North Korea: US signals strength, but speaks softly
In response to the threats from North Korea's untested young leader, the Obama administration has sought to reassure the US public and allies alike, but without saying very much.
KCNA via KNS/AP/File
As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has issued increasingly belligerent statements toward South Korea and the United States in recent weeks, many North Asia analysts have concluded that the young Mr. Kim is acting to establish his tough-guy credentials with key audiences: the North Korean public, but also the military and other North Korean elites.
But in response, the Obama administration ‚Äď while actually saying little ‚Äď has also been acting to reassure the American public and key allies like South Korea and Japan, even as it tries to figure out what Kim Jong-un is really up to and the best way to deal with him, some regional experts say.
‚ÄúThe early superficial take-away on [Kim] is that he‚Äôs not afraid to be out front, not afraid to take risks.... He speaks more directly to the public than his father did, and after he‚Äôs established his military credentials he can then turn his focus to the economy,‚ÄĚ says Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‚Äôs Security Studies Program.
‚ÄúBut the US is also sending its own messages‚ÄĚ by responding to Kim‚Äôs rhetoric ‚Äď which has included a vow to attack the US ‚Äď with the inclusion of nuclear-capable B-52s in US-South Korea military exercises and a reinforcing of missile defense batteries in Alaska, he says.
The Obama administration ‚Äúis sending a message of reassurance to South Korea and the American public in particular,‚ÄĚ Dr. Walsh says, ‚Äúbut [it is] also telling a leader who is really breaking new ground with direct and specific threats, ‚ÄėIf you keep talking like that, this is what you have to look forward to.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
But besides such messaging, the US has had very little to say in response to Kim‚Äôs actions ‚Äď which have included tearing up the Korean War armistice, severing a security communications line with Seoul, and publicly reviewing military planning for attacks on a number of US sites including Hawaii and Austin, Texas.
Secretary of State John Kerry will certainly have more to say when he visits Japan, South Korea, and China in mid-April, but in the meantime the administration is speaking softly as it brandishes its big sticks. A White House spokesman said that the North is further isolating itself with its ‚Äúbellicose rhetoric‚ÄĚ (last Friday) and Secretary Kerry has called on North Korea to ‚Äúengage in legitimate dialogue‚ÄĚ instead of issuing threats (early last month).
The US has also been working to impose new sanctions and to reinforce international implementation of existing measures against North Korea since the United Nations Security Council approved a new round of sanctions last month in response to the North‚Äôs February nuclear test.
Some security analysts accuse the US of needlessly provoking Kim with a string of military measures at a delicate moment in the new leader‚Äôs consolidation of power. (At 29 or 30 years of age, Kim is the world‚Äôs youngest head of state, having assumed power at the death of his father in December 2011.)
But many other experts say the US has acted prudently as the unknown quantity in charge in Pyongyang ‚Äď who has already overseen a worrisome nuclear test and long-range missile launch ‚Äď has recently issued increasingly incendiary threats.
The US is simply covering its security bases, the latter reasoning goes, while it tries to figure out who Kim is and how best to approach him.
No one can even be certain that Kim is the guy in charge in North Korea, some analysts say. ‚ÄúYou can conclude that as a leader he seems to be quite risk-acceptant, but there‚Äôs also reason to be cautious and ask questions like, ‚ÄėIs he really in charge, or is it a family clique or council?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Walsh. ‚ÄúCertainly the US government is still asking, ‚ÄėWhat are his relations with the military?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Given the deep uncertainties about North Korea, the US public seems to be broadly supportive of the Obama administration‚Äôs approach ‚Äď taking precautions militarily even as it imposes new sanctions to try to influence the North‚Äôs behavior ‚Äď according to a new Monitor/TIPP poll.
But the poll also suggests that the public may be out in front of the administration by strongly favoring the kind of ‚Äúdialogue‚ÄĚ the White House is pursuing with Iran over its nuclear program but has not yet proposed with North Korea.
More than two-thirds of Americans ‚Äď 68 percent ‚Äď say they favor opening direct talks with the North Korean regime, according to the poll conducted March 25-30. Only 24 percent disagree with the idea of dialogue.
Even more popular is the imposition of economic sanctions. Nearly three-quarters of Americans ‚Äď 74 percent ‚Äď support exerting economic pressure and even increasing it with additional measures.
Much less popular among a war-weary populace is the idea of military intervention to ‚Äúremove‚ÄĚ North Korea‚Äôs nuclear installations. Still, a sizable minority of 40 percent would support such action, while 53 percent oppose.
And among self-identified Republicans, military action against the North has the support of a small majority ‚Äď 51 percent.
MIT‚Äôs Walsh says he sees very little chance of US military action against the North, because he says no one involved in the current ratcheting-up of tensions wants a military confrontation ‚Äď neither the US nor the North, nor South Korea.
The danger, he says, is that someone makes a mistake that gets the military ball rolling.
And more long term, Walsh worries there will be repercussions from the precautionary actions the US has taken that the Obama administration may not wish to see. President Obama could see his nonproliferation and disarmament goals set back by the US ‚Äúbrandishing‚ÄĚ of its nuclear-ready aircraft, and not all of North Korea‚Äôs neighbors will interpret the US measures as a reassuring display of the US nuclear umbrella.
‚ÄúClearly one of [the US] goals is to reassure states like South Korea and Japan, ‚ÄėYou don‚Äôt have to go nuclear because we can protect you,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúBut on the other hand, my guess is that the Russians and the Chinese aren‚Äôt too happy about the US flying nuclear-capable [aircraft] near their borders.‚ÄĚ