Three Experts Explain Why North Korea Keeps Ratcheting Tensions

Experts look at causes and possible solutions to current tensions on the Korean peninsula
April 4th, 2013
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With a seemingly never-ending cycle of threats and counter-threats, North Korea has been in the news at an unusually high frequency in recent weeks.

From the North Korean side, threats of “pre-emptive nuclear strikes”, a severance of military hotlines, and the potential closure of the only joint run inter-Korean industrial complex (Kaesong) have all been on the cards in recent days and weeks.

From the South Korean and U.S. side, B-2 and B-52 nuclear bomber training sorties, missile defense deployments and ongoing  Foal Eagle drills have been detailed to media by military spokespersons in Washington DC and Seoul at unprecedented levels of late.

While the nature of threats made on the Koreas seems to increase by the day, few know what Pyongyang’s over-arching strategy is, how likely it is that a military escalation will take place, or how tensions can possibly be dampened at this point.

To find out answers to these questions and more, NK NEWS spoke to three experts familiar with North Korea:

- Dr. Andrei Lankov – a former student at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and Professor at Kookmin University, South korea
- Dr. Leonid Petrov – a researcher at Australia National University in Melbourne, Australia
- Mr. Michael Madden – a North Korean leadership specialist and author of the excellent NK Leadership Watch blog


Picture: KCNA

1. What do you think North Korea’s over-arching goal is right now with the latest rhetoric and threats surrounding the potential closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (the last outpost of inter-Korean cooperation)?


I think their goals have not changed, we should remember that they have not done anything so far that they do not usually do. First, they want to remind the world – especially D.C. – about the threat they constitute. They hope that in so doing, they will strengthen the position of those who want to engage with them. They hope ultimately to get aid for what they are doing now. In the past, such a policy worked very well, but recently it has become less successful – but may still work.

Second, they care about the domestic audience. Contrary to what some may believe, I suspect that there has been a serious erosion in the regime’s popular support. Nothing helps to ensure docility and obedience as much as talk about a foreign threat. Eventually, when the threatened American invasion yet again fails to materialize, it will be presented as another victory for the young boy Marshall.


This measure is designed specifically to annoy Seoul and other investors with a hidden agenda that shows that money plays very little or no role for North Korea.

The external message is: “Do not link your economic projects with denuclearisation! Our nuclear and rocket programs are not negotiable.”

The domestic message is in the same vein: “Economic cooperation with the enemy will not lead to reform or opening up”.


The closure of Kaesong Industrial Complex will require the inter-Korea relationship to start from scratch; essentially reinventing the wheel. Given the recent rhetoric and activities of the new Park Geun-hye Administration in Seoul, Pyongyang has written Kaesong off as a legacy of the Kim and Roh Administrations and sunshine policies. They are also indicating that closure of Kaesong may not have the drastic effect on North Korea’s foreign currency earning activities, as is commonly claimed. The threat also creates political pressure on the South Korean Administration from the business owners and South Korean employees, which was reported by Yonhap the day after the DPRK issued its statement threatening to close the complex.

I would also add that Pyongyang may be willing to forego the lucrative revenue from Kaesong and make up for their losses either from increased tourist monies, the continued development of the Rason Industrial Complex and any other foreign trade it may be conducting.

This current spat over Kaesong is the 2013 incarnation of the closure of Mt. Kumgang, and it represents that in addition to rejecting the armistice agreement, North Korea is also rejecting the last vestiges of the Sunshine Policy


2. Do you think there is a major risk of provocation and serious escalation in the coming days and weeks?


I don’t think there is a major risk of a deliberate provocation, but some risk certainly does exist. What worries me more is the possibility of an accident that might lead to an escalation. The current situation means that a couple of rabbits running across the DMZ at the wrong  moment might trigger a serious outbreak of violence.


Definitely not from the North Korean side. They have learnt from the mistake made in June 1950, when Pyongyang started the Korean war and nearly lost it. Neither is South Korea interested in risking millions of lives and trillions of dollars in damage if its export-oriented economy is stalled by a full-scale war. Even the Pentagon is reluctant to wipe off Pyongyang from the map because North Korea is a convenient enemy – intimidating but weak, irrational but predictable. The show of strength and ambitions will continue until someone pushes a wrong button.


A ”provocation” from the U.S. or South Korean side is a word based in a very flexible reality. As indicated over the last week, the DPRK and KPA are quite serious that they will respond in some way. We might see a long-range missile test or North Korea might engage South Korea in electronic warfare (signals blocking). That said, based on a recent report from Washington by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Administration is relaxing some of its more provocative activities in the Foal Eagle exercises. One would ascribe the current drills and games to an agreement made with the Lee Administration–however the U.S. and South Korea appear to be the regional actors who have actually miscalculated.

I can not emphasize enough that the U.S. has badly underestimated the DPRK’s strategic intentions. The flying of the B-2 and B-52 bombers during the drills was a mistake. The DPRK was well aware of the Foal Eagle and had some details that these flights would happen. However, once that plan was put into practice, Kim Jong Un and the core leadership had to actively respond, as any country would when put in such a situation.

