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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Recent developments have revealed a new pattern in North Korean diplomatic behavior. The country has changed its approach to foreign policy, moving from a compromising style to a more provocative style best described as “brinksmanship diplomacy.”
This change in tact began in April, when Kim Jong Un publicly criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a major speech for the Supreme People’s Assembly.
The change has become even more clear in recent months, with a series of short-range ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang.
This new pattern of diplomacy is tough, provocative, but calculated.
North Korea’s missile launches in early May shocked Seoul: they effectively broke an 18-month missile launch moratorium and threw the already-fragile inter-Korean relationship into uncertainty.
The launches also triggered a debate over whether they violated UN security council resolutions, as the flight distance was about 420 kilometers. According to the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions resolutions against the North, the launch of any ballistic missiles or projectile with ballistic technology is prohibited.
But when the UNSC adopted its first resolution in 2006, the Council focused not on short-range missiles but intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). The UNSC has not seriously questioned the launches of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM).
The North, then, appears to have calculated the launch to heighten tensions in the region without worrying about receiving another round of sanctions or forcing the U.S. to withdraw its support for diplomacy with the DPRK.
The North’s careful provocations manifested themselves again with the reveal of a newly-constructed submarine and another round of missile launches in July.
The North Korean media released many photos of Kim Jong Un’s on-site guidance of the submarine construction site on July 23. However, the photos only showed some parts of the vessel.
This meant that it was difficult for outside experts to judge whether the vessel was a 2,000-ton class or 3,000-ton class, or whether the submarine had a single vertical launching tube or three tubes for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
If the submarine in question is a 3,000-ton class with three tubes, conservative experts in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo would begin arguing for another round of economic sanctions on the North. But the photos stopped just short of revealing this.
The missile launch on July 25 is another example of careful North Korean preparation.
The following day, North Korean media reported that Chairman Kim had said that the launch served as a “warning” to the South Korean government — comments designed to drive a wedge in the relationship between South Korea and the U.S.
The phrasing of the article gave the U.S. good reason to overlook the launch, even though the missile posed a new threat to the South. President Donald Trump, for his part, said that the launches were small and not warnings directed at the U.S.
North Korea seems, for now, to have succeeded in projecting its continued willingness to talk with the U.S. while excluding the South.
FOREIGN MINISTRY RETURNS AS UNITED FRONT RETREATS
It’s noteworthy that these calculated provocations happened after Chairman Kim carried out a reshuffle of Pyongyang’s foreign policy officials in early April, replacing the head of the United Front Department (UFD) of the Worker’s Party of Korea Kim Yong Chol with Jang Kum Chol.
This was a sign that he was reducing the UFD’s authority to handle external policies. Primary responsibility for the foreign affairs work moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Choe Son Hui, first vice minister, became the new face of these policies.
The ministry returned to their regular battlefield after a long time, and they are under a lot of pressure to get results that the United Front Department had not been able win — sanctions relief being first and foremost on the list of priorities.
The foreign ministry must also explain why the UFD failed to win this prize, and how they themselves will get it.
There are a couple of explanations, among them being that the UFD was naive in believing that sanctions relief was possible after only small concessions in nuclear negotiations, and also relied too much on South Korean advice.
The foreign ministry has to be tough before negotiations begin, therefore, and must cut connections with the South.
North Korea seems, for now, to have succeeded in talking with the U.S. while excluding the South
The foreign ministry learned the fundamentalistic tactic of brinksmanship diplomacy following the end of the Cold War. The North was extremely isolated from the new world order, led by the United States.
They went down the path of becoming die-hard opponents of the U.S., like a hedgehog with bristling spikes, and so the ministry turned to brinkmanship diplomacy as its go-to tactic.
However, their diplomatic style suddenly changed into flexibility during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang last year. Since then, the key advisors to Chairman Kim on foreign policy have been Kim Yo Jong, sister of the leader, and Kim Yong Chol, head of the United Front Department.
The Department even led negotiations with the U.S. — traditionally the role of the foreign ministry. When Kim Yong Chol visited Washington DC in January, the delegation was comprised mainly from the United Front Department and the foreign ministry was sidelined.
Even Choe Son Hui did not join the visit, despite being the head of the working-level negotiation team.
The situation totally changed after the no-deal Hanoi Summit. Kim Jong Un was angry and reviewed what had gone wrong. The conclusion of the policy review was that the department relied too much on recommendations from the South and did not have an independent strategy.
So, the UFD stepped back and the foreign ministry came forward to fill the vacancy, bringing with it its old “brinkmanship diplomacy” tactics.
THE GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
The bad news is that North Korea has begun to show a level of toughness not seen in recent months, shifting to an uncompromising stance. Their tough stance applies only to the South, for now, but it will shift when negotiations with the U.S. begin in earnest.
The U.S. delegation should be prepared for this, and has experience of this style of diplomacy: recall the North’s decision to launch a satellite in 2012, nullifying an agreement made just six weeks prior.
However, with the change in the North’s diplomatic style comes good news. As the foreign ministry takes the reins in negotiations, they will bring with them a much clearer goal and a plan, with a strong will to achieve them quickly.
The return of the foreign ministry is good news for South Korea and the U.S., then, if they can swallow the notorious brinkmanship of North Korea.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hohtam
Featured image: KCNA