Last year saw North Korea involved in a number of highly-charged events with South Korea. Why do you think things deteriorated so quickly?
Several factors I think came together in a kind of perfect storm over the Korean Peninsula last year. First, the moribund Six-Party Talks, as well as the suspension of substantive bilateral talks between the North and particularly South Korea and the United States, made it impossible for Pyongyang to extort concessions from the international community through diplomatic negotiations. North Korea’s only recourse, from its standpoint, was to act out and force the international community to respond to its provocations. This is a time-honored pattern of behaviour by North Korea and was, to some degree, not surprising—although the lethality of its belligerence was.
Second, since North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009 failed to yield the results that it wanted—namely economic aid and other diplomatic concessions—the regime had to up the ante to attract the attention of the international community. The sinking of the Cheonan in March and the shelling of Yeonpyong Island in November were some of the most overt uses of deadly force by North Korea since the end of the Korean War. With its disclosure of uranium enrichment facilities and a light-water reactor, North Korea certainly grabbed the attention of the international community, but probably not in ways that Pyongyang either wanted or anticipated. Instead of a new round of concessions in exchange for lowering tensions, the US and South Korea responded with a series of joint military exercises as a show of force against the North. I also think that video footage of coastal villages on Yeonpyong Island being shelled by the North didn’t really win over sympathy for the regime internationally.
Third, all of this happened against the backdrop of the succession process, in which Kim Jong-il is expected to transfer leadership of the country to his young son, Kim Jung-un. It seems entirely plausible that the regime has, in part, engaged in military provocations to signal continuity in North Korean policies despite the eventual handover of power.
An ongoing issue has been, as you’ve just mentioned, the expected power succession from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. So, you believe incidents like the sinking of the Cheonan, for example, could have been tied to the succession?
I do think that there’s probably some linkage between North Korea’s recent provocations and the succession process from Kim Jong-il to, presumably, Kim Jong-un. The regime is in a very tenuous position right now. Every power transition is a delicate process, but especially so in an autocratic regime like North Korea where so much depends on maintaining a cult of personality built around the Kim family dynasty.