North Korea is deploying its usual brinkmanship in its latest conflict with South Korea, observes In-bum Chun, a retired lieutenant general who served in the Republic of Korea Army for 38 years. While recent developments seem to have a familiar progression, Pyongyang’s increasing assertiveness makes the current confrontation more dangerous to regional and global stability than usual.
Perpetual tension and crisis: American and South Korean soldiers stand guard in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas (Credit: MaxG Photography / Shutterstock.com)
For more than seven decades, the Kim dynasty in North Korea has secured support from patrons in the Soviet Union and China, eliminated political enemies, survived a war, developed a cult-like ideology, withstood a famine that killed millions and outwitted and outmaneuvered the world to develop nuclear weapons. While the resilience of the Kim family is truly amazing, it is a tragedy for the Korean people and now a grave threat to world peace. With their longevity, the Kims have been the envy of many other dictators thanks to their repeated pursuit of their signature brinkmanship, a negotiating strategy that stirs up tensions and a sense of crisis to attract the attention of its neighbors in the region and the world.
Step one is to create the appearance of tension. Until the early 1970s, the standard of living in North Korea exceeded that of the South Korea. Most North Korean activity was overt: incursions into the South by commando teams of up to 100 men, seizure of ships in international waters, and shooting down aircraft in international skies. After the 1976 axe murders of two US Army soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Washington’s strong reaction to the incident, North Korean provocation went covert – infiltration of the South by secret agents, assassinations and bombings. (Recall the 1983 attempt to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon, Burma, that killed 21 people, including four of Chun’s Cabinet ministers.)
The main purpose was to embarrass and discredit South Korea. But with the collapse of communism and the economic and political isolation that resulted in the great famine of the mid-1990s, North Korean military activity subsided until naval clashes began in the Yellow (West) Sea in 1999. Once again, the North appeared to be openly spoiling for a fight. This signaled a growing confidence as Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons. This was the beginning of its dangerous use of brinkmanship as a negotiating strategy – provocation as way to open negotiations.
The second step that North Korea typically takes is to blame South Korea and the US for the tense situation. This is where we are today. North Korea is accusing South Korea of allowing non-government organizations (NGOs) to launch propaganda balloons into its airspace, a practice which Seoul had discouraged since the rapprochement between the North and the South in 2018. North Korea is clearly aware that the balloon campaigns are not promoted by the government in the South. In South Korea, the constitution guarantees such activity. Indeed, there are South Korean fan clubs that support North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and sister Kim Yo-jong, who acted as Pyongyang’s emissary in breaking the ice with the South when she crossed the border to attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in February 2018. While the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is now using environmental laws and other technicalities to criminalize the propaganda balloon campaign, the North Korea reacted by blowing up the joint liaison office in Kaesong, north of the DMZ, which is used for intra-Korean talks, on June 16.
The third step that Pyongyang takes in its brinkmanship strategy is to give the impression that it is open for negotiations. But it will typically make an unreasonable demand or agree “in principle” to some improvement in relations. This time, North Korea called for the South to apologize for the NGO’s balloons and then openly demanded that Seoul break with the US and start economic exchanges between the Koreas in violation of UN sanctions.
The South is now anticipating step four. North Korea will likely set artificial deadlines to pressure the other side. To increase the tension, Pyongyang will go ahead with some of their initial threats such as re-occupying guard posts in the DMZ, redeploying soldiers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, conduct military training along the DMZ and the Northern Limit Line (a disputed maritime demarcation line in the Yellow Sea), and carry out its own propaganda leaflet operations.
This is the most dangerous stage of the brinkmanship mainly because it relies on the restraint or even complacency of the South Korean military. Although North Korea understands the mechanics of South Korean society – its constitutionalism, rule of law, social trends and cultural attitudes – it cannot understand what even South Korean politicians themselves often fail to comprehend fully: the public mood. The dictatorship misinterprets public opinion and typically construes the robust debate in the South as a sign of weakness and social division rather than as an indication of the strength of South Korean democracy.
The South Korean military is composed of independent-thinking individuals capable of adapting to changing situations and equipped with modern weaponry. Since the early 2000s, South Korea has been able to react decisively to all North Korean military provocation, except for the sinking in 2010 of one of its corvettes by a torpedo fired by a small submersible. The heightened tension will increase the likelihood of North Korea provocation escalating into something much larger and uncontrollable.
Step five, then, is to take some provocative action. In the current situation, North Korea is likely to shower its own propaganda and trash over the South using drones. This could take its brinkmanship to the edge. The South Korean military is jumpy about North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles and such a move could trigger a shooting incident. All South Korean commanders will have to be especially alert and cautious.
