How seriously should one regard official North Korean warnings that “War may break out at any moment”? President Kim Il-Sung of North Korea has just returned to Pyongyang after a round of visits to friendly capitals in Asia, Europe and Africa where he sought to impress his hosts with the danger of war.
The threat, as represented by Pyongyang, is a mirror image of the threat as seen in Washington. The Ford administration fears that Kim, an aggressively megalomaniac believer in brinkmanship, might see the end of the Vietnam War as an opportunity to push the United States forces out of Korea.
Pyongyang, to judge from its press, believes that an aggressively imperialistic United States might see its defeat in Vietnam as necessitating the reassertion of the US role in Asia by attacking North Korea.
While administration spokesmen, from President Ford down, have been publicly reaffirming the US commitment to South Korea as a warning to Kim against any hasty action, Pyongyang newspapers saw their statements as threats. When Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger made it clear that, in spite of Vietnam, any attacker would be risking a US counter-attack against his own heartland, Pyongyang quickly acknowledged the message. North Korea would not be intimidated, said the main party paper Rodong Sinmun. If the United States started a war, the Korean people would “rise up to punish it.”
Pyongyang seems to fear a miscalculation by Washington just as much as Washington fears a miscalculation by Pyongyang. “The US Imperialists should be clearly aware of this stand,” Rodong Sinmun concluded, “and should make no miscalculation.”
Kim Il-Sung’s first foreign trip, to Peking, has been widely interpreted as a journey in search of support for an attack on the South. It is true that some of his remarks sounded quite bellicose, but they could also be interpreted as warnings against a US attack.
Even in the United States and in Europe many of the administration’s critics saw the US response to the capture of the Mayaguez by Cambodia as a deliberate display of military overkill after Vietnam.
It would not be unnatural of Kim, with his suspicions of US “Imperialism,” to expect something similar on his own border. In this light, his journey to Peking may not have been as warlike as it is made out to be. It is more likely to have been undertaken in search of reassurance and of help in case of an attack on North Korea, either by the United States or by South Korea.
Peking’s refusal to take an alarmist view did not lead the Pyongyang press to moderate its cries of war. But Kim continued his brave talk when he resumed his journey.
If the United States launched a war, he again said in Algiers, “we will only have a demarcation line to lose – but a reunited country to win.” The theme was much the same as it had been in Peking, though he could hardly have been looking for military help in North Africa.
But he could have been using the journey, and the talk of war, to drum up diplomatic support for the forthcoming United Nations vote on the withdrawal of US forces from Korea. Last year the call for withdrawal was defeated by 61 votes to 42, with 32 abstentions.
The abstainers have been under intense pressure to switch their votes this year, and some of them are expected to do so. If Kim’s warnings of war earn him more votes at the United Nations, he will have good reason to be satisfied.
There have been occasions in the past when North Korean sabre-rattling turned out to have a diplomatic rather than a warlike purpose. But on other occasions it ended with the capture of the Pueblo and with the dispatch of teams of commandoes across the border to attack President Park in his Seoul residence, 40 miles from the frontier.
The recklessness of such actions has led some observers to question Kim’s stability and rationality, which has also been brought tinder suspicion by the extravagant adulation accorded to him in the North Korean press.
He is the Great Leader, the Tender-Hearted Father of the People, the Sun of the Nation, and many other things. His talents are million, and they are often enumerated. The veneration extends to his parents, now dead. “It was thanks to the bosom of the Great Mother that the Great Leader was born as the Sun of the Nation, and today our people enjoy great happiness and prosperity.”
Much of what appears in the North Korean press suggests that Kim sees himself above all as the great unifier of his country. If there is a streak of irrationality in him, it could show itself in an attempt to bring “unity” to Korea when he judges the time right, as he did when he launched the war in 1948.