Don't assume this is just rhetoric:
North Korea said Thursday that U.S. sanctions on leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials for human rights abuses are tantamount to declaring war.
The country's Foreign Ministry issued a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency saying the announcement of sanctions on Kim and 10 other officials was "peppered with lies and fabrications" and demanding the sanctions be withdrawn.
"Now that the U.S. declared a war on the DPRK, any problem arising in the relations with the U.S. will be handled under the latter's wartime law," the statement says, using the initials of the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The problem with sanctions is that they are often too weak to change a target's actions.
And if the sanctions are strong enough to hurt, the target may see sanctions as indistinguishable from acts of war in their effect.
I've noted this before (although it is hardly my original contribution to the issue): effective sanctions might lead to war rather than being an alternative to war as sanctions are often portrayed:
There's nothing wrong with raising the cost of acting contrary to our wishes and interests. And sanctions certainly set us apart from the target nations' actions. So there's value there.
But sanctions are unlikely to achieve our objectives peacefully for the simple reason that any sanctions that hurt a target nation enough to compel them to change their priority policies more to our liking will be sanctions tough enough to seem like an act of war to the target nation's leadership. So sanctions tough enough to work will likely just compel the target nation to escalate to military action as their response.
And truth be told, I'm hoping that sanctions combined with North Korea's stubborn idiocy about reforming their economy will lead to a collapse of the North Korean regime or state before they get nuclear weapons that can hit American territory (and ideally before they can hit South Korea or Japan, too).
And while pushing North Korea toward collapse weakens the North Korean military and makes it more unlikely they could win a war, if North Korea approaches collapse they could easily decide that the risk of open war is preferable to the approaching certainty of collapse caused by sanctions war.
Why might North Korea collapse? Well, perhaps their secret police are too far gone to keep the regime in power:
Years of reports of poor discipline and plunging morale in the North Korea security forces appears to be true. The latest evidence comes from northwest China where the chatter among smugglers is that business is terrible because the North Korean economy is suffering much from the latest round of sanctions and one of the side effects is that even the most elite (and most difficult to bribe) secret police are now taking bribes.
This is a problem. The North Koreans have--mostly--accepted that they can't afford an army (or air force or navy) and decided to go with a strategy of nuclear weapons to deter foreign threats and secret police to control the army and people (which I reported on and called a strategy of Kooks, Spooks, and Nukes). The nukes aren't quite ready. The spooks are nearly as desperate as the army. And time is running out for the regime.
It may seem folly for Kim Jong-Un's regime to start a war that they are highly unlikely to win, but if the alternative is assured collapse or revolt, going to war could easily be seen as the best choice.
After all, if the regime sees a 5% chance of some good outcome in a war and no good outcome by not going to war, what is rational?
Even if North Korea loses the war they start--with America and South Korea killing the now-dangerous North Korean army--the northern leadership might conclude that just scaring South Korea, Japan, and America by starting a war will be enough to get them agree to measures to prop up the North Korean regime after the ceasefire is renewed in the hope that another round can be prevented.
Or it might motivate South Korea to march on Pyongyang to end the conventional threat to their capital, Seoul, for good.
Which has the potential of dragging China into the mix.
While we're at it, is this more posturing or a stage in cutting links prior to war?
In a report from its state media agency Monday, Pyongyang also said it would handle the cases of two Americans detained in North Korea under “wartime law,” suggesting they are unlikely to be released soon.
North Korea said the U.S. was notified Sunday of the closure of what is known as the New York channel, a route for diplomats from the two countries to communicate at the United Nations. Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic ties.
Cutting the last direct link? Considering American held by Pyongyang as falling under "wartime law?"
Is this telegraphing a decision already made for war? Or just more posturing as insults and threats fail to have an effect? (And as an aside, I am impressed that the Obama administration has not felt compelled to make concessions to North Korea just to have talks.) I don't know why North Korea is taking these steps. I hope our government knows.
And I hope that as we deal with jihadis, Russia, China, and Iran, that we spare some attention for North Korea lest a shooting war sneak up on us.
UPDATE: In light of my mention of the kooks, spooks, and nukes strategy that downgrades the army, this article on how most North Korean troops spend little time training for war is timely:
[Kim Jong-Un] has since expanded the use of so-called "soldier-builders", fuelling a construction boom as many of North Korea's Soviet-era conventional weapons become outmoded.
His military focus is increasingly on "asymmetric" capabilities such as nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and cyber warfare to deter North Korea's main enemies, the United States and South Korea. ...
The focus on the asymmetric capabilities has been accompanied by a downscaling of the importance of the military within North Korea's power structure. Slowly, Kim is dismantling the "military first" policy of his late father, Kim Jong Il, and giving precedence to the ruling Workers Party.
Although this is nothing new, since my post above on this strategy was from 2005.
And I've noted the non-military aspect of military life recently.
I've also noted an effort to reverse that policy in recent years, although I wondered where the money to do that would come from. So perhaps this story reflects an abandonment of any hope of bolstering the large conventional military.