North Korea's posturing is simple fiscal extortion

The tensions that started in December over the successful rocket and satellite launch by North Korea have dragged on into this month

Phil Cane
On 30 March 2013 18:31

Yesterday the rising tensions in the region culminated in Pyongyang sensationally revoking the 1953 Panmunjom Armistice Agreement, which temporarily halted the conflict in the Korean War, and declaring that a state of war existed with the South.

Following on from the threats of missile strikes against US bases in the Pacific and cities of the US mainland and the ramping up of military mobilisation in the North, every news outlet is dominated by pictures of Kim Jong-Un pointing at various maps and commanders, just waiting to give the order for nuclear destruction.

However to seasoned watchers and experts of the Pyongyang regime, the Great Successor is just rereading the standard textbook response created by his father and grandfather. After all this is the eighth time that the Armistice Agreement had been annulled by the North and it is obvious to all that the North will not be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War by attempting to reunify the Peninsula militarily.

At first sight, North Korea’s foreign policy may seem irrational, if not bizarre. Yet this ramping up of tensions has ironically secured the survival of the impoverished state. Despite almost universal condemnation and never ending international sanctions, it continues to proliferate with ever increasing and enhanced missile and nuclear technology.

At the heart of the matter, the Kim dynasty’s foreign policy is multifaceted, indeed the perceived irrationality is actually supremely rational and calculated. What appears to be the irrational actions of a young, hawkish and inexperienced Kim Jong-Un against (mainly) the Republic of Korea is actually tactical brinkmanship behaviour.

On the 26th March 2010, the ROKS Cheonan sank south of the Northern Limit Line in a North Korean torpedo attack. In November of the same year, the North shelled Yeongpyeong Island in the South. Both incidents were accredited to Kim Jong-Un.

Often lost in press coverage, in between these two provocative events, the DPRK Foreign Minister stated that they were willing to return to the stalled Six Party Talks nuclear disarmament talks. Although this may appear irrational, this is a classic example of North Korean brinkmanship behaviour, offering two paradoxically different approaches, unprovoked aggression versus diplomacy, the good cop vs bad cop of international relations.

What do they want to gain? Ultimately it is monetary. This can be seen as a continuation of the Kim Jong Il era. For example, as talks stalled between the North and the South after the 2000 Leaders Summit, there was a flurry of North Korean aggression and unprovoked attacks on Southern fishing vessels and naval craft around the demilitarized maritime lines. Eventually the South embarked upon the Sunshine Policy which brought about investment in the North such as the Kaesong Industrial Park.

The strategy continued throughout the Six Party Talks where North Korea stuck to a single strategy; start negotiations, squeeze as much aid out of the international community by making incremental concessions and then walk away, only to return in exchange for more payoffs.

Pyongyang’s success is in the creating of a Catch 22 situation, whereby Washington and Seoul cannot ignore the actions of North Korea without risking huge domestic unpopularity and endangering the larger regional security. This has produced a never ending security dilemma, whereby the Republic of Korea and the United States cannot at the same time take military action as it would presumably only reinforce North Korean paranoia.  

As a result, both capitals have attempted to buy North Korean stability through arrangements which ultimately fuel the proliferation of the weapons they seek to stop. As we watch Kim Jong-Un call for the rain of destruction onto the mainland United States and South Korea, it is probably the case that neither will call his bluff and instead will seek out a way of buying their way out of the crisis.

For many, the most irrational dimension of North Korea’s foreign policy is its nuclear programme, which has made the Workers Party of Korea favour international condemnation and sanctions over the rebuilding of the DPRK’s shattered economy and agriculture after the 1994-1998 famine.

Nuclear proliferation however, has raised the country to the world stage. Without it  it would be amongst Mozambique, Benin and Uganda in comparative GDP status. With nuclear weapons, the North Koreans truly believe that it has gained essential equivalence with the United States while at the same time relegating the influence of the Seoul and Tokyo in the regional international politics.

What seems irrational is the continued testing of nuclear and missile technology in spite of UNSC resolution 1718, which causes only further isolation and hardship. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that nuclear deterrence is based on two principles, the ability to effectively deliver the destruction claimed and the belief that the state would actually employ it, as such it is unsurprising and indeed totally rational to defy the international community, especially when the North Koreans are no longer signatures on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The success of gaining a nuclear deterrent is debatable, the continued proliferation has isolated Pyongyang in the region. It ended the Six Party Talks in 2009 and has brought about the suspension of both American and South Korean food aid. Despite this, the programme presses on.

In February 2013, the third nuclear test occurred and recent estimates by the Institute for Science and International Security have concluded that the North has acquired at least 12 nuclear weapons. The weapons themselves remain a strong persuasive argument domestically, that Juche ideology of the regime is delivering the promised goal of strong national security for the Korean People’s Army and is a shining example of the nation’s technological progress.

As we watch the hourly statements of the North Koreans claiming to be preparing to destroy everything but Dennis Rodman's house, we must bear in mind these facts.

Although it is certainly unusual for tensions to increase for this length of time, it is not unknown. The unique circumstances of the Korean peninsula at this very moment has created, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, several “known unknowns”.

We have a new South Korean President who is willing to meet with Kim, a re-elected President Obama who might, like Clinton and Bush, attempt to appease Pyongyang and a young Kim Jong-Un with a string of successful nuclear and missile tests strengthening his domestic position.

As such Kim Jong-Un emboldened by the success of the transition of power, and more crucially, the reluctance of Moscow and Beijing to rein him in, could be testing the water to see how far the new diplomatic boundaries will stretch in Seoul and Washington.

In the end, we can be almost certain that there will not be another overt action against the South in the current climate, especially during combined US-South Korean military exercises. The test of brinkmanship for Kim Jong-Un is the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the border, employing over 50,000 North Koreans in 120 South Korean companies. It is a financial life line to Pyongyang.

Already today the North Koreans have threatened to close the complex, and if indeed it does close, then we know for sure that the Great Successor has ripped up the old rule book, and we have entered a dark new era of uncertainty.  

Philip is an International Relations postgraduate student at the London School of Economics specialising in East Asia and Korea.

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