What do you think is behind the recent skirmishes on the Korean border? What kind of message could North Korea be sending?
We know little about the true reasons for these kinds of activities—there’s a lot of speculation. It may well be connected with the succession and allowing the new leader to demonstrate that he’s a tough guy. Or it may be a long standing North Korean approach to firmness from South Korea, a sort of tit for tat.
It has also been speculated that North Korea is looking for ways to drive wedges between South Korea and the United States, and it could also be that the in the current period, the North Korean leadership feels that it has a something of a blank cheque from China, and so can act a little bit more aggressively with less concern for the risks involved than it otherwise might do. But the important thing is that South Korea has decided that it’s not going to back down in the face of provocation or threats to retaliate.
Earlier this month, North Korea offered to return to the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear programme, which have been stalled for two years. Why the sudden change of heart? What chance is there that these talks will be fruitful?
What we’re seeing is yet another cycle in a well-established North Korean pattern of behaviour. They engage in provocative activities, they get everybody upset, and maybe they get awarded for these activities. At a certain point, they might engage in smile diplomacy and say, ‘lets all be friends, lets discuss these issues’ so that maybe negotiations on one issue or another will resume—until North Korea decides it isn’t getting what it wants and so provokes again.
So last year, for example, we had two acts of war from North Korea against South Korea (the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong). We also had revelations that it had a uranium enrichment programme up and running that was in violation of its past commitments to the Six-Party Talks. But it didn’t necessarily get them what they wanted, and it probably got China concerned. So they’ve gone into smiling mode.
It’s important to note that they said they were willing to resume the Six-Party Talks without preconditions. Well this was very kind of them, but they know perfectly well that others, especially South Korea, the United States and Japan, do have conditions. First of all, South Korea, the victim of the two acts of war, believes it deserves an apology of some sort. And then the US, South Korea and Japan have very little confidence that North Korea will negotiate seriously, so they’ve said they are waiting for a unilateral step that demonstrates that North Korea is serious, otherwise they don’t see the point in resuming the talks.
I think there’s a good case to be made that North Korea would be perfectly happy with the status quo, with negotiations that don’t go anywhere, precisely because they are still in the middle of proving their nuclear deterrent and proving that their nuclear device can be used as a weapon—that it can be put on a missile and hit the United States. If they were able to do that, it would give them more security, but they aren’t there yet. So they need time, and although having talks that don’t produce outcomes is OK, whenever it appears that talks might actually lead to an outcome that may constrain them, they back off. One can make the case that when President Barack Obama came into office and seemed to engage with the North Koreans, that they went ahead with a missile test and a nuclear test precisely because they didn’t want to be engaged.