Date: 09 Apr 2013, Politics and Current Affairs
Question setter: John Karslake


Will there be any kind of lethal military exchange between North and South Korea before 15th April 2013?


Answer: Yes
Confidence level: 49%
Mean confidence level (all requests): 59.60%

The most likely explanation for the recent belligerent talk from North Korea, is that they want money and / or a relaxing of sanctions to alleviate the financial difficulties the country is facing. If Kim Jong-un is trying to wring concessions or aid from the West, he feels he needs to push his aggressive rhetoric to the limit and to convince the world that he means what he says. There is a risk that his bluff will be called, and he is not receiving any support from China. As a new young leader he wants to prove himself and he is in danger of looking a fool if he comes away from this with no funding and a cooling of relations with their key ally, China. He will seek an excuse for a minor but deadly skirmish to make South Korea and the West properly worried. Remember that as recently as November 2010 North Korea fired artillery at South Korea's Greater Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea, causing deaths. A repeat of something on this scale must be a strong probability. It is more difficult to predict when it is likely to come. The US is pursuing a role of taking him seriously, while making it clear that it could and would retaliate if anything major occurred. Thus his ego is preserved but action is discouraged. Still, North Korea is likely to provoke an incident by 15th.

Outcome: No
Score: -49
Mean score (all respondents): 9.60

Expert opinion:

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from John Karslake:
Kim Jong-un is aiming to prove himself as a leader but, more importantly, to bring in the funds he requires to be appeased. He is still unpredictable to the West and he will use this to keep the pressure high and South Korea fearful. North Korea has declared they are at war again with South Korea. In addition they threaten a nuclear strike against the USA. They have closed the Kaesong industrial complex, a collaboration with the South Korea that brings the North substantial earnings. This sends the message that their stance is steadfast and they intend to pursue their nuclear and military programmes despite global condemnation. The question now is whether any of this is successful and Pyongyang (the North Korean capital) wins enough concessions. In the short-term it is very unlikely that they will escalate tensions to the point of opening fire. The heavy US presence, as part of joint exercises with South Korea and the catalyst for the bellicose rhetoric, makes even a small incident very high risk. Kim is likely to want to play this out for some time before reaching a point of real military engagement and we are unlikely to see it before 15th April.

Answer: Yes

Selected Expert Answer from Mettletest Panel:
North Korea has made increasingly active threats over the past weeks and taken steps that endanger its own fragile economy. It is assumed that the messages voiced by Kim Jong-un are an attempt to consolidate his power, possibly due to concern about his own military commanders. The problem for Kim is that, having drawn increased sanctions in response to missile and nuclear tests, breaking international agreements, he is now finding it difficult to win back concessions to relieve the economic plight. Indeed, he is worsening the financial situation by withdrawing from the Kaesong collaboration with South Korea that provided a significant income. This gesture is intended to show that North Korea is unconcerned about the money and serious about its preparations for war. At this point everything appears to be ready to backfire on Kim. Despite the stream of domestic news items showing mass support for his bellicose statements, he could be severely weakened if concessions are not forthcoming. Although the US recognises this, there is a great resistance to continuing the pattern of giving, only to see agreements broken and the same demands made. Kim will lash out to save face and force a response.

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from Mettletest Panellist:
April 15th is a significant day. It is the birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s venerated first leader. If the North Koreans wish to create a really significant new provocation, such as a new missile test or even a minor military attack, that is the day they are most likely to choose. A genuine attack, in the foreseeable future, remains unlikely. The bellicose rhetoric employed by Kim Jong-un is to bolster his domestic position at a time of genuine crisis and fury at the increase in sanctions after previous agreement-breaking tests. The world is anxious that he may overstep the mark into real conflict because of his inexperience. This ignores the influence of his powerful counsellors, his aunt and uncle, who have been part of the regime since his grandfather's day. They will be guiding him in the ways of pushing the US to the point of making concessions, without risking devastating military retaliation. The Chinese will also be keen to avoid a conflict that could end in the removal of North Korea as a buffer zone on their border. The balance for the West is to allow Kim to retain domestic credibility without conceding too much. Risking loss of face at home is the the most likely cause for Kim to strike out.

Outcome: No

Comment on outcome from Mettletest Panellist:
As expected, talk has not turned into action. The birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first leader, was treated more as a celebration than a day of belligerence. Wise heads have kept the calm so far. Kim Jong-un has been able to show any domestic challengers to his authority that he has grabbed the attention of the US and that they are pleading for dialogue. He is in control and refusing to communicate while his country is "threatened". So we can confirm NO to this question but the tension has not gone out of the situation. We will see whether Pyongyang extracts any significant concessions or payments from the USA and, if not, what action follows.