Place Your Bets: North Korea's Next Provocation
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Place Your Bets: North Korea's Next Provocation

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Recent forays by North Korean fishing vessels across the disputed Northern Limit Line and DPRK Vice Minister Park Kil-yon’s statement that a “spark” could set off nuclear war on the Korean peninsula are again raising questions about what North Korea will do next, and when.

North Korea’s 2009 multi-stage rocket launch and nuclear test, the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and the April 2012 failed rocket launch have stimulated speculation among North Korea watchers about the nature and timing of North Korea’s next provocation.  Many analysts who based their expectations on North Korea’s 2009 pattern anticipated that a third nuclear test might immediately follow the failed rocket launch last April. A quiet summer proved them wrong.

However, North Korea’s recent words and actions have renewed speculation over an impending provocation. There are four main schools of thought regarding North Korea’s next move:

1)      The October/November Surprise SchoolAccording to this school of thought, we are entering the prime moment of opportunity for North Korea to take advantage of Chinese, American, and South Korean distraction and preoccupation with their own elections and domestic leadership transitions.  The North Korean leadership may believe that saber rattling will remind neighboring publics that North Korea is a threat.  Provocations may be perceived as an opportunity to influence electoral results in North Korea’s favor.

This logic suggests that an inter-Korean incursion is more likely than a nuclear or missile test given the history of North Korean efforts to influence South Korean elections (known as the North Wind, or bukpung), but the new North Korean leadership under Kim Jong-un could also use a missile and/or nuclear test to raise the level of crisis and dramatize the perceived failures of the current South Korean administration, while anticipating that a charm offensive with South Korea’s next government could complicate international coordination strategies for containing North Korea’s nuclear program.

2)       The Testing Leadership School:  According to this school of thought, the most likely window for a new North Korean provocation is early next year, and would be designed to test new governments in Washington and Seoul (as well as Beijing).  North Korea’s unilateral actions would dramatize the severity of the threat, affirm North Korea’s nuclear status and capabilities, and place North Korea’s challenge to the international community front and center as an important new reality that the international community must accept.

Such a test would magnify North Korea’s threat in the minds of counterparts and would reinforce the impression that the task of reversing North Korean existing nuclear capabilities is remote.  The last time South Korea and the United States managed near-simultaneous transitions in administrations was 1993, at which time North Korea announced its withdrawal of from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in a move that catalyzed direct talks with Washington over the head of Seoul.  North Korea’s leadership may feel that an early crisis, especially in the event that there are two new leaders in Washington and Seoul, would be an enticing environment in which Pyongyang can irreversibly establish itself as a nuclear weapons state.

3)      The Capabilities and Needs School:  According to this school of thought, the main driver for North Korean provocations is a combination of North Korea’s own technical capabilities and internal political needs.  North Korea launches rockets and conducts nuclear tests when it is technically ready to do so, and those decisions are made with little regard for external political circumstances.  Likewise, if North Korea’s leadership identifies an exploitable South Korean vulnerability, there is little that external actors will be able to do to deter the North from taking advantage.  Since North Korea’s motivations are internally driven with little regard for the views of external actors, there are few early warning signs available to foreign observers that might be used to signal a provocation, and there is little that external actors will be able to do to prevent one.

4)      The North Korea-is-Reforming (aka Disney) School:  According to this school of thought, North Korea’s new leadership under the young Kim Jong-un has thrown away North Korea’s old playbook and understands that North Korea’s new game is not to provoke, but to move toward economic reform.  Now that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are enshrined as part of Kim Jong-il’s legacy and are reportedly written into the constitution, North Korea has nothing more to prove in any event, and the international community will just have to get over it.

The face of North Korean reform will allow North Korea to draw needed capital into the country and will “normalize” perceptions of North Korea.  A reforming North Korea would make their possession of a nuclear capability appear to be less menacing and would allow North Korea to push its agenda with the United States and its neighbors toward economic reform and peace, potentially at the expense of denuclearization.  International pressure against North Korea would be blunted, while North Korea would retain an unchecked and slowly growing nuclear weapons capability as a “deterrent” against perceived “U.S. hostility.”  The downside of this school lies with the strong conventional wisdom that North Korean reform will result in unmanageable risks and destabilization of the current system.  In which case, the specter of reform plus system collapse that is so deeply entrenched as an article of faith among most North Korea watchers might constitute North Korea’s last and biggest provocation of all.

The South Korean military has been ordered to prepare for future provocations. While North Korea watchers may speculate on DPRK’s next move, the Kim Jong-un regime can be certain of a strong ROK response. Who is ready for what? – only time will tell.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.

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