Tensions have ratcheted up on the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang’s successful launch of an ICBM-like rocket in December 2012.
North Korea, a country famous for its sabre rattling, has tuned up its bellicose rhetoric in the face of international condemnation. Now, its purpose in employing these tactics is a subject of contending perspectives and analyses.
This is not the first time North Korea has threatened its neighbours with a major military conflagration. Historically, these episodes of provocation have been followed by periods of accommodation — a familiar pattern for US General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Will history repeat itself this time? It seems unlikely, for a number of reasons.
First, North Korean threats have reached new heights. The country has solemnised its status as a nuclear power, nullified the armistice it signed with the United States in 1953 and menaced Washington with nuclear war.
Second, this hostility has not been met with appeasement policies by Washington and Seoul, unlike in 2010 after the sinking of the Cheonan frigate and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. This time, both countries have reaffirmed their commitment to the United States–South Korea alliance. And they have warned Pyongyang of massive retaliations and possible pre-emptive strikes in the case of aggression.
Third, North Korea’s standalone posturing seems to have annoyed its only friend, China. This casts doubt on the future of Beijing’s economic assistance and political support to Pyongyang, the lifeline of Kim Jong-un’s regime. All three dynamics indicate that today’s crisis is more volatile and prone to escalation.
Yet North Korea’s strategy could, paradoxically, open new prospects for peace and stability on the Peninsula. North Korea is not monolithic, and it is not irrational. It has no interest in war given the hugely unfavourable balance of power with its southern neighbour and US forces. Taking the ‘inside out’ argument to the present situation can give sense and direction to Pyongyang’s risky and belligerent behaviour.
Kim Jong-un and the North’s clique of generals and party apparatchiks are probably more bent on regime survival today than ever before. The evolution of the country’s international environment and domestic context confronts them with increasingly salient challenges. Power transition in North Korea may not have taken place as smoothly as had been assumed. The country’s polity is totally out of sync with the outside world. And economic reforms are desperately needed, not just to reach ‘strength and prosperity’ but simply to keep hold of a population that relies on ‘grey markets’ for its survival. Internationally, leadership changes in neighbouring states, including China, have put the country at risk of marginalisation. The situation has also been made more acute now that Washington’s so-called pivot is gaining traction in the region and beyond.
The current belligerent behaviour of Pyongyang could serve two distinct purposes. First, the leadership may be using external aggression to deflect internal scrutiny while it implements reforms. Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy relies on ideology. Reforming the economy could attract criticism of Kim’s credentials and skills as an administrator. He could be seen as a replaceable manager, rather than as the guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy. An example of this strategy is China’s 1979 war with Vietnam, which was used to mobilise domestic constituencies behind Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
Second, Pyongyang may be trying to boost its position on the international stage by following a strategy of ‘provoke then negotiate’. On the one hand, publicising its status as a nuclear power bolsters its deterrent capability. On the other, it could be an attempt to create a level playing field with the United States. Working under such an assumption, the unilateral abrogation of the 1953 armistice may be more than just an act of war. It could be an attempt by Pyongyang to clear the way for a new round of negotiations with the United States.
North Korea is at a crossroads — the current crisis, as intense as it is, could be a turning point on the Peninsula. It could pave the way for economic reforms and diplomatic normalisation in Pyongyang. But these are only hypotheses, and, whatever its purposes, North Korea’s strategy is very risky. Escalation can lead to war, even when no country really wants it to happen.
Bruno Hellendorff is a Research Fellow at the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, and a PhD candidate at the Université Catholique de Louvain.
Thierry Kellner is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Université Libre de Bruxelles, and member of the centre of ‘Research and Teaching in International Politics’.