Seoul Mates?

How North Korea’s threats of brimstone and fire are driving a wedge between the United States and its South Korean ally.


On Wednesday, South Korea suffered a massive cyber attack, shutting down the computer networks at three TV broadcasters and at two major banks, a move that resulted in the army upping its defense readiness posture. According to most analysts, North Korea — which in mid-March blamed South Korea and the United States for shutting down its own websites — is probably responsible. If the attacks did come from Pyongyang, then they are just the latest in a series of provocations.

Last week, North Korea added a sexist twist to its martial bluster, which has recently ranged from threats to launch an "all-out war" against South Korea,  to a "diversified precision nuclear strike" against Washington, D.C. The body that controls North Korea’s military remarked that the "frenzy kicked up by the south Korean warmongers is no way irrelevant with the swish of skirt made by the owner" of the Blue House, the residence of South Korea’s president.

That would be President Park Geun Hye, who took office on Feb. 25. ("Swish of the skirt" is an old chauvinistic Korean term, a swipe at assertive women who purportedly step out of line.) While there seems to be an intensification of the insults and attacks, they’re actually not all that different from what Seoul has faced over the last few years. But this time Pyongyang’s bluster barrage has actually struck a chord with South Koreans, who are increasingly worried about war.

While the vast majority of South Koreans are seemingly unperturbed by (or in denial of) the North’s threats, Pyongyang’s war drumming has led to protests against the annual joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, dubbed Key Resolve, which began on March 11. Although these military drills have been in place since 1976, the heavy daily dosage of war threats, buttressed by the North’s successful long-range missile test in December and its nuclear test in February, are having a noticeable psychological effect on South Korea. On the day the exercises began, The Hankyoreh, the nation’s main left-leaning newspaper, editorialized that "even a minor military incident could quickly spiral out of control." This while South Koreans, including a surprisingly large number of older people (who tend to be pro-Washington and anti-Pyongyang) gathered near the U.S. embassy in downtown Seoul, holding up placards with phrases like "Stop! War Exercise" and "Vicious cycle of confrontation that is Key Resolve."

In mid-March, the South’s Defense Ministry called Pyongyang’s threats an attempt to "put psychological pressure on South Korea." But to a public that has so much to lose in an exchange of fire with the North, Pyongyang’s threats have resonance. Ever since the Korean War ended 60 years ago, the North has called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South, and has blamed "U.S. hostile policy" for causing the strategic instability in the Korean peninsula. These claims seem to be gaining the same kind of credibility they had a decade ago, when 44 percent of South Koreans held unfavorable views of the United States. In October 2002, when the peninsula’s security environment deteriorated after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of cheating on its nuclear accord, roughly the same number of South Koreans surveyed blamed the United States as blamed North Korea for the tensions. And in January 2004, the South Korean polling organization Research & Research found that 39 percent of all South Koreans, and 58 percent of those in their 20s, viewed the United States as their greatest security threat. Only 33 percent of those surveyed, and a mere 20 percent of those in the 20s, saw North Korea as a greater threat to their national security.

South Koreans have long been averse to escalating tension with Pyongyang. In the 1950s, South Korea, devastated by the Korean War, was one of the poorest countries in the world. The nation’s tremendous economic growth since the end of that bloody conflict, coupled with six decades of de facto peace, make a stand-off an unappealing political prospect for southerners. The richer South Korea grew, the lower the public’s anxiety threshold on Pyongyang’s war threats has become. Hence, despite some choice words for Kim Jong Un, the Park administration will likely take a wait-and-see posture and do its best to avoid confrontation with the North, lest the nervous public perceives it as adding fuel to Pyongyang’s fiery rhetoric.

If the North does decide to launch another controlled, limited attack against the South (beyond the cyberattacks that presumably originated from the North), the most likely time would be in late March or early April, after the Key Resolve drills finish on March 23. Three years ago, North Korean naval forces sunk the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, just eight days after Key Resolve ended. If the North attacks in the coming days, Park will likely be forced to hit back. But she’ll face resistance among her own population: the South Korean people’s support for military countermeasures will likely drop precipitously. They would advocate return to negotiations, possibly with billions of dollars worth of concessions in tow. Based on the past 20 years of nuclear diplomacy, that’s what the Kim regime likely calculates.

At the same time, it bears thinking about those worrying poll numbers regarding the favorability of the United States in South Korea. Washington is not acting entirely on behalf of Seoul when it comes to the North Korean threat: Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile programs are targeted at the American public. And the Kim regime appears to think that if it can demonstrate the capability to hit the West Coast of the United States with a nuclear warhead, Washington may have second thoughts on its
treaty commitments to the defense of South Korea. And if Washington can’t even count among its friends and supporters the good people of South Korea, that calculus may get tricky indeed.

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