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Mr. Kim and the Envelope

Like his father, Kim Jong-Un is best compared to a bellicose 13-year old child who stomps his feet and makes a fuss until he gets his way. Unlike an ordinary child, this one’s tantrums come with high stakes. The young Mr. Kim has now taken his game of chicken as far as it can go without actually pulling the trigger. The series of exchanges and threats are indeed worrisome for Washington and its allies; China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are taking it all seriously.

Is Kim Jong-Un dumb enough to actually follow through? According to a statement released by state-run KCNA, North Korea has stated that it is in a “state of war” with South Korea. “Situations on the Korean Peninsula, which are neither in peace or at war, have come to an end,” the statement read. “From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly.”

We think not. While North Korea has a standing army of more than a million soldiers – making it one of the world’s largest — approximately 12,000 artillery guns, over 800 fighter jets and thousands of tanks, many elements of its military are outdated and would not be able to sustain a ground war with South Korea and the United States.

While Pyongyang has warned that it will strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear-armed ICBM’s, by all accounts it lacks the technical ability to do so. It has yet to successfully test a long-range missile, nor has North Korea been able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on an ICBM. The greater threat is short and medium-range missiles, so while U.S. territory is not at risk, Japan and South Korea certainly are. Kim Jong-Un knows, however, that any use of nuclear or chemical weapons by him would result in the same by the U.S.

In the event of a war, South Korea and the United States would likely launch a prolonged bombing campaign on North Korea that would effectively decimate the North Korean military. While the end result would be devastation in North Korea, the South would face a bleak future in the short term. Any sustained North Korean artillery barrage, however short, would likely destroy much of Seoul. That said, many of the North’s troops are poorly trained and fed, and would undoubtedly be more likely to defect to the South rather than fight it. There is also the question of to what degree the concept of Korean peninsular nationalism would impact troops on both sides of the DMZ, making them less hesitant to fight their ‘brothers.’

If Pyongyang chooses to commence aggression against South Korea and by extension, the United States, although the conflagration would be bloody indeed, Mr. Kim’s tenure would be short-lived. He knows that, as do his neighbors and the U.S., so Mr. Kim should understand that his saber rattling is perceived as just that. But Kim Jong-Un has indeed been masterful at taking his latest tantrum right up to the line. Then again, he did learn from the best.

All this serves to reemphasize that the South and North have remained in a technical state of war since 1953 and remains one of the few areas in the world where a World War II-era conflict remains unresolved. Presuming that Kim Jong-Un is not suicidal and will not, in fact, push South Korea and the U.S. any further at the present time, he is only at the beginning of his reign and may be expected to remain at the helm in that imprisoned country for decades to come. Regrettably, for the entire Korean Peninsula, it appears the only way the Kim dynasty will come to an end is if it is removed through military force. That is a very high price for the North Korean people to pay for their freedom.