While three blog entries in a row about North Korea may be a little much, I couldn’t help but feel inspired after seeing Team America’s Kim make an appearance and yet feel a little disappointed that Matt Damon was left out. Anyway, a different look at the predictability of North Korea’s actions has been laid out by Sung-Yoon Lee in Foreign Affairs. Lee points out the consistency of methods used by the North since Kim Il Sung emerged as the dictator for life in the early 1960s. The strategy goes like this: “lash out at its enemies when it perceives them to be weak or distracted (regional or world powers makes little difference), up the ante in the face of international condemnation (while blaming external scapegoats), and then negotiate for concessions in return for an illusory promise of peace.” Military and political brinkmanship have been tactics deployed at will to gain leverage with its rivals due to the North’s inability to compete economically.
Examples of North Korea’s game plan date back to 1968 when a 31 man commando team snuck into South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung Hee while the US concentrated on the ever increasing turmoil in Vietnam. The attempt failed but two days later the North captured a U.S. intelligence ship in international waters and held the crew captive for 11 months until the Johnson administration issued an apology. North Korea was internationally condemned throughout the 11 months, yet continued to send troops into the South and even shot down a U.S. Reconnaissance plane the following year. The lessons learned by North Korea in this sequence of events were that its provocations and attacks on the U.S. and South Korea would lead to the democratic regimes seeking to ease tensions.
In 1972, Kim demanded peace talks with the South for the first time since the Korean War in hopes of establishing an agreement to remove all U.S. troops from the South. This of course only came after the U.S. and China came together the previous year and was swiftly followed by more offensive operations against South Korea.
Fast forward to the next American war and the same pattern emerges. Long range missiles were test fired over Japan on July 4, 2006, followed by their first nuclear test. This led to further UN sanctions and a reversal of President Bush’s policy of financial pressure toward nuclear negotiations. North Korea promised to eradicate its nuclear arsenal and in return, the U.S. unfroze illicit funds, resumed food and fuel aid, and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Now in 2010, the pattern persists. The Obama administration has its hands full and the North is hopeful for quick concessions after long range missile tests in 2009. The UN resolution passed in response to the Chenoan sinking pleased the North as it was very weakly worded and led Kim to suggest he would be willing to return to multilateral nuke talks. Foreign Affairs predicts that another missile demonstration should be on the way in the near future as the cycle of provocation, deception, and retreat continues. The U.S. would be wise to not follow the North around the merry-go-round this time. The Obama administration is showing that it has paid attention to the North’s playbook and will focus on strengthening financial sanctions, targeting it’s counterfeiting, money laundering, and other illicit activities instead. It should spotlight the North’s human rights violations, and I would also add that it should take several avenues of approach to increase the free flow of outside information to the general populace as we wait to see who will follow in Kim’s place.
Maintaining our defensive posture in South Korea, resisting the urge to be drawn into a military confrontation, encouraging the Chinese to pry open the doors for humanitarian aid to the North, and keeping the pressure on the government leadership should be the top priorities for now. The future of North Korea’s political leadership and stability is uncertain but if the past is any indication, the game plan will remain the same.