On April 15, as the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) celebrated the 101st anniversary of the birth of its founding father Kim Il-sung, tensions in the Korean peninsula were peaking. On the occasion of the “Day of the Sun,” as it is called in North Korea, Seoul was on standby at all times for an attack from Pyongyang, although the South Korean Ministry of Defense declared that there should be no military assault to expect on that day.
The declaration seemed to be a concession from Seoul that even if Pyongyang is erratic, volatile, and plain crazy, South Korea could at least get one predictable day as its northern extravagant neighbor was busy commemorating the birthday of the “Sun of the Nation.” On the other hand, Pyongyang continued its celebration without fearing a sudden attack from the south. In fact, that might be the greatest risk for military escalation in the peninsula — South Korea preemptively launching an attack against the DPRK’s heavy artillery positioned on the border.
The paradox of the situation, which is a consequence of the very strategy that has been used by the North Korean Kim family, is that escalation would more likely start with Seoul than Pyongyang. For about 20 years, North Korea has followed a pattern of raising tensions and backing down. The regime did its best at showing the world that it is dangerous and crazy. By positioning heavy conventional artillery along the border with South Korea, it aimed to deter any attempt from Seoul and its allies to destabilize the regime. The development of nuclear capabilities is another argument to reinforce the dangerousness of the Northern regime. Then, North Korea fosters an image of madness by being unpredictable, making absurd threats of war against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S., and sometimes sinking a South Korean ship.
Nevertheless, North Korea is still very weak. Its hyper-militarism is burdening its economic development. Estimated military spending in 2008 represented about 22.3% of its gross national income (GNI). South Korea’s Bank of Korea (BOK) approximated that the North’s national income in 2009 was $22.4 billion, less than 3% of the South’s GNI, for a population half that of South Korea. As a matter of fact, chronic food shortages have been a pressing economic problem for almost two decades. The 1996-98 famine allegedly killed about 600,000 North Koreans.
The weakness of North Korea has actually been the best shield it could hope for against preemptive attacks from South Korea and its allies. In other words, attempting to bring down a weak country raises the opportunity cost of waiting for its regime to collapse from within. After all, why risk a war against a dangerous and crazy regime when it is doomed to disappear?
It is not Seoul that should fear an attack from Pyongyang, but the other way around. Since the end of the Korean War, the northern regime has considered itself under constant threat from the U.S. This feeling has been exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides, one cannot be sure about the relationship between China and North Korea and whether the two collaborate. But the DPRK’s strategy has been designed to serve one purpose only: to maintain the regime. Consequently, North Korea has absolutely no interest in waging a war against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Pyongyang’s bellicose behavior is the basis for avoiding war.
One can only hope that Seoul will not misinterpret signs of erratic behavior and launch a preemptive strike. This remains the most probable scenario of military escalation.