x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Threats won't solve North Korea's woes

Kin Jong-un's rhetoric could be aimed at a domestic audience, with the intention of portraying himself as a tough leader and worthy successor to Kim Jong-il.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un has been talking tough throughout his 13-month tenure in office, and in the past few weeks he's been rattling his sabre louder than ever. He has torn up the armistice that has been in place for 59 years and declared that his country is in a "state of war" with both South Korea and the United States.

Despite photographs showing a purported war plan that includes strikes on US mainland targets, security analysts agree that North Korea does not have the wherewithal to deliver on these threats. Its rockets could reach targets in South Korea and Japan, but any attack would be met with immediate retaliation from a vastly superior arsenal.

Last week the US demonstrated its firepower in military exercises, including the first Korean appearance of its formidable B-2 stealth bomber. Mr Kim talks the talk, but it's the Americans who can walk the walk.

So what is Mr Kim up to? One of the few things that seems clear is that his rhetoric is aimed at a domestic audience, with the intention of portraying himself as a tough leader and worthy successor to his late father, Kim Jong-il. After decades of the "juche" ideology of military self-reliance, bluster and weapon-rattling is almost the only tool in North Korea's foriegn-relations toolkit. And, of course, loud warnings about an external enemy distract attention from the harsh realities of life in the North.

Does Mr Kim perceive some domestic challenge to his own authority? Something is certainly afoot on the political front, with a plenary meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party's Central Committee to convene this week - the first one in three years.

Outsiders must remember that North Korean policy is driven by a mindset analysts say begins from a basis of moral and racial superiority.

If Mr Kim perceives a threat to the North's sovereignty, or to his own leadership, he could well lash out. But if he does so, he will face America's wrath, and he won't necessarily be able to rely on support from his only ally. China has cooled on North Korea, with senior officials and state-owned media condemning its nuclear test last month.

Grandstanding does nothing to ease the suffering of starving people or to end the country's pariah status. Unfortunately those do not appear to be very high concerns for Mr Kim. These are dangerous times on the Korean Peninsula.