After over half a century of threats to again invade South Korea, the world is finally coming to realize that North Korea is bluffing. The northerners have never made good on these intimidation efforts. There have been some minor attacks, like a lot of commando operations in the 1960s, which evolved into kidnapping South Korean and Japanese civilians and landing spies via small submarines. Three years ago a South Korean warship was torpedoed and a South Korean island shelled. There have been a few minor incidents on the DMZ (demilitarized zone that separates the two countries) but that’s it. In short, the threats don’t have much impact and that makes North Korean leaders even angrier because they see their intimidation efforts being ridiculed and, well, ignored.
It gets worse. This year UN officials noted that many of these threats were a violation of international law, but North Korea ignored that and any other criticism of their intimidation efforts. In response, some UN members are trying to limit North Korean participation in UN affairs, this being one of the few punishments left. That makes officials at the North Korean Ministry of Intimidation (an organization that exists under a different name) very nervous. Officials who fail the North Korean leadership are often executed.
Some of the intimidation efforts have been quite bizarre. For example, a common North Korean ploy is to demand gifts and threaten to hurt itself if the gifts do not arrive. This absurd approach to negotiations has become more common since the great famine and economic collapse (because of the withdrawal of Cold War era Russian subsidies) of the 1990s. The "give me your wallet or I'll shoot myself" approach has lost its shock value and is mainly seen as bizarre and unproductive. Many major donors, who have been sending food, medicine, and other supplies to North Korea for over a decade, now refuse to do so after discovering that North Korea steals this aid, sells it on the open market, and pockets the cash. North Korea calls such accusations lies and denounces the accusers, but the evidence of such misbehavior is extensive.
North Korea loves to play these mind games and has been doing it for decades. South Koreans now find it annoying or even amusing. Despite the declining impact of these intimidation broadcasts, North Korean media continues to broadcast threats against outsiders. Some of the latest ones include reminders that North Korean missiles (a few of them, anyway) can reach American military bases in Guam and Alaska, and a larger number of North Korean missiles can hit U.S. bases in Japan. This has, over the last decade, prompted Japan to invest heavily in anti-missile defense.
The threats do still make a lot of South Koreans nervous. For example, as U.S. troop strength in South Korea continues to shrink, more South Koreans are growing concerned about whether their better trained, led, and equipped forces can defeat another invasion from the north. The American troops have been around for over half a century, and the U.S. has always said it would stand by its South Korean ally. But the numbers tell a different tale. At the end of the Korean War, in 1953, there were over 350,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Within a year that shrank to 223,000, and by 1955, it was only 85,000. By the mid-60s, it was 63,000. By the mid 70's, there were only 42,000. There it stayed for over two decades. Then came September 11, 2001, and the war on terror. By 2004, the U.S. force in South Korea was down to 37,000. In 2006, that dropped to 30,000 and it is now 28,000. There is fear that the U.S. will cut the American force in South Korea to token (a few thousand troops) size. Meanwhile, more Americans are getting quite vocal about why there should be any U.S. troops in South Korea at all. Enough is enough, and over half a century of paying to supply South Korea with a protective garrison should come to an end.
While North Korea has long maintained a large (over a million personnel) military, these troops are poorly led and equipped and there has been little cash for new equipment or training since the 1990s. In the last two decades the South Koreans have upgraded their own military to the point where it is considered on par with U.S. troops. But decades of threats from North Korea have instilled a degree of fear in South Koreans that cannot be shaken. The farther you are from Korea the more absurd the North Korean threats appear to be. But if you live within range of North Korea rockets or artillery, it’s hard to get a good laugh out of the situation.