한국어 | January 16, 2017
January 16, 2017
Why North Korea is losing its unpredictability advantage
Why North Korea is losing its unpredictability advantage
Washington and Pyongyang may have to negotiate in secret to make progress, says expert
October 25th, 2016

When comparing North Korea’s position to past rivals of the United States, its disadvantages are easy to spot.

North Korea is a much smaller country than, say, the Soviet Union, and as such it has numerous economic disadvantages and is, in conventional military terms, far less threatening. This has led to an overreliance on nuclear weapons, which creates the risk of proliferation in the region and which the U.S. has insisted that it cannot tolerate.

This also diminishes the possibility of negotiations, and even those that are presented are discarded by the North, which fears both being overpowered militarily by the U.S. and having the economy and culture of South Korea turn its people against the leadership.

However, political scientist Erwin Tan of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur argues there is one advantage from the North’s position. Tan, a senior lecturer at the university’s Department of International and Strategic Studies, told NK News that through its nuclear tests and other provocative acts, North Korea has acquired the reputation of the archetypal “rogue state”; i.e. unpredictable.

But even this advantage may be declining, Tan said, as ongoing belligerent behavior by the North has led the U.S. to “call the North’s bluff.” Tan also suggested that the North’s unfamiliarity with the U.S. political system, particularly with how hawkish American legislators and administration figures can disrupt plans for negotiation, has caught it off guard at times.

Due to these and other factors, negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea can only happen in secret, and even if a deal is reached it would be difficult to convince the American public to embrace it.

NK News: Your recent research covers U.S.-North Korea relations as an asymmetrical security dilemma, in contrast to a standoff between near equals, such as the U.S.-USSR. Are their advantages to the North’s position in comparison to that of the Soviets?

Tan: The asymmetric structure of the U.S.-North Korean interaction offers both disadvantages as well as advantages to the North Koreans.


1) The conventional weaknesses of the North Korean military mean that Pyongyang has no choice but to regard its nuclear weapons status as its ultimate fallback security position. This is all the more so given the extent to which the vagaries of U.S. politics have caught the North Koreans off-guard: North Korea did not realize the extent to which Republican hostility led to the Clinton administration’s half-hearted implementation of the Agreed Framework. The extent of the neoconservative hostility to North Korea has left an indelible aftertaste.

2) Economic weakness of North Korea: Pyongyang is aware that its derelict economy has little chance of surviving the forces of globalization; they are fearful of a scenario similar to that faced by the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989-91, hence the extent of Pyongyang’s control over what economic reform is being undertaken.

It is also possible that the missile and nuclear tests are Pyongyang’s way of affirming the Byungjin line. North Korea wants to undertake economic reform on its terms, whilst keeping the missile and nuclear programs as its insurance policy, in light of my above point on North Korean perceptions of U.S. politics.

The vagaries of U.S. politics have caught the North Koreans off-guard

Advantage: This is an indirect implication resulting from North Korea’s use of deliberate brinkmanship as a negotiating tactic in coping with the superior strength of the U.S. By undertaking repeated missile and nuclear tests, North Korea has been able to craft an image of itself as the archetype “rogue state,” from which it has been able to gain negotiating leverage.

At the same time, I would say that this element of advantage is diminishing, given that growing policymaking circles in the U.S. are now more willing to call North Korea’s bluff.

NK News: You’ve argued that North Korea is especially skilled at exploiting “loopholes.” What’s an example of this?

Tan: Principally, trade with China. Pyongyang is aware of China’s fears for its border’s security in the event of a North Korean collapse. Although China has become increasingly critical of North Korea and is cooperating in sanctions against North Korea, there are allegations that China is quietly turning a blind eye to cross-border trade. My sense is that China is doing so to facilitate the supply of food and (allegedly) luxury goods:

1) Supply of food aid averts famine and thus mitigates the flow of North Korean refugees into China

2) Luxury goods are used by Kim Jong Un as political gifts to members of the North Korean political and military establishment to secure their loyalty to the regime (from China’s perspective, this means a more stable North Korea).

