North Korea War? Kim Jong-un Tones Down Hawkish Rhetoric

The North Korean government has dramatically toned down its rhetoric, from threatening nuclear annihilation to grumbling over the “crafty ploy” and “cunning trick” by America and its allies to destroy its nuclear arsenal.

There are two possible explanations to this sudden change in rhetoric.

1. They are actually incapable of carrying out their threats.

Pyongyang has been threatening nuclear annihilation for weeks, yet nothing has happened. More and more people are starting to believe that these threats are merely empty rhetoric.

James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, testified on Thursday that, although North Korea has “what appears to be the basic ingredients for nuclear-equipped missiles,” its lack of experience with large missiles reduces feasibility of its threats. “If they launch this Musudan missile, that’ll be of great interest to both them and us to see if it actually works because they’ve never launched it,” Clapper said.

President Obama has also publicly cast doubt on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, saying last Monday on NBC’s Today show, “Based on our current intelligence assessments, we do not think that they have that capacity.”

2. Kim Jong-un is realizing that his rhetorical threats are straining its diplomatic relations with China.

Judging by recent actions by Chinese officials, it appears likely that China is edging further away from North Korea, with whom it shares historically close diplomatic ties, and toward the U.S. and its allies. This poses an urgent threat to North Korea, as China is its only financial and diplomatic defender on the international stage, which Pyongyang cannot afford to lose.

Firstly, China actually took part in negotiating tighter UN sanctions against North Korea with Washington early last month. The fact that tighter UN sanctions is the last thing that Kim Jong-Un wants, shows China’s decreasing support for North Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also expressed in a phone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on April 6, that “Beijing opposes any actions from any party in the region an does not allow troublemaking at the doorstep of China.”

Secondly, in early April, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned at a regional business forum in Boao, China, that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” Although Xi did not explicitly mention any countries or disputes, it is widely believed that he was directing his remarks to Pyongyang.

Lastly, the fact that Chinese and American officials will meet in Washington next week indicates China’s move towards America and away from North Korea. On the agenda are plans for Beijing and Washington to participate in “an in-depth exchange of views” on the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” indicating at its potential support for American effort to strip the North of its nuclear arsenal.

So is a diplomatic resolution to this crisis possible?

The U.S. and South Korea are hopeful that the toning down of North Korea’s rhetoric will eventually lead to diplomacy.

On Thursday, Pyongyang issued a list of pre-conditions for resuming talks with Seoul and Washington, including the withdrawal of UN sanctions, the end of US-South Korea military drills, and a general apology from the U.S. and South Korea for all “provocative acts” taken against North Korea.

Although it seems unlikely that these pre-conditions will be met, South Korea, and the US have both been pushing for talks. Last month, South Korea approved a shipment humanitarian aid for tuberculosis patients in the North, which has been perceived as the extension of an olive branch and asking for talks. Secretary of State John Kerry has also expressed that “our preference would be to get to talks.”

At the end of the day, it all boils down to what Kim wants. According to Clapper, “There isn’t a lot of upward flow of information or flow of decision options ... They’re all pretty much centered in one person.”