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Kim Jong-un: What's Behind The Threats?

Hayley Burgess |
April 9, 2013 | 1:18 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Kim Jong-un's rhetoric based on desire to prove himself, says expert. (Creative Commons, petersnoopy
Kim Jong-un's rhetoric based on desire to prove himself, says expert. (Creative Commons, petersnoopy
Kim Jong-un has put the international community on edge in recent weeks with threats to start a nuclear war with South Korea and other countries.

While many are skeptical of the damage he can actually do, Kim Jong-un's words alone have escalated tensions in the Korean Peninsula to another level. In their latest move to show Jong-un that they’re prepared for a North Korean attack, the United States beefed up nuclear defense systems in Guam hours after North Korea’s latest threat.

“They have a nuclear capacity now,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “They have a missile delivery capacity now. And so, as they have ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric, and some of the actions they have taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger.”

What's behind the recent rhetoric? Some experts believe that Jong-un is trying to prove himself, as he is a new and very inexperienced leader.            

"Kim Jong-un is new and untested and has had to take the helm of a massive policy/military state," said Jennifer Taw, a professor of international affairs at Claremont McKenna College. "I’m sure there are plenty of DPRK generals who are thinking they could do the job better than he can and he needs to prove to them that he’s a worthy leader. And DPRK never likes when others get attention, and Syria and Iran have been in the news a lot lately, so there’s some element of temper tantrum here.”

Most experts seem to use the words “bellicose” and “belligerent” to describe the new leader, and paint a picture of him as a pouty kid with a power complex.

According to an op-ed in the LA Times last Wednesday, “Kim Jong-un is a caricature of a tyrant, a person too silly to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, he is a fool with real power to destroy, and the misery he could bring about is no laughing matter.”

An article in the BBC states that “While many observers dismiss the rhetoric as bluster, others warn of ‘the tyranny of low expectations’ when it comes to understanding North Korea, because there have been a number of serious regional confrontations.”

South Korea, Guam and Japan face the most imminent threat, as the U.S. has a strong military presence in each of those countries. Their government officials and those of the U.S. are approaching the issue cautiously, aware that any action or statement could anger North Korea.

According to the BBC:

Commentators in South Korea, China and Russia are sure that North Korea’s military posturing is not the prelude to an attack, but many fear that miscalculation or over-reaction could lead to conflict...For the sake of national security, South Korea should prepare for the worst-case scenario. Since the North’s intentions are not yet clear, thorough preparations should be made against any kind of provocation. To preserve peace on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean government and military should not make any prejudgments and loosen up in any second… Kim Jong-un seems to have no intention of taking his foot off the accelerator.

The North Korean government most recently warned foreign embassy officials to evacuate South Korea last week and all foreigners to evacuate by Wednesday, April 10, suggesting that they are planning to act.

Japan is also preparing for a potential missile launch or test due to North Korea's recent threats.

"This morning, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihida Suga, announced that the prime minister had placed Japan's Self-Defense Force on 'full alert status,'" according to an article published by the Council on Foreign Relations. "Japan's defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, had already ordered the Self-Defense Force to mobilize for missile defense."

According to Professor Taw, although Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is based on inexperience and a desire to prove himself, the international community is responding seriously.

“He’s talking the big talk, but then being forced to escalate by the South Korean and U.S. responses,” she said. “This has been enough to make the Russians nervous (they called for calm on both sides) and has gotten the policy universe atwitter. He can’t hit the U.S., despite his claims, except maybe Hawaii and Alaska, but he can hit our friends and allies. So we reiterated today that we will respond as promised if he strikes Japan or South Korea.”

According to an LA Times op-ed, “Foreign affairs and military analysts in the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea are not at all certain that North Korea’s new, unseasoned leader knows when to stop. Kim Jong-un may not actually understand his power is built on illusions.”

"I don't know what kind of game this young man is playing - it is obviously brinksmanship," said Senator John McCain on CBS's Face the Nation. "More than once, wars have started by accident. This is a very serious situation."

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