Foreign Policy Digital

Think Again: North Korea

North Korea is a lot more dangerous than you think, but that doesn't mean that Kim Jong Un is insane.

“North Korea’s not that dangerous.”

Wrong. There is no threat of war on the Korean peninsula because the United States and South Korea have deterred the regime for over six decades, or so the thinking goes. And the occasional provocation from Pyongyang — full of sound and fury — usually ends with it blowing up in its face, signifying nothing. So why worry? Two reasons. First, North Korea has a penchant for testing new South Korean presidents. A new one was just inaugurated in February, and since 1992, the North has welcomed these five new leaders by disturbing the peace. Whether in the form of missile launches, submarine incursions, or naval clashes, these North Korean provocations were met by each newly elected South Korean president with patience rather than pique.

The difference today is that South Korea is no longer turning the other cheek. After the North blew up the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in 2010, Seoul re-wrote the rules of military engagement. It has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation, which could escalate into a larger conflict. Second, North Korea crossed a major technology threshold in December, when it a satellite into orbit. Though the satellite later malfunctioned, the North managed to put the payload into orbit with ballistic missile launch technology that is clearly designed to reach the United States.

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