Monday, for many Americans, it seemed as though the world stopped as we once again encountered the pinnacle of vulnerability: an attack on domestic soil. We wrestled with the incomprehensible nature of the bombs that terrorized the streets of Boston all the while knowing that other imminent threats existed. In the background of the headlines from Boston, the lack of noise from North Korea, a usual constant presence in the newsreel, was eerie. Today, however, is a new day, and the rogue state refuses to back down.
On Monday, North Korea diverted from their usual pattern of celebration for the birthday of their founder, Kim Il-Sung. In many other years, the streets have typically been filled with military tanks as a symbol of the country’s power and historical pride. This year, in an uncanny inversion of events, they replaced their soldiers on Sunday with runners from ten different countries around the world, celebrating with an international marathon and an art festival.
Koryo Tours, which leads travel groups into the North, uploaded a video to YouTube on Sunday, where Koryo employee Hannah Barraclough, describes the "good vibe" surrounding the festivities and notes that she has yet to see a single tank on her trip to the militarized nation that graspedinternational attention in February with its third nuclear test.
The calm in the North was fleeting and theatrical at best. While North Koreans celebrated, a group of 40 people took to the streets in Seoul to burn effigies of the country’s three famed leaders. Pyongyang responded Tuesday to the South’s actions, in a statement saying that "Our retaliatory action will start without any notice from now."
The renewal of hostile energy follows on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry's first trip to the region. Initially, it appeared as though the goals of the trip were accomplished: he was explicit on a potential American response to nuclear threats from North Korea, optimistic for the hope for the "possibility of peace," but insistent the country needed to take serious steps towards denuclearizing before arriving at the negotiating table. Although the trip solidified relations with Japan and South Korea, it failed to snatch the loyalty of China, despite their disavowal of a nuclear Korean peninsula. China's economy has slowed, and the authoritarian state, which recently expressed discontent with American presence in the region, might look towards its support for Pyongyang to hold international face.
Until this happens, the threat will not subside. As long as the United States continues to accelerate it military presence in the region, North Korea, backed by China, will continue to test its limits. These are interspersed with moments such as yesterday that may point towards benign intent. The likelihood that North Korea would launch an attack against the United States is dim, but the risk of a potential collision in the Korean Peninsula is undeniable.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang rebuffed Secretary Kerry's call for peace talks. Just like that, we are back at the starting line.