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North Korea: Push could soon turn to shove

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In Brief

Last year was a dangerous year in Korea. Alas, 2011 might become even worse.

At first glance, this statement might appear excessively pessimistic. After all, in the last few weeks tensions on the Korean Peninsula were decreasing, North Korea suggested negotiations and South Korea also said that talks might be a good idea.

However, the appearances are misleading.


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A better look at the recent crisis and the current mood in Seoul and Pyongyang gives little ground for optimism. It seems that both North Korean strategic calculations and South Korean assumptions about ways to handle its uneasy neighbour will bring the crisis back with a vengeance.

What we have seen throughout last year was another exercise in habitual North Korean brinkmanship.

When North Korean strategists want to squeeze aid or political concessions from other countries they follow a simple but efficient routine. First, Pyongyang manufactures a crisis, to drive tensions high. Missiles are launched, islands are shelled, nukes are tested, and the usual verbal bellicosity of the North Korean media reaches almost comical heights. Subsequently, sooner or later the ‘target audience’ and international community begin to feel uneasy, and when this point is reached Pyongyang suggests negotiations. Its neighbours and adversaries alike feel relief and start talks which usually end with Pyongyang getting what it wants in exchange for restoring the status quo.

In the past this tactic has worked well (this is how in 2007 North Korea managed to push the George W. Bush administration to switch to a soft line and resume aid).

However, this time things are different. As usual with Pyongyang’s foreign policy, it is about money. In 2008 South Korea and the US dramatically reduced unilateral and unconditional aid to the North. North Korea had to turn to China instead. China obliged, and it seems that the North Korean economy — while still very poor by current East Asian standards — is in better shape than at any time since the early 1990s (albeit this modest recovery seems to be, first and foremost, brought about by domestic transformation rather than by Chinese aid). However, this made North Korean leaders excessively dependent on China, whom they do not like or trust (feelings which seem to be mutual).

Thus the North Koreans want American and South Korean aid back. First, this will increase the size of the entire aid pie, controlled and distributed by the regime. Second, this will provide Pyongyang with ample opportunities to distance itself from a dangerous China, and acquire a number of sponsors whose contradictions can be used to North Korea’s advantage. North Korean diplomats are very good at this game, which they learned in the 1960s when they exploited the Sino-Soviet schism with remarkable success.

Since 2008 the North has been exercising pressure on both Seoul and Washington.

In the case of South Korea, the North takes advantage of Seoul’s dependence on international markets. Foreign investors and trade partners of South Korean firms are not amused by newspaper headlines talking of war imminently erupting on the Korean Peninsula.

Such tensions are likely to have a negative impact on the South Korean economy, making the South Korean voter worse off. While the average South Korean voter does not care too much about North Korea, it still expects its government to be capable of handling the North and avoiding major confrontations. Therefore, the North Korean leadership expects that sooner or later South Korean voters will penalise an excessively stubborn government by supporting the opposition.

For the US, the major concern is the North’s potential for nuclear and missile proliferation. So, the North Korean regime demonstrated to Washington that even without aid, and in spite of the international sanctions, North Korean engineers and scientists have managed to make considerable progress in areas of military significance.

In mid-November a group of American nuclear scientists were shown a state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment facility of scale and sophistication exceeding what US experts believed North Korea to be capable of. This represents a major step towards a full-scale military uranium program, which is, incidentally, more difficult to control than the old plutonium program.

Now, after a few months of tension building, the North Koreans have decided to test the ground and check whether their adversaries (and potential donors) are ready to give in. Frankly, Pyongyang’s decision seems surprising since the answer is obvious: neither Washington nor Seoul is ready to make concessions.

So why are the old tactics failing this time? In short, because attitudes in both Washington and Seoul have changed in recent years.

On the US side, Washington was willing to give concessions and unilateral aid in the past due to the widespread (albeit unfounded and naïve) belief that this was a way to facilitate the denuclearization of North Korea. It was assumed that Pyongyang could be persuaded, bribed and pressed into surrendering its nuclear program. This belief evaporated in 2009 after the second nuclear test.

American policymakers have finally realised that North Korea is not going to surrender its nukes under any circumstances. North Korean leaders are ready to talk about arms control, not about disarmament. In other words, North Korean leaders hope to get paid for freezing their nuclear program while still keeping the existing nuclear devices.

