Last Chance: What’s Behind North Korea’s Nuclear Threats?

The capitol is bombed into obliteration and an American flag is engulfed in flames as an ominous voice announces that, ‘merciless nuclear pre-emptive attack waits for enemy’ in broken English. This shocking scene is the most recent installment in North Korea’s propaganda machine, prophesizing the repercussions of ‘American imperialism’ in the form of a devastating nuclear attack on the city of Washington.

Image courtesy of Clay Gilliland © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Clay Gilliland © 2013, some rights reserved.

 The video carries the ominous title of ‘Last Chance,’ warning America and its ‘South Korean puppets’ to cease their provocations, stating that, ‘it’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not.’ This video is hardly the first of its kind: a 2013 video depicted Manhattan’s demise as an instrumental version of ‘We Are the World’ played softly in the background, and was followed by another video showing President Obama and American soldiers in flames.

While the work is not notable for its novelty, it certainly carries a menacing undertone in light of North Korea’s most recent flirtations with nuclear war. The notoriously reclusive state claimed that it had tested its first hydrogen bomb in early January, its fourth nuclear test. It has since launched two short range missiles, with the capability to strike its enemies in South Korea, and made claims that it has miniaturized nuclear warheads to be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles. While nuclear experts have yet to reach a conclusion on the viability of these claims and the integrity of the hydrogen bomb, one thing remains clear: Pyongyang is eager to convince the world that it has the ability to create a nuclear Armageddon.

This rhetoric has been coupled with increased antagonism towards its southern neighbour. In late March, North Korea carried out a large scale military drill simulating and attack on South Korean President Park Guen-Hye’s residence, the Blue House. Kim Jong-un has even launched an unprecedented verbal attack on President Guen-Hye, directly ordering her to cease her, ‘rash behavior toward our nuclear armament’ before it is too late and promising her imminent demise. This is a major departure from the dictator’s usual policy of leaving such statements to the state-run propaganda machine.

Amid the grandiose rhetoric and military flexing, one question remains: what has led North Korea to embrace escalation at this particular time? BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus asserts that North Korea’s international presence is usually a symptom of Kim Jong-Un’s concerns over domestic power. Images of the young dictator hovering over a nuclear bomb and dictating orders at a missile launch certainly brandishes his image as a confident and serious world leader, a depiction that he has struggled to project since assuming power after his father’s death in 2011.

This depiction may be integral to maintaining authority as ordinary North Koreans experience increasingly perilous living conditions. There is evidence that the Hermit Kingdom’s food supply is quickly dwindling: a UNICEF report reported that a severe drought in 2015 has cut agricultural production by a fifth and caused a subsequent reduction in government rations. The recent spat of nuclear testing exacerbates the situation: foreign funding has taken a nosedive since the hydrogen bomb debuted in January. When combined with punishing sanctions, the situation looks increasingly grim. A government editorial was published this past week warning North Koreans about the looming possibility of famine, likening the current situation to the catastrophic starvations in the mid-1990’s that resulted in the death of up to three million people. The country was told to prepare for another ‘arduous march,’ where ‘we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.’  As North Koreans prepare for the devastating affects of famine, perhaps Pyongyang hopes that a show of national might and military superiority will sustain loyalty to the regime.

Kim Jong-Un’s sabre rattling could also be a response to his state’s increasingly insecure global position. North Korea’s stalwart ally, China, seems to be growing tired of its southern neighbor. Beijing has supported new United Nations sanctions against North Korea in response to its provocative nuclear armament, an unprecedented move that expresses its displeasure with recent developments. President Xi Jinping has also agreed to cooperate with the United States in an attempt to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat at the recent Nuclear Security summit. Jinping’s ties to the current Kim regime are tenuous; he has never met with Kim Jong-Un despite paying numerous visits to his southern nemesis, President Park Guen-hye. Losing an ally in China would significantly weaken the security of Kim Jong-un’s ruling class. North Korean proliferation expert, Zhu Feng describes China’s support as, ‘a lifeline to keep the reclusive country from domestic implosion.’

As North Korea’s closest ally falls to the wayside, a boisterous show of nuclear strength may be the regime’s attempt to ward off the looming threat of American militarization in the South. The presence of US troops in South Korea and Japan remains high. This year’s joint South Korean-American military exercise was bigger than it had even been before, and included the test firing of two American intercontinental ballistic missiles. Relations with the South have sunk to new lows. President Park’s attitude towards North Korea has significantly hardened since the beginning of her time in office. Bolstered by a cozier relationship with China and the US, Park’s rhetoric has become increasingly militant. Last year, she promised that any attack against the South would warrant, ‘a strong response in initial combat, regardless of the political considerations.’ As Pyongyang finds itself surrounded by hostile forces, it is no wonder it takes voyeuristic pleasure in watching Washington go up in flames and fantasizes about a hostile takeover of the Blue House.

While North Korea’s increasingly troublesome nuclear prospects may be cause for alarm, they do not indicate a position of unequivocal military strength. They should thus be viewed within their appropriate context: that of a nation devolving into economic turmoil, slowly losing the support of its one trusted friend, and struggling to cope with a menacing military presence at its border. Pyongyang’s abrasive propaganda campaigns and much publicized nuclear developments are the product of Kim Jong-Un’s deep insecurity. Excessive chest thumping is an essential part of establishing his regime as an imposing and fear-inducing presence on the international stage.

President Obama is wise to seek a closer security alliance with China, cutting off Pyongyang’s most vital political ally and protector. However, the United Nations’ policies of extreme sanctioning must carefully consider the human toll of North Korea’s economic demise. Considering the Kim regime’s notorious disinterest in the welfare of its own people, feeding the public likely to take a backseat to nuclear ambitions as the country’s economy is squeezed by these policies. Flashy headlines of nuclear Armageddon should not distract the international community from the humanitarian crisis unfolding within North Korea’s borders; financial assistance to the nation’s starving poor must be maintained despite the saber rattling of their ‘Dear Leader.’

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