After a third nuclear test in February and a ratification of a potential nuclear strike on the U.S. Wednesday, North Korea has caused growing concern around the world.
The escalation of tensions and intense rhetoric may be in part linked to the personality and policies of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, some Boston University experts said.
“The acceleration of the threat, the intensification, happened within the last few weeks,” said international relations professor Michael Corgan. “I suspect it’s because of what’s been going on with Kim Jong-un.”
Corgan said Jong-un, who rose to power after his father Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, has caused alarm among North Korean generals with his behavior the past few months.
“As far as we know, he has alarmed some of his supporters, some of the hardline generals, by his actions,” Corgan said. “… And I’m sure the generals are wondering: What is this guy all about? He is, after all, 28 years old. They passed over two of his older brothers who they thought completely unfit for the job, and the position of leader devolved upon him.”
As a result of this friction within North Korea’s governmental hierarchy, Corgan said Jong-un feels the need to prove he can handle being in power.
“He probably feels a pressure to demonstrate he’s the man for the job,” Corgan said. “While North Korea has always been launching satellites — or attempting, I should say — and sometimes long-range rockets … they need to show they haven’t backed off their threatening posture to the rest of the world, particularly toward the U.S., South Korea and even Japan.”
BU International Affairs Association President Sam Leone said while North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons for the better part of a decade, the reaction of the global community in recent weeks, particularly China’s, has been more unified than usual.
“Usually China sticks up for North Korea in the international community,” Leone, a College of Arts and Sciences senior, said. “But for the first time China actually supported sanctions against North Korea when it was brought before a vote for the UN. And just today [Sunday], the new Chinese president made some remarks criticizing North Korea for its actions.”
Leone said he believes, along with working with the Chinese government, U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to provide South Korea with as much military support as possible is exactly what is needed.
“That’s important for two reasons: It scares North Koreans … or at least we hope it does,” Leone said. “And it also reassures South Korea, which faces an existential threat in North Korea. So I think that the U.S showing its teeth is going to help cooler heads prevail on both sides.”
James Simpson, a second-year Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student, said he believes one aim of North Korea’s nuclear threat is to initiate a short, small-scale war and benefit from better terms offered postwar. Most experts, Simpson said, do not expect war, though there is always potential for miscalculation.
“This is what’s dangerous because you’ve got a lot of actors involved: You’ve got China, you’ve got North Korea, you’ve got South Korea, you’ve got Japan and even Russia, though they play a more minor role,” Simpson said. “Sometimes not everyone is thinking what everyone else thinks they think.”
Simpson said the problem with North Korea is that nobody wants to change the situation due to fear of more disastrous results.
“The fundamental problem is that, in a paradoxical way, everyone is actually satisfied with the status quo,” Simpson said. “… This kind of status quo is illusory because North Korea keeps on developing weapons and they keep on proliferating. And meanwhile the region becomes more and more unstable, and it’s been a mess.”
Corgan said despite speculation, the future of the situation is unknown.
“I don’t think anybody in state department knows,” he said. “I don’t think the Chinese know, I don’t think the South Koreans know, or the generals or even Kim Jong-un himself.”