korea?
2. Define the following words as used in the article:
escalation (para. 1)
rhetoric (para. 1)
undermine (para. 6)
erode (para. 6)
credibility (para. 6)
3. What threats has North Korea’s government made against the U.S. and South Korea in recent months?
4. How does the media generally describe the increasing threats made by North Korea?
5. How do analysts view these same threats?
6. How are the recent threats of attacks different from previous real attacks North Korea has carried out?
7. a) In addition to not carrying out any of their threats, why is it hard for the U.S. to take North Korea seriously?
b) Does this fact cause you to believe that the U.S. should not prepare adequate defenses for a time when North Korea does acquire the actual capability to hit us in an attack? Explain your answer.
CHALLENGE QUESTION: Read the commentary by Rich Lowry on missile defense at: nationalreview.com/blogs/print/343314
Although North Korea has not carried out any of its recent threats, do you think Mr. Lowry is correct in saying we should have a good missile defense system rather than “simply trust that a lunatic regime running its country like a vast prison camp will rationally calculate its self-interest as we would hope [before attacking the U.S.]”
Explain your answer.
ON THE NORTH KOREAN GOVERNMENT: (from the CIA World FactBook)
Read a commentary on North Korea: “A Win for Missile Defense”