Pyongyang’s Ballistic Bluff

‘A North Korean attack could be the last nail in the coffin of unchallenged American power in the world’

International Points East & West

Since conducting a third nuclear test in February, North Korea has been escalating its rhetoric and actions ever closer to the brink. Suddenly, the possibility of a second Korean war appears real — except this time nuclear weapons will not be lurking in the distant background, as the ultimate superpower instrument of dissuasion. Such a threat demands prudence, which may be part of the reason why the North feels cocky about its bellicose posture.

Experts have been poring over the details of the latest crisis, predicting that North Korea is threatening to escalate its nuclear capacity to extract concessions. But is this just a bluff? 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bluff as “an attempt to deceive someone into believing that one can or is going to do something . . .”, which clearly means that it is not the bluffer’s intent to engage in such action — just leverage a credible threat to influence his opponent’s behaviour. Readers may know, by the time this column hits the newsstands, whether North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is bluffing.

They may also have had a chance to validate all the theories about whether he is young and untested or manipulated by family members or regime hardliners.

One should note that, when his much more seasoned father, Kim Jong-il, was still alive and in charge, the North Koreans “bluffed” their way to bombing South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, killing four civilians, and risking war. The bluff, if there ever was one, must have involved the North Koreans believing they had at least four aces in their hands then, because had the West called the bluff and responded in kind, war would have very likely ensued.

This, then, must be the working assumption of Western policymakers confronting the North Korean menace. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes machinations, and who is really in charge, if a country like North Korea takes the steps it already has — abrogating the armistice, shutting down the hotline, threatening missile strikes and deploying forces — they are not just bluffing. They are prepared to follow through on their threats — and not in the spirit of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick’s hilarious plan to invade the United States, in Leonard Wibberley’s satirical Cold War novel The Mouse That Roared.

The Duchy invaded on the assumption it would lose and be overrun by the US, which would then pour money into Fenwick for reconstruction purposes. It didn’t quite turn out that way — but that is another story. North Korea may be delusional about its military capabilities but it is not undermining the fragile peace in the Korean peninsula to extract financial aid or concessions of an economic or political nature. It is escalating because it believes itself in a position of strength — and this conviction, no matter how misplaced, allows it to be bullish because it thinks that its opponents are the ones who are bluffing.

While the fictional Fenwick was conscious of its weakness (and therefore bluffing) in a way that North Korea is not, the outcome may not be so dissimilar. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that North Korea’s deployment of missile launchers, if followed by an actual launch, would be “a serious mistake”. One hopes that this kind of intimation has more substance than the notorious “Assad must go” remark of President Obama in August 2011. Two years later Assad is still there, and America’s actions have done little to make that presidential intimation much more than wishful thinking expressed aloud.

The kind of response the US will be able to put together on the day that Kim Jong-un chooses to defy these warnings is the measure of US power in the region and, by extension, in the world. Everyone will be watching. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, will no doubt be comparing and contrasting Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi with the Kim dynasty in North Korea, seeing what kind of yields one gets from acting reasonably, versus acting like a lunatic. The Arab world will also be watching, always wary of American power and yet dependent on it to fend off Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. China and Russia will be keeping a close eye on developments too — their ambitions to counterbalance American power will get a boost if the US blinks. That is why pretending that the North Korea crisis is not that much of a crisis is silly.

An attack is not just potentially a prelude to war; it could also be the last nail in the coffin of unchallenged American global power. Anti-Americans will no doubt rejoice. But judging by what, in recent years, the absence of American power has meant for other regions of the world — think of the Balkans until US intervention, Somalia after Black Hawk Down, or the Middle East today — no one should be looking forward to the consequences of such a vacuum.

America should call North Korea’s bluff and demand to see their cards — or it will pay the price of letting a madman make the US look like a paper tiger.