[This article includes comments made by Col Hariharan in a TV discussion on April 7, 2013 on North Korean threat to unleash nuclear strike on U.S. bases and South Korea.]
Why the North Korean stand off?
There are both contemporary and historical reasons behind the North Korean threat to launch an offensive against South Korea and strike at US bases in Guam and Hawaii. North Korea (Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea -DPRK) and South Korea have been having an uneasy relationship since the singing an armistice in 1953 after the Korean War ended in a stalemate.
At that time a De-militarized Zone (DMZ) was created along the 38th parallel between the two countries to prevent breaking out of fresh conflict. However, DPRK has not recognised the maritime boundary between the two countries; this continues to be an irritant in their relations. Annual joint exercise by South Korean and US troops and navy is yet another major source of irritation for the North. The Kim regime has repeatedly used these irritants to whip up anti-U.S. hysteria and talk tough on attacking South Korea.
A contemporary reason could be South Korea's emergence as a democratic nation with strong economic power next only to China and Japan in East Asia, in sharp contrast to DPRK's dismal performance.
During the last six decades, North Korean regime has left the land and people impoverished. Food shortages have become endemic as the farm productivity is low. Though the regime has achieved moderate success in producing some conventional weapons like multi-barrel rocket launchers, and short range missiles derived from Chinese and Soviet originals, it has made little industrial progress.
The North Korean regime has gained international notoriety for its ruthlessness and insensitivity to international concerns on nuclear proliferation, human rights and governance. It has been branded as one of the rogue states for its penchant to be a clandestine source of weapons to terrorist organizations and nations under arms embargo.
Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il as the President of DPRK in 2011. The Kim family's maverick style of state craft has made DPRK loose cannon in the East Asian region dominated by the U.S. and its allies for long.
North Korea had periodically used the threat to develop nuclear weapons and long range rockets to extract concessions mainly from the US. The Yongbyon nuclear site was closed in 2007 after a similar standoff. So many analysts feel the newly anointed Kim was probably trying to establish his leadership credentials by following the time tested method of talking tough to rally the masses in his support.
How serious is the North Korean threat to wage war?
The Kim dynasty has been able to hold on to power due to two factors: the 1.1 million-strong army's loyalty to Kims and China's support. North Korea has close relations with China since the days Korean War. Over two million-strong Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army fought side by side with North Korean troops against the U.S. and its allies during the Korean War.
The strategic relationship between the two countries was formalized in 1961 with the signing of a mutual aid and cooperation treaty, which was last renewed in 2001 and valid till 2021. Under this treaty, China has agreed to provide military and other assistance to North Korea against any external attack.
However, there is also a downside to Sino-North Korean relations. DPRK President Kim Il-sung severely criticised the Cultural Revolution in China as a result of which fights erupted between Red Guards and DPRK troops along the border.
China had not been very happy with North Korea's conduct in escalating international tension over its nuclear weapons programme since 2003 and provocative actions against South Korea in 2010 when it torpedoed and sank a South Korean war ship killing 46 sailors. In the same year it also engaged in artillery duel with South Korean troops on Yeonpyeong Island off North Korean coast.
Probably China finds North Korea, under the Kim family leadership, a source of increasing embarrassment when it is trying to improve its image as a responsible international power. In particular, China has been unhappy with North Korea nuclear weapons programme.
In fact, China's vote in favour of the UN Security Council resolution imposing financial sanctions after North Korean carried out third nuclear test in February 2013 in violation of its 2012 promise to refrain from testing. Even in the present standoff, China has been expressed its concern over and wants it to be resolved through dialogue.