North Korea: If You Want Peace, Prepare For War – Part XXXIX

The phrase ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’, is often attributed to the Roman writer Vegetius. It effectively means peace through military strength, and this seems to be the de facto policy of North Korea. However, it is also true that if you want war, you should prepare for war.

But does North Korean leader Kim Jong Un really want war?

Despite the extreme rhetoric, most observers, including BMI, do not believe that Kim actually wants war. Although the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the fifth-largest in the world with 1.1mn troops and is very heavily armed, most military experts deem its equipment to be outdated and qualitatively inferior to the US supplied and supported South Korean armed forces. The general consensus is that while the KPA could cause severe devastation to the South in the event of all-out war, the South, backed by the US, would repel the North and then go on the offensive against Pyongyang, ultimately overthrowing the regime.

We subscribe to this consensus.

However, we also caution that while North Korea may not wish for war, it will occasionally seek to carry out provocations against the South, such as the sinking of the Southern warship Cheonan in March 2010, and a barrage on the Southern island of Yeonpyeong in November of that year. The two incidents caused the deaths of 50 South Koreans.

Amid current tensions, we see a realistic possibility that Pyongyang may carry out a similar deadly attack, and that unlike previous occasions, Seoul would respond militarily. From our point of view, the South’s retaliation could cause the North to counter-retaliate. This could lead to a major battle on land or at sea that causes hundreds or even thousands of deaths before both sides backed down.

Extreme Rhetoric Mainly Aimed At Home Audience

In our view, North Korea’s extreme rhetoric is mainly aimed at domestic audiences, and is designed to boost Kim Jong Un’s credentials as a military leader. The official state media’s report on a March 29 half-past-midnight meeting between Kim and top generals would seem to confirm this. Moreover, Washington and Seoul have stated that they have seen no signs of unusual military activity in the North to suggest a move to war footing.

We consider Pyongyang’s threats to launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles against US targets as highly unrealistic, because the KPA is not believed to have perfected the miniaturisation of atomic warheads and the missile technology capable of delivering them across such distances. In any case, the US would retaliate with its own nuclear weapons.

Finally, if North Korea were serious about carrying out a major attack or general war, it would not have raised its rhetoric so dramatically, for it would have lost the element of surprise by making the South and the US even more vigilant than usual.

Nevertheless, we also believe that the extreme rhetoric currently emanating from the North is intended to intimidate South Korea, the US, and Japan, to signal its displeasure at tightened UN sanctions and military exercises. By raising its rhetoric to such levels, Pyongyang is putting its enemies on edge, making them wonder whether it might indeed be serious ‘this time’.

Economic Reform Plans Still Unclear

Against this backdrop of heightened tensions, the annual session of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly on April 1 appointed ex-premier Pak Pong Ju to his old post, and replaced two vice-premiers and several cabinet ministers. The reshuffle is interpreted as presaging an acceleration of economic reform, because Pak is associated with the North’s tentative free market experiments in the early 2000s during his previous stint as premier (2003-2007).

However, because all key policy decisions rest with Kim Jong Un and his immediate circle, which includes his uncle Jang Song Thaek, aunt Kim Kyong Hui, and top generals, Pak is unlikely to enjoy a free hand at reform. Although BMI strongly believes that the North wishes to modernise its economy, the country has so far failed to meet three minimum conditions for this: firstly, the regime must sharply reduce military spending so that more resources can be diverted to the civilian sector; secondly, the North must reduce tensions with the South and the US so that economic ties with them improve; and thirdly the regime must show a willingness to pursue and stick with reforms even if they prove to be destabilising. As things stand, none of the three conditions are close to being met.

Economic reform is still possible through small, gradual steps enacted over a long period of time. However, given that most emerging economies are modernising much faster than North Korea, there is a risk that the country will fall further behind Asia’s frontier markets, all of which have superior business environments.

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