SPEAKING FREELY Towards a new Korean war?
By Bruno Hellendorff and Thierry Kellner
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Since December 2012 and the successful launch of a three-stage rocket - much similar in design to the TaepoDong 2 ICBM, currently under development - Kim Jong-eun has dived into a spiraling continuum of verbal threats, backed by worrying actions, against Seoul and Washington. On February 12, exactly three weeks after being subjected to a new round of sanctions by the
United Nations Security Council, North Korea went ahead with its third nuclear test.
The third nuclear test gave North Korea the chance to boast it now possessed both miniaturization and uranium enrichment technologies, meaning that it had the capability to fit a nuclear warhead on an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). It would also give Pyongyang masters an alternative, discreet and proliferation-prone, path to the building of a nuclear device other than one relying on plutonium. On March 11, the Korean People Army (KPA) nullified the treaty of armistice that put an end, in 1953, to one of the bloodiest post-World War II armed conflicts. The country even went as far as explicitly threatening the United States of a nuclear war, and demonstrated a patent reluctance to listen to its only ally, China.
An old equation with new data
This is not the first time North Korea has threatened its neighbors with major military conflagration, nor the first time it has played with nuclear fire. Yet, several elements make the present situation different from previous crises, and potentially more volatile. One the one hand, verbal escalation has peaked to levels not seen since the end of the Korea War. One the other, such stiffening of words failed to intimidate Seoul and Washington. Both countries reacted firmly to the threats and displayed greater-than-ever commitment to "active" deterrence. This means that both the US and South Korea are now ready to strike North Korea, even pre-emptively, if Pyongyang crosses their red lines. Moreover, Kim Jong-eun's stubbornness seemingly annoyed Beijing, and might have eroded the Chinese determination to support its cumbersome North Korean ally.
And yet, North Korea has no interest in war. Its army is ill-equipped to deal with the South Korean and American armed forces. North Korean nuclear capabilities are, at best, modest and its missiles are vulnerable to the anti-ballistic capabilities of the US, Japan and South Korea. Adding to this, its economy functions under perfusion, and is therefore unlikely to sustain any prolonged conflict, not to mention any kind of "total war". What is it then that Kim Jong-eun is seeking? Why is he so bent on brinkmanship, and why now? A few hypotheses can give sense to North Korean actions. Paradoxically, these hypotheses may set new hopes for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.
A catastrophic domestic situation
Today more than ever, the North Korean regime is bent on ensuring its survival. Although Kim Jong-eun is sitting atop the state, he does not sit alone. The power transition may not be going as smoothly as is often reckoned. After all, Kim Jong-il himself had to undergo more than 25 years of tutoring and gradual integration into the various state institutions to prepare to the succession of his father Kim Il-sung, and that transition remained nonetheless chaotic. The internal dynamics are concealed under a veil of secrecy and propaganda. But they certainly contributed to the current standoff. A first possibility can be that the inexperience of the young Kim Jong-eun had a role in the escalation. Another, both more plausible and analytically more interesting, is that the North Korean leader and his clique of generals and party apparatchiks behind him are seeking to bolster their stature and status in their own country.
Kim Jong-eun's regime is indeed confronting tremendous domestic challenges. The country can probably no longer escape deep economic reforms. Not so much because of the much-touted national slogan and objective of reaching national prosperity by 2015, but to remain in control of a population that increasingly relies on "grey markets" for its survival. The problem is that these reforms are perilous. Kim Jong-eun's legitimacy is ideological above all: like his father before him, he is the depository of Kim Il-Sung's wisdom, and - according to the system - the one most able to interpret his grandfather's nationalist ideology of Juche, the doctrinal and constitutional foundation of the state. "Chinese-style" reforms may well undermine this status.
By focusing the attention of the population and administration on such reforms, Kim Jong-eun could appear no longer as the peerless guide of the nation and defender of doctrinal orthodoxy but as an administrator with poor management skills and credentials. This would constitute an open door to criticism and contestation.
China found in its border war against Vietnam in 1979 the occasion and opportunity to mobilize its population behind Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, and divert criticism away from this pragmatic agenda. North Korea could well try a similar policy of deflecting internal pressure towards the outside world by adopting a posture of "One versus all". The reappearance of Pak Pong-ju, a politician with a track record of timid, yet highly symbolic, economic reforms, as prime minister adds weight to this possible explanation. And so did Kim Jong-eun's speech before party members in which he called for an economic development "on the back of strong nuclear deterrence".
