By Cathy Chen
North Korea urges foreigners to evacuate South Korea. Religiously motivated terrorists plant a bomb at the Boston Marathon. North Korea declares plans to launch missiles. A Missouri dissident sends mail laced with ricin to political figures. North Korea announces the trial of an American citizen.
These days, threats from North Korea seem to just fill the spaces between other pieces of noteworthy news, an ubiquitous menace constantly casting its shadow over the developing world, monopolizing the media in between various crises and events. In the past few months, North Korea has tested nuclear bombs, announced that it possesses missiles capable of reaching the United States mainland, and released a fiery video depicting the immolation of American political landmarks. These seem to portent impending doom, or at least a critical transnational incident. They fill mainstream media and other news feeds with intimidating possibilities of critical escalation.
But is this really anything new? In 1994, North Korea asserted its intention to turn Seoul, the capital of South Korea, into a “sea of fire.” In 2002, it again expressed its power in a bellicose announcement that it would “mercilessly wipe out” the United States and other aggressors. Today, six year later, the United States and Seoul remain in their respective locations, and North Korean threats have become an almost common occurrence.
A comprehensive timeline produced by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars reveals that North Korea has been engaging in this kind of threatening activity since 1968, when it seized the USS Pueblo, which remains in the possession of North Korea today. This kind of activity is known as brinksmanship. Throughout modern history, North Korea has been known to repeatedly utilize alarming rhetoric and extreme actions to gain the attention of prominent international figures and various forms of aid. It engages in risky behavior that pushes the United States and the rest of the international community “to the brink” and is placated by promises of food aid, relaxed sanctions, or the opportunity to negotiate with influential people.
One of the most significant and well-known instance of brinksmanship mirrored this combination of public antagonism for private concessions. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in the midst of the cold war, when the Soviet Union deployed ships with offensive ballistic missiles to Cuba. The United States declared a “quarantine” of Cuba, blockading the country from incoming Soviet ships. As the Soviet ships traveled closer and closer to their intended destination, the world waited apprehensively. Ultimately, 13 days of international tension ended with the Soviets publicly removing their missiles for the United States’ promise to never invade Cuba. Then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk declared that “we were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked.”
So this usage of brinksmanship is nothing completely novel, for North Korea or for the world. What is new, however, is the leader of North Korea. Kim Jong-Un, with less than two years of experience as “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, is responsible for all the calculations, manipulations, and actions behind North Korea’s policy of brinksmanship. Though he undoubtedly received years of grooming before becoming “Supreme Leader”, the recent combination of nuclear threats, border-closing, and the trial of an American man could signify an unsteady escalation of threats. With a new and possibly inexperienced leader venturing in the risky business of brinksmanship, North Korea could quickly lose control of the situation, leading America and its allies into a dire calamity.
Given North Korea’s past actions and current path, it is up to the United States to decide its own course of action: take decisive action or wait and see if North Korea, too, will blink.