With recent pronouncements in the past months to nullify the 1953 armistice that concluded the overt hostilities of the Korean war, North Korea has also levied numerous threats against the United States, South Korea and Japan. Coming in the wake of a third nuclear test and a comprehensive regime of punitive sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council, the warnings are cause for concern. But, given the bombastic and hyperbolic rhetoric of the North ... what are they trying to gain, and will they make good on their threats?
The second question is easier to address than the former. Although North Korea has successfully tested a long-range rocket and placed an object into orbit, its ability to shrink one of its approximately ten nuclear warheads to fit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile has not yet been verified. As North Korea lacks the technology to defeat American long-range missile defense radars, newly placed anti-ballistic missile batteries in Alaska will be well equipped to destroy any incoming missile assault. While the risk of an attack on the continental United States may be low, then, the risk of a smaller-scale attack on American, Japanese or South Korean military or civilian interests in the nearby vicinity of the Korean peninsula remains more possible.
A military provocation in the vein of the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan would, given the history of the North’s actions against the South, be far more probable than a sudden escalation that could lead to a full-scale resumption of hostilities on the peninsula. Given the current status-of-forces agreement among the United States, Japan and South Korea, any large-scale attack, especially involving nuclear weapons, would give the United States the international legal justification for a massive, overwhelming strike on the North Korean leadership. A smaller attack or skirmish would allow the DPRK to vent its frustration at the sanctions while allowing the U.S. and its allies to avoid a war that would undoubtedly cost a fortune in blood and treasure.
This returns us to our second question: what does North Korea hope to gain from these provocations? Quite simply, North Korea wants, in the words of Dennis Rodman, a "call." Already the most ostracized and sanctioned nation in the international community, North Korea craves the recognition a summit meeting or even a simple phone call from President Obama would provide the regime. The ultimate goal of this recognition is a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, which was ended only with a cease fire in 1953. This record of constant provocation and harassment is not with the intent of restarting a conflict that would certainly spell disaster for all parties involved, but rather with the hopes of bringing Washington and Seoul to the table to formally enshrine the legality of the North’s nuclear arsenal and the normalization of diplomatic relations.
So, then, while war with North Korea is almost certainly not on the horizon, it is never possible to tell for certain. Trying to pry into the manner by which the foreign policy sausage is made in Pyongyang is most always an exercise in futility. However, given the DPRK’s recent history, we must be wary of a smaller, more conventional assault, and be prepared for the diplomatic overtures that will surely follow in its wake.