North Korea has been able to craft an image of itself as the archetype “rogue state,” from which it has been able to gain negotiating leverage

north korea army photo

The KPA on the move | Photo by Roman Harak

NK News: You argue that North Korea’s success in using its nuclear/missile programs means that it cannot easily give them away. Is North Korea’s objective to obtain a nuclear deterrent capable of striking the United States?

Tan: It is hard to say as I do not have direct access to the North Korean government. My guess is a partial no: The North Korean government is rational and realizes that the use of nuclear weapons against a U.S. city would invite full-scale nuclear retaliation and the destruction of the regime.

From my point of view, a North Korean nuclear arsenal would be more likely to be used under the following circumstances:

1) If or when Pyongyang believes that a U.S. or ROK-led war of regime change is imminent.

That the small number of nuclear warheads available to Pyongyang would be more likely to be used against key military infrastructure in Northeast Asia (ports, airfields) to interdict the deployment of U.S. reinforcements to the Korean Peninsula. Such a scenario would presumably lead to U.S. nuclear retaliation as well, so this would (in my estimation) be a measure of last resort if the North Korean leadership believes that war is imminent and no diplomatic options are seen as workable.

NK News: Can Washington and Pyongyang have fruitful negotiations in the near future?

Tan: Possible, but it will be very difficult. Clinton, Bush and Obama have undertaken various differing forms of negotiations, but these have repeatedly stalled. The principal weakness of most U.S. negotiating approaches with the North has been Republican accusations that negotiating with Pyongyang constitutes “appeasement” of an “evil rogue state.”

The North Korean government is rational and realizes that the use of nuclear weapons against a U.S. city would invite full-scale nuclear retaliation

The 1994 Agreed Framework was criticized by Republicans as appeasement; after the discovery of the HEU program, the State Department favored negotiations, but was overruled by neoconservatives who referred to the East Asia and Pacific Bureau as EAPesers – a clear turn of phrase from “appeasers.”

I would say that the most fruitful starting point for any meaningful diplomatic engagement with North Korea would be to respond to the oft-repeated North Korean proposals for a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Undertaking peace talks would demonstrate a number of things:

1) That the U.S. will have demonstrated its willingness to co-exist with North Korea, thereby gaining the moral high ground and putting the onus on North Korea to reciprocate.

If North Korea attempts to sabotage such peace talks, the U.S. would be in a stronger position to bring China on board with a tougher sanctions regime (the U.S. can say, “We tried peace and diplomacy, but the North Koreans refused to cooperate”).

north korea nuclear photo

A North Korean nuclear test site | Photo by Podknox

Undertaking such diplomacy behind closed doors and beyond public scrutiny would also help the White House engage in diplomacy with North Korea without vocal condemnation of appeasement of the North. That said, going public with a formal peace treaty would still be a hard sell.

NK News: You argue that this is a unique security dilemma. What other security dilemmas have you compared this case to and what makes this one unique?

Tan: My principal comparative study on the asymmetric structure of the U.S.-North Korean interaction was derived from Brantly Womack’s work in comparing Sino-Vietnamese relations. I think other comparative examples of asymmetric interaction between adversaries include U.S.-Cuba, U.S.-Iran, China-Taiwan and Russia-Ukraine. Needless to say, all of the entities in these interactions are unique in their own way, so I am wary of overly extrapolating from any of them.

Going public with a formal peace treaty would still be a hard sell

NK News: What unique risks or obstacles does this policy present for North Korea?

Tan: From the North Korean perspective, the central point is the extent of North Korea’s paranoia. The asymmetric structure of North Korea’s relationship with the U.S. means that:

1) From Pyongyang’s point of view, whatever the U.S. offers by way of assurance is generally not enough to assuage North Korea’s fears.

2) Conversely, the extent of security assurances needed to assuage North Korea’s fears (e.g., complete withdrawal of the U.S. military presence from Northeast Asia) is going to be very difficult for the U.S. to implement without arousing regional fears of alliance abandonment as well as domestic condemnation of appeasement.

Featured Image: Looking over into North Korea by NeilsPhotography on 2005-12-17 13:39:07

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