How to react when North Korea threatens a “sea of fire”

Pyongyang makes another threat to Washington and South Korea -- is this one to be listened to?

Topics: Pyongyang, China, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, South Korea, Kim Jong Un,

This week was not the first time Pyongyang has threatened to engulf its enemies in a “sea of fire.” South Korea was promised such treatment in November 2011, but yet still stands, unsinged. So, when Pyongyang responded to new sanctions approved by the U.N. this week with threats of preemptive attacks on Washington and South Korea with “lighter and smaller nukes,” unsurprisingly hatches have not been battened down.

North Korea is not thought to have the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. It is believed to have enough nuclear fuel, however, for a handful of cruder devices. And with the move to approve heavier sanctions by the U.N. Security Council to “raise the cost to North Korea of its illicit nuclear program,” it’s clear the international community takes Kim Jong Un’s increasing number of threats somewhat seriously.

As the New York Times noted Thursday:

Few analysts believed that North Korea would launch a military attack at the United States, a decision that would be suicidal for the regime. But officials in Seoul feared that North Korea might attempt an armed skirmish to test the military resolve of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, who took office less than two weeks ago.

South Korea rarely responds to threats from its opponents to the north, but did issue a strong response this week, suggesting a considerable rise in tensions. South Korea’s Major Kim Yong-hyum stated:

If North Korea attempts a provocation that threatens the lives and security of our people, our military will forcefully and decisively strike not only the origin of provocation and its supporting forces but also its command leadership … We make it clear that we are all prepared.

China’s reactions to Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent threats and nuclear test are perhaps the most important to watch. Commentators have seen significance, and even the promise of improving U.S.-China relations, in China’s willingness to sign the U.N. resolution imposing harsher sanctions on North Korea. Susan Shirk, professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, told the Atlantic:



It’s too soon to tell whether China’s support of the sanctions resolution means that it has made strategic decision to radically change its policy toward North Korea. Some influential figures in the Chinese elite have soured on the D.P.R.K. and are speaking out publicly to urge a tougher approach or even abandoning China’s troublesome ally. Yesterday Mao Zedong’s grandson, a major general, criticized North Korea’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, also in the Atlantic, Vice President of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society Suzanne DiMaggio, noting that the U.S. is taking seriously the growing threat from North Korea, sees China’s motives as more broadly protective:

I am more inclined to see this move on China’s part less as a “significant gesture” toward Washington and more as a clear-eyed assessment of the realities on the ground. Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, combined with ongoing work on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could reach the United States, raises the threat to a new level for Washington. Although the capability to hit U.S. soil is not yet a reality, Beijing likely recognizes that North Korea’s actions could very well push the U.S. to beef up its military presence in the region, including stronger anti-missile defenses going to South Korea and possibly Japan. A more robust U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia that serves to strengthen capabilities of American allies is the last thing Beijing wants right now.

Dennis Rodman has not weighed in on North Korea’s threat of engulfing fire. As he told us last week, he’s “not a politician” but loves “everyone.”

 

 

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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