Why North Korea Doesn’t Engage
Image Credit: Flickr / yeowatzup

Why North Korea Doesn’t Engage


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.


[...] decades of U.S. policy. How Washington expected to halt Pyongyang’s missile development program without taking serious steps to do so remains a mystery. While ineffective policies date back to the previous Bush and Clinton [...]

April 8, 2011 at 10:44

Actually, recently it has become apparent that the Chinese government and the North Korean regime do not particularly like each other, with leaked cables revealing growing frustration with North Korea by Chinese diplomats and officials. The two countries rely on each other strategically to some degree but they certainly are not close enough for the DPRK to be considered a Chinese puppet state. China has less control over North Korea than is popularly believed; North Korea more like China’s annoying, embarassing little brother that it has trouble reigning in, than a Chinese puppet.

April 3, 2011 at 14:24

Your response to my question speaks volumes about your understanding of international issues and the S.K/N.K issue.

John Chan
April 1, 2011 at 00:09

Charity is to give, it is out of compassion, asking return for charity is a trade mark of imperialism. Have love and give love to your next kin.

March 30, 2011 at 15:23

@John Chan,
How about the cousins in China? Maybe they are closer to the North and therefore feel that its in there interest.

Regarding help, the SKs provided it for almost 10 years, you could stand on the border and watch the trucks going into the north sending aid, etc.

Yet, NK still killed a SK tourist and never apologised. They used the wealth to build nukes, they attacked ships in 2002 when SK held World Cup, they attacked or threatened even though SK provided aid.

How long should SK give aid to NK at least $500 million a year and still accept getting hit by NK.

If NK wanted to improve thier lives at the very least they could follow Chinas model if they dont like the SKs model. Or maybe they are now too close to being the same model.

The sunshine policy didn’t work, when something doesn’t work – do you continue doing it, or do you change your policy?

John Chan
March 29, 2011 at 23:50

Yes SK has more apparent freedom, but they are polluted by the US greedy and consumption culture; they rather buying unnecessary gadgets for themselves instead of helping their poor cousins in the North to have a decent life as China did for Taiwan. Where is SK’s conscious? They rather see their cousins in the North getting help from a stranger instead of helping their blood relatives themselves.

Its time for the SK to resume the sunshine policy and help their north relatives, instead of being a lackey of the US and maintain cold war hostility for the US in Korean peninsula.

March 28, 2011 at 12:10

John Chan, your ignorance in this matter is showing.

Stick to topics you know something about. South Korea is a lot more free than NK can ever be. SK doesn’t need to go cap in hand to its supporter or neighbor just to survive.

If China stopped supporting NKs wilful ways and aggressive actions then there would be no need for the US to remain in SK, so if you have a problem with the situation then stop supporting NK.

Personally I believe that the US has actually been more of a help than a hinderance as if you consider NKs actions against SK even with the US military there, who is to say they wouldn’t be more aggressive if the US left.

Then SK would truly have to respond and war would break out, SK would suffer and NK would be destroyed as a nation. I would wager that SK would win if it had to fight NK, but it has more to lose so it shows intelligence and stops short.

Though, maybe thats the aim of some Chinese, they hope to provoke war, so that SK will be pushed into poverty and hardship after they defeated NK. Though, I would rather live in SK anyday over NK or even China for that matter. SK has a lot more freedoms.

John Chan
March 27, 2011 at 12:10

Although North Korea is poor and weak, at least it is independent and free of foreign occupation. It is a disgrace that a rich and strong South Korea is not independent and under foreign occupation. No wonder NK always treats SK with contempt. It is the time for SK to take up the guts; shows NK that it can match NK’s independent spirit; ask the US to leave SK; and let the Koreans to decide their own fate.

March 27, 2011 at 01:36

Korea will be unified, but it will be under North Korean leadership.

Leonard R.
March 26, 2011 at 23:34

North Korea is a military arm of the PLA. It is China’s midget stalking pony
and vassal state.

The US should view any attack from North Korea as an attack by China.
That should be military doctrine.

It is idiotic for America to give China plausible deniability for the
actions of North Korea. China feeds them. China gives them technology.
China arms them. NK is China’s tar baby and this stupid sock puppet
routine needs to stop.

If NK nukes an America city, what then? Will the US not retaliate against
Beijing? Is the US Government really that naive?

March 26, 2011 at 04:08

I Agree.

North Korea issue is American issue.

yang zi
March 25, 2011 at 14:12

Compared to Gaddafi, Kim is much more dangerous. US should bomb Korea’s nuclear facility. China will protest but will be relieved.

Probably US is afraid of not been able to accomplish this. it is hard to do it without consequences, such as radiation leak and possible Kim counter attack.

Physiologically,China cannot bring itself to interfere with other countries affairs. its past suffering under foreign powers is engraved in its subconscious, it is incapable of solving North Korea issue.

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