An uncertain international environment
The international context is also tough for North Korea today. Leadership changes in all neighboring countries have translated into the rise to prominence of more confident and hawkish political staff (in South Korea and Japan most prominently). With Barack Obama's re-election, Pyongyang's arch enemy confirmed its intention to have more bearing on Asian affairs against the background of an unfolding "Pacific Century". Washington even appears as having accumulated diplomatic successes in Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia, and the like.
Over the past two years, the interest of great powers over little North Korea has seemed to wane as the focus on the so-called American "pivot" has grown. Lastly, the annual joint military exercises between South Korean and American forces (Foal Eagle) have included this time the very symbolic flying of B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers, as well as fifth-generation F-22 stealth fighters, over the Korean Peninsula with little reaction from Beijing. The dispatch of those aircraft, in reaction to North Korea's provocations, contributed to increase tensions in the region by providing grist to Pyongyang's mill and stating US determination in material terms.
To counteract these shifts and pressures, Pyongyang may have tried to use its main remaining diplomatic tool and means of pressure; resorting to its now classic tactic to "provoke-then-negotiate" that has yielded many benefits so far. North Korea saw its 1993 threats answered by the US with security guarantees as well as food and energy aid (the Framework Agreement and KEDO) the next year. From 1998 to 2008, the country benefited from the "Sunshine policy" of South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
To accept hosting an inter-Korea summit in 2000, North Korea is even thought to have received massive bribes from Seoul. In response to the various crises it triggered in 2003 (resigning from the NPT), 2005 (threatening to walk out of the "Six Party Talks"), 2006 (the first nuclear detonation), 2008 (the expulsion of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency) and 2009 (the second nuclear test), North Korea was also rewarded: the US and South Korea systematically granted assistance or concessions for Pyongyang so that it would return to the negotiating table. In 2010, both Seoul and Washington chose appeasement in their response to the sinking of the Cheonan frigate (which had cost the lives of 46 South Korean sailors) and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Provocation has indeed been, at least until now, quite beneficial to Pyongyang. No wonder it is still on the agenda today.
A risky strategy
North Korea is not monolithic, and it is not irrational. Arguably, North Korea has displayed its potential to do harm with such insistence that there has to be a plan behind it. Its strategy is, however, likely to be directed towards the inside more than the outside. Pyongyang is not so much a "Hermit kingdom" than a country desperately trying to play its last remaining cards in the world arena.
By sanctioning its self-proclaimed status of nuclear power with constitutional revision, the country demonstrated a will to bolster its deterrence capacity. This may also be an attempt to create a level playing field with its adversaries. In other words, Pyongyang can try to reach a more favorable negotiating position vis-a-vis the US. In displaying such bellicose behavior, the country is certainly strengthening its international status, as a prime foreign policy issue for greater powers and as an indispensable interlocutor. On the domestic stage, it is also gaining credit as an independent and powerful country faithful to the revolutionary legacy of Kim Il-sung.
North Korea may have showed its hand when it nullified the 1953 armistice last month. More than an act of war, this decision may well represent an attempt to restart negotiations on a peace treaty with Washington and Seoul on Pyongyang's own terms. North Korea is so desperate to make the current crisis appear as different from the previous ones that it is hard not to think of its provocations as a scramble for survival - a gamble at which it is throwing all its remaining weight.
This strategy could pay off, under two conditions. One, that North Korea's adversaries take its threats seriously. Two, that history repeats itself with Seoul and Washington choosing appeasement to deal with North Korea's threats. Achievement of a new security agreement on the back of such far-reaching provocations would give Kim Jong-eun the aura of a triumphant war leader in his own land, and be a de facto endorsement of his power and legitimacy by the international community. It would also provide space and opportunity to implement domestic reforms. Whatever the calculations of Pyongyang, its policies are not without risks. This is the bad thing about brinkmanship: one step too far, or one step aside, can lead to collapse, or war.
Bruno Hellendorff is Research Fellow at GRIP, and PhD candidate at the UCL (Louvain-la-Neuve). Thierry Kellner is Lecturer at the Department of Political Science of ULB (Brussels) and member of the Center of Research and Teaching in International Politics (REPI-ULB)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
(Copyright 2013 Bruno Hellendorff and Thierry Kellner)