After this, the next – and sixth – step that the North is likely to take is to politicize the situation, setting up negotiations but demanding preconditions and front-loading the agenda. The preconditions are typically Pyongyang’s real objectives. It is in this phase when North Korea blames South Korea and the US for delaying tactics and prolonging discussions. The seventh step is a demand for further compensation or a major concession before it will return to talks. There is an impasse. The eighth and final step is to return to step one.
This time the plot could be different, however. North Korea has nuclear weapons and has become overconfident. Its economy, however, is in a very difficult situation and it does not have the time to play its usual long game. And as has happened frequently in the past, the North Korean people are having to deal extreme hardships, particularly food shortages and malnutrition. These are grave internal challenges that can only be solved by external solutions – specifically, the relaxation of UN sanctions and humanitarian relief from overseas.
If he is lucky, Kim Jong-un may have months or even a year or two when he can blame Covid-19 for the deepening economic troubles in the country. But the social pressures must be mounting. North Korea has been trying to grab the attention of the US and put pressure on Washington by developing intermediate-range missiles that would threaten Seoul and Tokyo, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), submarines capable of launching these missiles, and inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
But for North Korea to pose a significant security challenge to the US, it must have at least 1,000 warheads – three for every US city with a population of 100,000 or more. Hitting one or two cities in the continental US would not be enough and would invite the destruction of North Korea. The same applies to an attack on Seoul or Tokyo. It is unimaginable to think that the US Navy would be unable to track and, if need be, sink a North Korean submarine, especially with underwater drone technology.
Nonetheless, North Korea’s recent actions are dangerous and of serious concern. Pyongyang means to prod Seoul to break with Washington (at a time when their relations are strained over the Trump administration’s demands that South Korea shoulder the costs of having US troops based there), press for an easing of sanctions regimes, and enter in a new era of economic cooperation with the North. These objectives are so unrealistic that they raise questions about the sanity of the North Korean leadership, or at least their ability to make sound judgments about the present situation.
The open and free nature of South Korean society guarantees expression of thought. Naturally, there will be Koreans sympathetic and even supportive of North Korean demands and, given the progressive nature of the Moon administration, these supporters could include elected representatives and government officials. But the solution to North Korea’s problem lies not with South Korea but with the Kim regime. Although despite Kim Jong-un’s personal disappointment at the lack of any tangible benefits from his summit meetings with Donald Trump, North Korea must accept the realities of international politics – and get over it.
If the Kim regime is to survive, Pyongyang must take action to show that it is willing to denuclearize. North Korea must take hold of the hand that the Moon administration in the South is offering. Moon, for his part, must be explicit that South Korea will not be bullied. While he has stood firm in the face of North Korean threats, he was quick to stop South Korean NGOs from launching propaganda balloons, action that he took at a significant political price.
The best-case scenario for now is that North Korea ceases its belligerent attitude and starts to discuss options for gradual denuclearization and coexistence with the South. Confidence-building measures such as the withdrawal of North Korean long-range artillery directed at Seoul would be a significant gesture. Reduction of guard posts would also be a welcome measure since these are believed to be the jumping point for the North Korean tunnels that could be used by light-infantry sniper units to infiltrate deep into South Korea.
The worst-case scenario is for North Korea to nullify the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018 by conducting live-fire training along the DMZ and NLL. This will not only heighten tensions but will force the South Koreans to take countermeasures as well as conduct the joint military exercises with the US that are so hated by Pyongyang. If and when North Korea escalates tensions by successfully test-firing an ICBM or an SLBM, demonstrates the operational deployment of ICBM launchers or submarines with SLBM launch capability, or explodes an atmospheric nuclear device, the response by the world would likely lead to North Korean regime change.
North Korea is desperate for economic relief. Kim Jong-un does not need his country to become a Singapore or a United Arab Emirates. He wants to turn Pyongyang into a Shanghai, but it is far more crucial to him to be able to control his people with fear and lies and to stay in power and secure the family dynasty. His country is one big barracks and will stay so as long as the Kim family system does not change. It is a tragedy that the stability of a nuclear-armed North Korea is in the best interests of South Korea as well as its neighbors. Kim needs to know that the majority of South Korean citizens do not want to go to war with him, but if it came to any hot conflict instigated by Pyongyang, South Koreans would be unified in supporting drastic action that would end his regime.
Congressional Research Service. (June 19, 2020) “Diplomacy with North Korea: A Status Report”, In Focus, United States Government, Washington, DC, USA.
Lee, Chung Min; and Botto, Kathryn (eds). (March 18, 2020) Korea Net Assessment 2020: Politicized Security and Unchanging Strategic Realities, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, USA.
Silberstein, Benjamin Katzeff. (May 28, 2020) “The North Korean Economy: The Pandemic and North Korean Food Security”, 38 North, The Henry L Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
Republic of Korea Army (retired)