The Duck of Minerva

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Guest Post – David Kang: The Media Coverage of the Korean Crisis is Inflammatory

April 10, 2013

359344-funny-images-on-leader-kim-jong-unMy own thinking on the current Korea flap is on The Diplomat. I argue it’s a faux crisis, which promptly got me accused of being an air-head academic in the comment section. Lovely. I was also pleased to respond to Kim Jong Un’s threat that I should leave the country. And I managed not to explode laughing when a reporter asked me point blank on live TV if Kim Jong Un was ‘just bonkers.’ Was itching to say yes to that one actually. Good times… Never waste a missile crisis, right?

Anyway, here’s David Kang suggesting the cable and satellite news services are overhyping this thing, a point I argue in the Diplomat as well. Regular readers will know that Dave is my good friend and a far better Korea/Asia hand than I’ll ever be. A professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and director of its Korean Studies Institute, I’d certainly recommend his work. Here and here are his previous guest posts.        REK

The Non-Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

In a poll released by Dong-A Daily last week, 4.5 percent of South Koreans think North Korea means to start a war. In contrast, a CNN poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans think the latest round of name-calling will only end in war, and 41 percent think North Korea is an “immediate threat” to the U.S. So – either South Koreans are incredibly naïve, or Americans over-reacting. Hmmm…I wonder which it is.


A few comments:

Reading the entire statements by the KCNA would actually give a fairly clear view of North Korea’s position. Most North Korean statements are reported in the Western press with the first clause missing. That is, almost all North Korean rhetoric is of the form “IF you attack us first, we will hit you back.” (Incidentally, that’s what we’re telling the North Koreans, too). If you can ignore the hilarious Communist-style rhetoric about capitalist running dogs and the like, the situation is actually quite stable, because despite their bluster, the North Korean rhetoric is also cast almost entirely in deterrent terms. For example, although widely reported as a threat to preemptively attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, the full quote from the KCNA April 4 reads: “We will take second and third countermeasures of greater intensity against the reckless hostilities of the United States and all the other enemies… Now that the U.S. imperialists seek to attack the DPRK with nuclear weapons, it will counter them with diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style…The army and people of the DPRK have everything including lighter and smaller nukes unlike what they had in the past.” Clearly intended to deter, clearly saying that North Korea will respond if attacked first.

Second – why are we playing this game? North Korean rhetoric should be ignored as the empty threats that they are. Perhaps there could be one or two mild statements from the U.S. reminding North Korea that we can crush them like a grape whenever want. But after that, why are we allowing North Korea to set the tone? Why do we let them make us react? I may be missing something here about this all being an indirect show of force for China, or something clever like that, but still. This is getting ridiculous.

Third, I remain mystified why this is a crisis. I was quite surprised a few weeks ago when everybody got upset. After all, North Korea is only talking – they haven’t actually done anything yet. There has been no attack on the U.S., not even engage in a skirmish over the NLL. So why are we reacting this way now?

Finally, you can never, ever, go wrong being a pessimistic realist.  I.e., “I don’t know, the situation looks dangerous…power is all that matters in international relations…things can get really bad, nuclear war is just one hair-trigger, slight miscalculation away.” You could be 100% wrong, but nobody will ever accuse you of being naïve. But I want to point out that while it’s important to be careful around the peninsula, deterrence has been extraordinarily stable for the past sixty years. Why? Because we believe what they say – that they will fight back and destroy Seoul; and I am quite sure they believe us when we say we will fight back and end the regime. Far from being one mistake away from the 2nd Korean War, we have experienced numerous shooting incidents in which people died but no all-out war occurred….

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Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea
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Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly