North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.
1. Goaded into Conflict?
The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished North Korea would pull some stunt so that South Korea would finally give North Korea the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.
In fact, this is why I think the language this time is so over-the-top, such as nuking the U.S. homeland directly. Because North Korea has such a rich history of extreme rhetoric, they must be more and more extreme in each crisis, or no one will pay attention to them. North Korea is the boy who cried wolf. So many threats about a “sea of fire” in Seoul and “merciless” strikes against imperialism pass with no follow-through that no one listens anymore. If you have seen any of the Korean-man-on-the-street interviews in the media, again and again South Koreans say it is no big deal, they are not really paying attention, and so on. Hence, only more and more outrageous North Korean talk will get our attention.
The danger here is that this may paint North Korea into a rhetorical corner where they must lash out – not because they actually want to, but because their credibility as a player in the region, as well as before a riled-up domestic audience, will require some follow-up to tough talk. For example, the North Korea Central New Agency (KNCA) has said that North Korean teenagers are swarming into recruitment stations in eager anticipation of smashing the Yankee Colony (South Korea). If public opinion is whipped up like this, does it not require some kind of outlet? All the nationalist hysteria stoked by Pyongyang has to go somewhere. In China, the party lets students raise havoc at Japanese facilities as steam control. What will North Korea do with its now-energized population? Are dreary “mobilizations” for the coming planting season really a substitute for military action after months of tough talk? This is why I think some sort of provocation is likely; a missile test seems likely, but will that be enough?
The Kaesong closure, I believe, demonstrates this rhetorical entrapment problem. As North Korean war-talk reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks, the South Korean media responded with derision, saying we’ve heard all this before, they don’t mean it, it’s all just talk. If the North did mean it, they would take action that showed a real willingness to incur costs for this feud, specifically, closing Kaesong. (Closing the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial zone is costly, because the South Korean companies that operate there do not pay their North Korean employees directly, but the regime, and in dollars. So it is huge cash cow for the otherwise hard currency-poor North.) So contemptuous was the Southern commentary, that the DPRK foreign ministry released a hyperbolic counter-statement decrying exactly this commentary and threatening to close Kaesong. A short time later, they did.