People forget that there are a number of members of the leadership in the DPRK for whom the the Imperial Japanese occupation and Second World War are still living memories, not to mention a whole cross-section of the population who either fought, remember or grew up during the Korean War. I’d point to people such as Vice Marshall Ri Yong Mu and Gen. O Kuk Ryol, National Defense Commission Vice Chairmen, who fought in the Korean War. One might also look to current younger elites such as Jang Song Taek, who was a small child and may recall the hardscrabble life he lived during the war, or his wife Kim Kyong Hui, who had to live in China for two years during the war. Both Mr. Jang and Madame Kim were five or six years old at the time–but these are most likely their earliest memories.

While an attack by the DPRK or Korea People’s Army could prove, as some observers term it “suicidal” to the leadership, it should also be noted that the core leadership have various contingency plans and dedicated escape routes from the country.

The recent hot atmosphere on the peninsula has only reiterated to the leadership their perception of the necessity of developing and producing nuclear weapons. Although the decision to reopen Yongbyon and continue uranium enrichment activities have been in the works since last year, the recent Korean Workers Party Central Committee meeting (March 2013) and the Supreme People’s Assembly session have reinstated the importance of the nuclear program as a self-defensive measure. North Korean state media reporting–both strategic rhetoric (through power organizations) and tactical rhetoric (in the form of editorials and essays) has been pretty consistent that the primary purpose of the nuclear weapons program is self-defensive in nature. The secondary nature of the programs is to have something with which to bargain. The facilities the country intends to reopen at Yongbyon are Kim Jong Un’s tangible negotiating platform.


3. What face saving options are there for the U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) to de-escalate things (assuming that is desirable / possible)


While I am actively and decisively pro-engagement myself, at the current time I would strongly advise against any concessions to the North. If such concessions are made, it would merely confirm that North Korean blackmail not only works, but works wonders. The best way to deal with the current situation is to remain calm and ignore most of North Korea’s bombast. It is better to behave as if nothing is happening. Some occasional military gestures are of course advisable, but it is important not to overplay one’s hand. And it is of course quite important to make sure that in the case of a provocation or accident, the South Korean military will not react excessively.


The purpose of U.S. presence in Korea, Japan and the Pacific is to exert pressure on unpalatable regimes and to coordinate policing operations. North Korea’s militaristic hysteria is a gift to arms dealers thriving on military procurement.  The current crisis in Korea will consolidate military alliance between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington for many years ahead. It also has a potential to alienate China from North Korea. De-escalation of tensions would lead to the opposite result.


As indicated in question number two,  it appears the U.S. and South Korea have relaxed a bit in the Foal Eagle drills, and things may have climaxed with the scrambling of fighter jets in March and April and the arrival of missile guided destroyers last weekend. According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, the U.S. Government has eased the intensity of its activity.

The U.S. and South Korea might now consider engaging in secret talks, either in the EU, Beijing or Mongolia, either with working officials or through the Track II. The U.S. and South Korea, and other regional actors, might also consider re-evaluating their approaches to the DPRK in a more sober fashion–and regard negotiating with the North Koreans as a long-term diplomatic process, and not merely reiterating a series of talking points or trying to gain headlines (i.e. winning a media war). We might consider adding the EU to the Six Party Talks. Although the EU does not yet have a common foreign policy, a number of EU nation-states have active diplomatic and trade relationships with the DPRK, and might be able to offer more tangible proposals or ideas in negotiations.

The U.S. should consider some level of bilateral contact with the Republic of Korea altogether. I suspect the closure of Kaesong is one way for Pyongyang to remove South Korea from the process, so that they can engage the U.S. directly, in some fashion. In any event, the U.S. should deal with the DPRK bilaterally, in some capacity. That should not exclude South Korea per se, but initial contacts should be bilateral and the U.S. should drop this policy of insisting on movement or interactions in the ROK-DPRK relationship.


4. What, if anything, do you find peculiar / unprecedented about the current torrent of North Korean ‘abuse’?


There is only one thing unusual in the current situation – the intensity of the threats emanating from Pyongyang. It is not even a storm but a veritable tidal wave the likes of which has not been seen before.

Frankly, it is difficult to explain, but domestic considerations in the North seem to be significant. They seemingly hope to terrify their people enough to keep them in check, and they also seem to want to present the eventual peaceful conclusion as the triumph of the young leader.


Unlike during the previous 60 years of confrontation, this time North Korea evidently has some nuclear deterrence that prompts its leadership to be particularly bold and impudent.

Nobody can do anything with a nuclear North Korea and its regime any more. The chain of mistakes made by George W. Bush was exacerbated by the inaction of Barack Obama. As a result, in 2013 North Korea has just changed the world order by rending the nuclear non-proliferation regime defunct and opening the era of nuclear permissiveness.


I don’t know what your query on “abuse” refers to. North Korean rhetoric has been particularly strident and might be described as abusive, but I see little difference in anything we’ve heard from South Korean officials or South Korean media. South Korea has engaged in military drills that are every bit as hostile and provocative to the North, as anything the Korean People’s Army has done. So this appears to be more tit-for-tat than anything.

NKNEWS THANKS ALL PARTICIPANTS FOR THEIR ASSISTANCE IN THIS Q&A

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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