Kim Jong-un knows what he's doing. The US must seize the initiativeby John Swenson-Wright / April 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
Listening in Seoul to North Korea’s threats to attack the US and its Republic of Korea (ROK) ally, there is an urgent need to understand the motives of the Pyongyang administration. What are the intentions of Kim Jong-un, the new 29-year old leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the officials close to him? As the North’s rhetoric becomes more strident and seemingly uncompromising, how close is the peninsula and the wider region to the actual outbreak of military hostilities? What, if anything, should the international community do to avoid Armageddon?
There are at least three competing interpretations of the North’s behaviour. The first is the explanation, popularised by the 2004 satirical film Team America: World Police, that the North’s leaders are irrational, erratic attention seekers willing to play the high-stakes game of military brinkmanship for their own amusement but without a discernible purpose. In this interpretation, the DPRK is a potential threat but not one that we need to take overly seriously. The histrionic broadcasts of North Korean television announcers and the image of a rotund Kim Jong-un, sporting an ill-fitting suit and an unflattering haircut, contribute to this somewhat comic picture. But it would be a major mistake to misread this as evidence of a lack of rational calculation on North Korea’s part.
A second view sees the young leader using the current stand-off to bolster his credibility and authority with his generals. The military has played an influential role in North Korean politics, particularly since the 1990s, when Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, developed the country’s “military first” (songun) strategy. Working against this interpretation, however, is the speed and smoothness with which Kim Jong-un has consolidated his authority since succeeding his father as “supreme leader” of the country in December 2011. As First Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korea People’s Army, Kim has apparently established his control over North Korea’s key party, state and military organisations. The abrupt removal of senior KPA officials in July of last year, most notably Ri Yong-ho, Vice-Marshall of the powerful Central Military Commission, has reinforced the impression of a young, confident leader securely holding the reins that control the troika of the country’s governing institutions.
More plausible is a third interpretation that sees the North engaged in a carefully choreographed set of moves intended to enhance its national interests—a view amply supported by historical evidence. Recently released archival material from the Nixon presidency demonstrate that successive US administrations have seen North Korea as engaged in a rational, calculated pattern of using “strategic provocation” to persuade the US to negotiate directly and thereby secure further concessions, whether diplomatic or economic. This has taken the form of shooting down US aircraft (for example, an American EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft in 1969) and seizing US assets (the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968).
In this context, North Korea resembles a “theatre state” (a term employed by the anthropologist Heonik Kwon), in which Pyongyang uses set-piece imagery to present a victimised but resilient nation united against a brutal foreign oppressor. The young leader, presumably encouraged by his older, more experienced advisers, is artfully playing a long game of diplomatic chess in which the DPRK appears to be several moves ahead of the international community.
There are a number of objectives behind Pyongyang’s provocations. By fomenting a sense of crisis at home it hopes to unify the country, thereby boosting the legitimacy of the new leader. By avoiding a military provocation that would invite potentially devastating retaliation from South Korea, Kim is able to appear magnanimous by walking his forces back from the brink of conflict. Indeed, recent ROK reports have suggested that Kim has personally ordered his units to avoid firing any shots in anger to prevent the ROK or the US from having a pretext to attack the North.
Also involved in this careful choreography is a desire to protect the dignity of the North Korean nation—a goal that explains the suspension of access (most likely a temporary step) to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, home to 123 South Korean firms employing around 54,000 North Korean workers. Pyongyang has bridled at suggestions in the ROK media that economic self-interest (to the tune of $87m) would deter it from closing the complex. Its actions in this regard are less a preliminary to an attack on the South (as some have warned) and more an effort to protect the country’s pride.
Underpinning all of these moves is a powerful desire by the DPRK to force the Obama administration to engage in direct and public negotiations. Washington, wedded to a policy of “strategic patience” that seeks to contain North Korea without rewarding it for its bad behaviour, has resolutely resisted. Yet at a time when UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has been arguing very loudly for some form of dialogue, it remains questionable whether this is sustainable.
An additional goal for Pyongyang may be to drive a wedge between the new South Korean conservative administration of Park Geun-hye and the Americans. While Park has been resolute in underlining the importance of deterrence, most recently last Monday by authorising the ROK military to respond to any North Korean provocation militarily, she has also made it clear that in the medium term she favours some form of engagement with the North. Park has already provided limited humanitarian aid to the North and, as part of her strategy of “trustpolitik,” has talked about the need for more extensive North-South contact. This “twin-track” approach is sensible but it may not be one that more hawkishly minded voices, whether in Seoul or in Washington, are willing to endorse.
Against the backdrop of the crisis, Pyongyang has announced that it will reactivate its nuclear installations at Yongbyon—both its plutonium-based reactor and a separate uranium-enrichment facility. Bringing both operations on stream (something that might take anywhere between six months and a year) will allow the North to build up its stockpile of fissile material, thereby boosting its nuclear weapons arsenal and enhancing its deterrent capability. Ultimately, the North may also hope that this move will buy it critical time in which to advance in marrying its longstanding ballistic missile program with its nuclear assets, in the process shifting the strategic balance on the peninsula in its favour.
For all these reasons, the United States must begin to reassess its current policy towards the North. The good news is that a deliberate, premeditated attack by the North on the South is, for now, unlikely. Deterrence appears to be working. However, as the US brings more military hardware into the region, the risk increases that the North sees these steps as the preliminary to a pre-emptive attack. There is a growing danger, in other words, that conflict may take place through accident rather than design as nerves become increasingly strained on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone.
Deterrence requires not just a clear demonstration of US and ROK retaliatory capabilities and the conviction that these will be used; it also requires some degree of reassurance that concessions from Pyongyang will deliver benefits to the North. To do this, the US should consider broadening its approach to encompass a wider set of issues beyond the nuclear question. These could involve discussion of the conventional balance of forces on the peninsula; steps to foster a new peace mechanism or regime in the region; US official recognition of the DPRK, involving the establishment of a US embassy or more likely a liaison-mission in Pyongyang; and finally preliminary steps towards a formal Peace Treaty replacing the armistice of 1953 that suspended but did not end the Korean War.
Such measures are likely to be difficult, touching upon sensitive domestic political issues. But in light of the stakes involved, and given Pyongyang’s success in this crisis so far, it is especially urgent for the United States to recapture the initiative in this diplomatic tussle of wills.
Thanks to Professor David Welch of the University of Waterloo for bringing the Nixon administration documentation to my attention