Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday delivered a firm counterpunch to a wave of antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, vowing that the U.S. is prepared to “do what is necessary” to defend itself and its longtime allies South Korea and Japan.
“The bottom line is very simply that what Kim Jong-un has been choosing to do is provocative. It is dangerous, reckless, and the United States will not accept [North Korea] as a nuclear state,” said Mr. Kerry, who appeared at the State Department after private talks with South Korea’s foreign minister.
Mr. Kerry added that it “would be a very serious step” if North Korea follows through with its most recent threat to begin strengthening its nuclear capabilities by refurbishing its previously shelved nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment activities.
The tough comments marked a shift in tone by the Obama administration, which, along with others in the international community, faces the challenge of making sense of the high-stakes posturing from North Korea.
Now, national security and foreign policy analysts are split on whether the latest threats are just the bluster of an inexperienced new head of state or truly indicative of an escalation toward a possible military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
Either way, foreign policy insiders point to a series of little-reported factors, both domestic and external, that might help explain the ratcheting-up of tensions by North Korea’s leader.
Cheehyung Kim, a North Korea analyst and historian at Duke University, said the nation’s history and domestic politics have placed significant pressure on Kim Jong-un to “establish his legitimacy in the eyes of North Korea’s ruling class.”
Mr. Kim noted that April 11 will mark the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power in Pyongyang and “he has little to show for it except the fact that he’s at least, in speech, standing up to superpowers.”
April also carries internal political significance because it is the birthday month of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994.
Unexpected world events of the past two years also have stressed Pyongyang’s international alliances just as the nation grows accustomed to its new leaders.
Once-strong ties with the government of Syria have been strained by the ongoing civil war in that country.
Similarly, a revolution in Libya brought an end to North Korea’s alliance with Moammar Gadhafi.
Also, the past year’s uptick in relations between Washington and Myanmar has resulted in an end of the Asian country’s military aid to Pyongyang.
“Those partners are gone,” Mr. Kim said. “Globally, North Korea is more economically isolated and vulnerable.”
Such factors may help explain the fiery nature of the escalation in rhetoric from Pyongyang. “This kind of rhetoric that we’re seeing now spoken by Kim Jong-un himself seems to me unprecedented because it’s at such short intervals,” Mr. Kim said. “The intimidation level that the rhetoric is trying to portray is the highest I’ve seen since the Korean War, really.”
He said the situation stands apart from another incident that raised global tensions in 2010, when the military forces of Kim Jong-il carried out a surprise and deadly submarine attack that sank a South Korean naval ship and fired more than 150 artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong Island, where South Korean military forces are stationed.
“Those did not take place before any kind of warning,” said Mr. Kim. “They took place secretively and perhaps by small, trigger-happy factions within the military.”
Alternatively, Kim Jong-un appears bent on building a reputation as a leader who favors warnings and threats as the best tactic for drawing international attention.
North Korea’s state-run news agency reported Tuesday that the nation’s atomic energy department has plans to “readjust and restart” all of the nuclear facilities at its main nuclear complex, in an area north of Pyongyang known as Yongbyon.
The news agency said the facilities include a uranium-enrichment operation and reactor that was disabled in 2007 as part of an agreement reached during talks involving North Korea, the United States and four other nations.
In response, Mr. Kerry said reactivating the facility would be “in direct violation of their international obligation” and a “provocative act and completely contrary to the road that we have traveled all of these years.”
Officials were monitoring the North Korean statement carefully at the White House, where spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the Yongbyon facility “has been dormant as part of an agreement, which North Korea, at least with this announcement, seems to be willing to violate.”
“There’s a path open to North Korea to achieve the security, international respect and economic development that it seeks, but this is surely not the path,” Mr. Carney said.
Other world leaders weighing in Tuesday included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean who criticized North Korea for ramping up tensions but also called on all sides to temper their statements.
“The current crisis has already gone to far,” he said. “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions, and fuel fear and instability.
“China reportedly has added a layer of complexity to the situation by placing some of its military forces on heightened alert in response to the tensions between North and South Korea.
China maintains close ties to North Korea’s leadership, but Beijing has appeared willing to work with Washington and the United Nations toward encouraging Pyongyang to engage in peace talks.
There is also debate in the Washington foreign policy community over the extent to which China intends to honor military agreements with North Korea.
“In recent years, the Chinese have gone out of their way to let the North Koreans know that China will not see the treaty as operative in the event that North Korea provokes or attacks South Korea,” said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While most foreign policy analysts in Washington cautioned against the notion that a military confrontation is imminent or likely, some are quick to point out how real the possibility is that the situation could devolve rapidly.
“The danger here is that South Korea, with U.S. moral support, retaliates and then North Korea feels that it needs to counter-retaliate; China doesn’t control it and so it’s a vicious circle,” said Richard C. Bush, who served as an intelligence officer in Asia during the 1990s and now heads the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
• Susan Crabtree and Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.