38th Parallel

Will Kim Jong Un Go to War?

With South Korea’s president flinging insults and his country losing important sources of income, Kim is facing a huge crisis—and it might just push him to the brink of invasion.

02.17.16 5:01 AM ET

In a nationally televised speech Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun Hye defended her controversial decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea. She also delivered comments sure to enrage Kim Jong Un, the leader of that destitute and dangerous state.

For instance, she promised her government would take “stronger and more effective” measures to impress upon Pyongyang that its nuclear program would hasten “regime collapse.” She talked about Kim’s state as “merciless” and mentioned its “extreme reign of terror.”

Park also broke other taboos, mentioning Kim by name, taunting him. Compounding the affront, she chose his father’s birthday to make her remarks.

Park’s insults helped make this year’s Korean crisis one to remember. And once Kim decides upon a response, expect him to retaliate with swift and fierce moves.

For the moment, the young leader in Pyongyang has only hurled words back at Park’s government. The restraint is not surprising because the closure of Kaesong, which sits just north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, is a crisis for Kim.

On the 10th of February, Park ordered the “complete shutdown” of the industrial complex. The North Korean army then seized the facilities, where 124 South Korean businesses employed nearly 54,800 North Koreans.

Park’s move was stunning. Her office on Feb. 3 had promised there would be “searing consequences” if the North launched a missile. At the time, that appeared to be just more empty words from Seoul, but she shut down Kaesong after Kim launched his Unha-3 rocket on Feb. 8—in reality a cover for a test of ballistic-missile technology.

The closure of Kaesong will hurt the North Korean regime. Last year, by Seoul’s accounting, the industrial complex shoveled $120 million into Pyongyang’s coffers.

Wages were paid in dollars, but workers never saw the greenbacks. They received only North Korean won and vouchers. The foreign currency, Park said in her National Assembly speech, ended up in the hands of the government and then was funneled into its weapons programs.

Shutting Kaesong will, by various estimates, reduce North Korean exports by a quarter to a third.

And Kim has other punishments to worry about. Congress will almost certainly pass H.R. 757, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which the Senate toughened and adopted by a 96-0 vote, and the Obama administration will be under pressure to enforce it. Further, China, at least according to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, will agree to a fifth set of UN measures to restrict Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

“The Kim Jong Un regime desperately needs hard currency in order to keep core elites loyal and to develop the tools of death it needs to stay in power,” wrote Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, to The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

“The closure of Kaesong, combined with the nearly certain enactment of sanctions legislation in the U.S. and efforts spurred by UN Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman to hold the Kim regime accountable for crimes against humanity, will result in unprecedented international pressure. The choice facing Kim Jong Un is clear: Abandon your nukes and missiles, improve your abysmal human-rights situation, and accept reform—or disappear.”

Kim has no intention of abandoning weapons, improving human rights, implementing reform, or disappearing. On the contrary, he is absolutely determined to prevail in his family’s three-generation, eight-decade struggle with the other Korea. In fact, that goal is the core of his legitimacy. From its founding, Kim’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has sought to unify the peninsula under Northern rule, and the massive invasion that started the Korean War in 1950 was just one such effort in this regard.

Everyone assumed that Pyongyang was just engaged in bluster when it said on Feb. 11 that the closure of Kaesong was a “declaration of war,” but war has always been a possibility on the Korean Peninsula.

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And now the chances of a conflict are rising. For one thing, Park’s National Assembly speech marks a crucial turn in Seoul’s policies toward the other Korea. Prior governments in Seoul—even the army-backed and conservative ones—had adopted a live-and-let-live attitude. Similarly, Park had tried to get along with Pyongyang at first with her much-praised “trustpolitik” policy of engagement.

But years of failure of engagement have pushed Park in the other direction. As Robert Collins, a 37-year veteran of analyzing North Korean politics for the Defense Department, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Park’s speech “demonstrated South Korea’s willingness to see the Kim regime fail and that’s a public warning that her government has no intention of being bullied by Kim Jong Un.”

Meanwhile, for Kim not to act against Park makes him look weak at home.

Domestically, he is now engaged in a struggle with the generals and admirals. And that contest is not going well, as recent executions and disappearances of flag officers indicate. Kim, from the moment he became supreme leader in December 2011, has been relentlessly reducing the influence of the Korean People’s Army, and so the army has every incentive now to recapture that influence. The best way for senior officers to do that is bring North Korea to the brink of hostilities.

President Park does not speak of war, but in recent times she has been talking about “unification” of the two Koreas. For the North Korean leader, that word, in her vocabulary, means the destruction of his state.

The world does not want to destroy North Korea, but it is adopting a “strategic strangulation” approach as other tactics fail. And as South Korea abandons Kaesong and other nations take their own measures, the fragile Kimist state could come apart.

Staring at the prospect of failure, Kim has some difficult choices. “When faced with imminent collapse,” David Maxwell of Georgetown University told The Daily Beast, “Kim Jong Un may make the deliberate and from his perspective very rational decision to execute his military campaign plan to reunify the peninsula by force.”