Pyongyang's Provocations: What Motivates North Korean Threats?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un looks south in a photo provided by the regime. Zoom
REUTERS/ KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un looks south in a photo provided by the regime.

North Korea has responded to fresh UN sanctions by threatening to attack the US and escalate tensions with the South. But experts believe that the aggressive rhetoric has also been sparked by changing regional dynamics and hopes of rallying the people around their new leader.

North Korea will "mercilessly" drive the American aggressors into the sea, "miserably destroy" US units stationed in South Korea and transform Seoul into a "nuclear sea of fire." With phrases like these, North Korean leaders have repeatedly threatened to have their "heroic army" -- driven by their superior ideology and love for their supreme leader -- annihilate the enemy.

But now North Korea's extensive arsenal of verbal intimidation has added a new target: Pyongyang declared on Thursday that North Koreans "will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor," referring to the United States. At the same time, North Korea's propaganda apparatus is sowing fear among its own citizens, by claiming that an American attack is imminent and that they must steel themselves for the worst.

The shrill rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang has only increased since the United Nations imposed new sanctions on the reclusive country on Thursday for conducting a third nuclear test on Feb. 12. Indeed, tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula, where dictator Kim Jong Un is also threatening to scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War, fought between 1950 and 1953, and ushered in a period of more subdued hostilities. What's more, Pyongyang has cancelled a non-aggression pact with Seoul and cut off a hotline meant to allow any incidents along the 38th parallel truce line to be quickly defused.

Further Provocation Expected

The tensions in East Asia could worsen in the coming weeks, experts say. According to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, the North Koreans are planning to begin a large military maneuver soon. There may also be a further intercontinental missile test.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has visited a number of military units in recent days, and experts in Seoul aren't ruling out another provocation from the country, perhaps similar to that of November 2010, when the North fired grenades at the island of Yeonpyeong, a front-line island, killing four South Koreans.

There are three reasons for Kim's saber rattling. First, Pyongyang is apparently convinced that the rest of the world is out to get them. The regime also believes it is their right to possess nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, just like its archenemy, the United States.

Second, Kim and his family aim to show their starving underlings that they are legitimate leaders capable of protecting the people from external enemies, who are supposedly the real reason for the country's miserable economic state. Chinese Professor Shi Yinhong said in a recent interview that the nuclear test's goal was "strengthening his reputation as leader with the North Korean public and the military."

Finally, Pyongyang is testing the limits of recent changes in the region's political landscape. Three nearby countries all have new leaders. In China, the National People's Congress is underway, during which delegates will install Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as state president. South Korea has a new President, Park Geun-hye. And a conservative government is back in power in Japan. Meanwhile, in the US, Sen. John Kerry has replaced former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Undeterred by UN Sanctions

North Korea is aware that its future depends primarily on neighboring China, its last remaining ally in the region. But Chinese scholars and journalists are currently busy wondering if Beijing should maintain its ties to Pyongyang. All it has to do to bring Kim Jong Un and his cronies to their knees is turn off the oil tap and halt food supplies.

Journalist Deng Yuwen, from the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China, believes that this is exactly what Beijing should do. In his opinion, the third nuclear test is an ideal opportunity to review China's alliance with the Kim dynasty. Linking China's strategic security with North Korea is an approach that needs to be overhauled, he says.

But the Chinese military and the International Department of the Central Committee are keen to keep the close relationship alive. Some in Beijing have claimed that Xi Jinping is planning to sit down with diplomats and experts to tackle the North Korean problem once the National People's Congress is over.

The expanded sanctions imposed Thursday include a ban on sales of jewellery, yachts, luxury vehicles and racing cars -- but not on fur and liquor. Kim and his comrades can carry on toasting with fine cognac.

Whatever they decide and whichever forces prevail in China's North Korean policy, Shi is convinced that "relations are at rock bottom." Beijing agreed to the UN's latest sanctions knowing that they are open to interpretation and cannot inflict serious harm on the North Koreans.

-- with wires

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