SEOUL, South Korea – Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for “death to the U.S. imperialists” and urge the people to fight with “arms, not words.”
But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on U.S. targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.
Despite the hastening drumbeat of warfare – seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations – Pyongyang aims to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and build unity inside the communist country without triggering a full-blown war.
North Korea wants to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, a truce Pyongyang recently announced it would no longer honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.
In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with the U.S. and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarized Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.
It was never intended to be a permanent border. But six decades later, North and South remain divided, with Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans.
In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world’s 15th largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left. But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invasion.
On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the U.S. Air Force’s largest conventional bomb – a 30,000-pound super bunker buster – powerful enough to destroy North Korea’s web of underground military tunnels.
It was a flexing of military muscle by Washington, perhaps aimed not only at Pyongyang but at Beijing as well.
In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the U.S. actions continue. A photo distributed by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency showed Kim in a military operations room with maps detailing a “strike plan” behind him in a very public show of supposedly sensitive military strategy.
North Korea cites the U.S. military threat as a key reason behind its need to build nuclear weapons, and has poured a huge chunk of its small national budget into defense, science and technology. In December, scientists launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket using technology that could easily be converted for missiles; in February, they tested an underground nuclear device as part of a mission to build a bomb they can load on a missile capable of reaching the U.S.
However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. — and a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants U.S. troops off Korean soil, and the bombs and rockets are more of an expensive, dangerous safety blanket than real firepower. They are the only real playing card North Korea has left, and the bait they hope will bring the Americans to the negotiating table.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said North Korea’s “bellicose rhetoric” would only deepen its international isolation, and that the U.S. has both the capability and willingness to defend its interests in the region.
Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, isn’t convinced North Korea is capable of attacking Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. He says Pyongyang hasn’t successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.
But its medium-range Rodong missiles, with a range of about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers), are “operational and credible” and could reach U.S. bases in Japan, he says.
More likely than such a strike, however, is a smaller-scale incident, perhaps off the Koreas’ western coast, that would not provoke the Americans to unleash their considerable firepower. For years, the waters off the west coast have been a battleground for naval skirmishes between the two Koreas because the North has never recognized the maritime border drawn unilaterally by the U.N.
As threatening as Kim’s call to arms may sound, its main target audience may be the masses at home in North Korea.
For months, the masterminds of North Korean propaganda have pinpointed this year’s milestone Korean War anniversary as a prime time to play up Kim’s military credibility as well as to push for a peace treaty. By creating the impression that a U.S. attack is imminent, the regime can foster a sense of national unity and encourage the people to rally around their new leader.
Inside Pyongyang, much of the military rhetoric feels like theatrics. It’s not unusual to see people toting rifles in North Korea, where soldiers and checkpoints are a fixture in the heavily militarized society. But more often than not in downtown Pyongyang, the rifle stashed in a rucksack is a prop and the “soldier” is a dancer, one of the many performers rehearsing for a Korean War-themed extravaganza set to debut later this year.
More than 100,000 soldiers, students and ordinary workers were summoned Friday to Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang to pump their fists in support of North Korea’s commander in chief. But elsewhere, it was business as usual at restaurants and shops, and farms and factories, where the workers have heard it all before.
“Tensions rise almost every year around the time the U.S.-South Korean drills take place, but as soon as those drills end, things go back to normal and people put those tensions behind them quite quickly,” said Sung Hyun-sang, the South Korean president of a clothing maker operating in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. “I think and hope that this time won’t be different.”
And in a telling sign that even the North Koreans don’t expect war, the national airline, Air Koryo, is adding flights to its spring lineup and preparing to host the scores of tourists they expect to flock to Pyongyang despite the threats issuing forth from the Supreme Command.
War or no war, it seems Pyongyang remains open for business.