With South Korea, the situation is more complicated. The Lee Myung-bak government has been in favour of a hard line from the very beginning. After the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong shelling, the South Korean public, usually cautious when it comes to matters of peace and war, has switched to supporting the hard-line.

A poll in late November indicated some 80 per cent of participants were in favour of a massive military retaliation in the case of another North Korean attack. This unusual bellicosity from the South Korean public puts additional pressure on the government.

Paradoxically, the events (or non-events) of early December contributed towards Seoul’s shift to a hard line attitude. In response to the Yeonpyeong shelling, the South Korean military staged large drills in the disputed waters near the North Korean coast. Before the exercises the North Koreans threatened a mighty counter-strike, but when Seoul decided to go ahead nothing happened.

North Korea’s decision not to execute its threats was seen as a sign of weakness. A triumphant South Korean official said in a private conversation: ‘They are with their tail between their legs now. This is what we should have done from the very beginning.’

As such, Seoul politicians are of the belief that harshness is the best option, since North Korean leaders will surely duck a fight.

This seems to be a dangerous illusion. It is true that North Korea does not want a full-scale war. But due to the peculiarities of its political system the domestic consequences for the North Korean government will be far less serious than those of the South’s.

Even if a South Korean counter-strike kills many hundreds of North Korean soldiers, the leaders will likely feel little sorrow for them (and children of the leaders do not serve in the military). The loss of a few pieces of rusty military equipment of 1960s vintage will not upset them too much either.

It is sometimes stated that an efficient counter-strike will at least lead to a loss of face for the North Korean leadership, and that fear of such humiliation could serve as a deterrent against future attacks. However, the North Korean government is in full control of the media, so such a defeat will remain unknown to almost everyone outside the military elite.

If this is the case, why did the North avoid a fight in December, after so many threats and bellicose statements? The answer is because there is no reason why it should agree to fight at a time and place chosen by its adversaries. It makes much more sense to wait and then deliver a sudden and powerful strike when the North Korean political leadership decides that the time is ripe.

It seems that we are not going to wait for long. Recent events leave little doubt that the North Korean charm offensive will be ignored. The US and South Korea rejected North Korea’s call for unconditional talks with South Korea as ‘insincere’ and repeated their usual set of demands, which are, alas, clearly unacceptable for the North Koreans.

The North Korean leaders will probably do what they have done before in similar situations: they will stage provocations to increase pressure on the US and the South, in hope that sooner or later they will give in. Since such pressure has not worked, even greater pressure should be applied. After all the associated political risks for the North Korean elite are small and the rewards, in the case of eventual success, are significant.

This coming round of military and diplomatic standoffs might be more dangerous than usual, largely because of Seoul’s newly acquired belief in the power of counter-strikes. It now seems likely that in the case of another North Korean strike the South will, confident in the power of deterrence, retaliate mightily. The South is likely to overreact, thus further aggravating the situation. This counter-strike is likely to trigger a counter counter-strike, and there is even a probability (albeit very minor) that such an exchange will escalate into intense fighting or a real war.

The South Korean government should not be misled by the current bellicose mood of the voters. This mood is not likely to survive a major confrontation, and once the situation becomes really tough the same people who now cry for revenge are likely to start blaming the government for its inability to maintain a stable and secure situation on the peninsula.

2011 looks unlikely to be a tranquil year in Korea, and the subsequent few years might be even worse.

Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and an adjunct research fellow at the Australian National University.

One response to “North Korea: Push could soon turn to shove”

  1. Democracy is strange. First voters push their leaders to the brink and then ask them to observe restraint. Lankov’s analysis reminds one of the miscalculations of the Vajpayee government that it can afford to escalate the confrontation with Pakistan after the latter’s spy agency ISI got the Indian parliament attacked through its proxies. The attack claimed the lives of a few security officers. People wanted revenge and the government obliged. But then people realized that there are no free lunches and the government had to step back.

    A war at that time would have derailed the growing economy, which would have translated into many millions still below poverty line. The cost of maintaining the growth trajectory was paid later in the form of at least five horrendous terrorist attacks, including the Mumbai Taj Hotel attack, which in turn promoted extreme latent anti-Islamic sentiment in the country: if you cannot hit your enemy at least hate his caricature from the bottom of your heart. Unfortunately, once the hatred crosses a threshold, the next terrorist attack will trigger a full scale Indo-Pak war. Let us hope North Korea and Pakistan will discard unconventional foreign policy strategies.

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