According to North Korean official statements, the Korean Peninsula is tottering on the precipice of disaster — yet again. Having just attacked a South Korean island, killing two military personnel and two civilians, Pyongyang has reverted to its incendiary form by declaring that South Korea is driving it “to the brink of war.” Such virulent threats would have more ferocity if they were not issued with such regularity.
Every year for the past decade, North Korea has threatened the world with hyperbolic doom-and-gloom pronouncements or venomous aspersions. Let’s do a quick review of some of the best hits of the naughties.
Pyongyang was quick to react to the hard-line Bush administration when it came to power in 2001. North Korea was ready for war and would “take thousand-fold revenge” on the United States “and its black-hearted intention to torpedo the dialogue between north and south [Korea],” the nation declared in March of that year through its Korean Central News Agency.
Mimicking North Korea for just one day, President Bush announced in his 2002 State of the Union Address that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil,” a phrase that did not sit well with a country used to doing the name-calling. Among its blunt responses: “A nuclear war to be imposed by the U.S. nuclear fanatics upon the DPRK would mean their ruin in nuclear disaster.”
In the summer of 2002, during the World Cup, North Korean patrol vessels launched a surprise attack on two South Korean vessels near the now-famous island of Yeonpyeong. Six young South Korean sailors died before North Korea was forced to retreat. Yet North Korea claimed that it was “the height of impudence” (a subject on which the North is indubitably qualified to judge) for South Korea to demand an apology for the “shocking incident.” Within months North Korea would shock the world by announcing that, despite its angelic reputation, it would no longer be obligated to obey international law or abide by bilateral agreements.
Indeed, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, North Korea threatened that it was entitled to launch a preemptive war against the United States. Warning that the current nuclear crisis was worse than that in 1994, a senior ministry official declared that “we have our own countermeasures. Pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the US.”
By 2004, the searing rhetoric sharpened, and North Korea threatened to turn Japan into a “nuclear sea of fire.” According to the North’s ruling party newspaper, “If the United States ignites a nuclear war, the US military bases in Japan would serve as a detonating fuse to turn Japan into a nuclear sea of fire.”
In early 2005, North Korea affirmed that it was now a nuclear power. And in 2006, the DPRK announced that it would conduct a nuclear test, the first of two such tests to date. As the Foreign Ministry rationalized, “A people without reliable war deterrent are bound to meet a tragic death and the sovereignty of their country is bound to be wantonly infringed upon.”
But apparently a nuclear deterrent was insufficient to reassure the North, because in June of 2006 it threatened to “mercilessly wipe out” US forces in the event of war. The threat came as Pyongyong prepared to test-launch a long-range missile. Choe Thae Bok, a ranking Workers’ Party official, said Washington was “hell-bent on provocations of war of aggression.” He added that “If the enemies ignite a war eventually, the Korean army and people will mercilessly wipe out the aggressors and give vent to the deep-rooted grudge of the nation.”
The year 2007 was almost tepid in comparison to the previous year’s rhetorical flourishes and North Korean masters of spin enjoyed a veritable holiday during a brief period of six-party harmony. Although later in the year North Korea’s illicit assets in the Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, would be unfrozen, that did not stop the North’s U.N. ambassador from accusing the United States of having “dirty” political motives and calling suggestions that Pyongyang might have used funds from the U.N. Development Program to develop nuclear weapons “sheer fiction.” “We cannot doubt that the motive and purpose of the audit are strictly in line with the hostile maneuvers of the United States against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the ambassador wrote.
In March 2008, North Korea lashed out at the new conservative government in Seoul, threatening to reduce the South to “ashes” if the South Korean government made the “slightest move” to attack. The threat was a response to South Korea’s warning that it would strike suspected North Korean nuclear weapon sites should the North try to launch a nuclear strike.
In October of 2008, North Korea was at it again: “The puppet authorities had better bear in mind that the advanced pre-emptive strike of our own style will reduce everything opposed to the nation and reunification to debris, not just setting them on fire,” a military spokesman said in a statement carried on the state news agency. “It will turn out to be a just war, to build an independent reunified state on it.”
In April 2009, as North Korea prepared to test-launch a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, claiming it was a communications satellite, Pyongyang warned that if the launch were interfered with, they would attack “major targets” in Japan.
In 2009, the situation seemed dire. Punching their fists into the air and shouting “Let’s crush them!” some 100,000 North Koreans marched against the United States as Pyongyang threatened a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” for any attack by the United States. Vowed one official: North Korean troops would lash out at any sanctions with “an annihilating blow.”
Just this summer, a couple of months in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, the United States and South Korea announced new naval exercises that would include a U.S. aircraft carrier. North Korea threatened such an exercise could trigger “sacred war.”
And now, North Korea declares that South Korea provoked the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by holding a military drill off their shared coast in the Yellow Sea. As the North’s new agency put it: “The puppet group dared make an uproar over ‘a provocation’ from someone and cry out for ‘punishment’ like a thief crying ‘Stop the thief!’”
As an old fable has it, Henny Penny (better known as Chicken Little) repeatedly cries out, “The sky is falling.” Perhaps. But more likely it is just North Korean wordsmiths doing their thing.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security.