North Korea: To Talk or To Provoke?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

North Korea: To Talk or To Provoke?


At the end of August the U.S. and South Korea conducted their joint military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian (August 19-30), a drill Pyongyang views as a rehearsal for war. North Korea was notably restrained during the entire episode.

Before the drills began, some North Korea watchers were concerned Pyongyang might use them to return to confrontational behavior, despite an August 14 deal with Seoul to normalize operations at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex. This agreement had given many experts hope that inter-Korean talks would be the springboard to eventual talks with the U.S. and continued dialogue. Pyongyang continued the charm offensive when it agreed to cross-border family reunions on September 25, although this gesture was likely aimed at restarting tours to Mount Kumkang, a guaranteed source of much-needed hard currency for the North.

Byeongjinnoseon and North Korea’s Charm Offensive

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These events raise the question of why North Korea is pursuing a charm offensive at this time? No one can be certain, but one potential answer is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon (“parallel route”), or strategic line, introduced last March with the aim of simultaneously pursuing nuclear and economic development.

While it appears Kim Jong-un is trying to put his stamp on the strategic line, it is in fact not a new concept.

The original concept of byeongjinnoseon dates back to his grandfather and founder of the North Korean regime, Kim Il-sung. It was first raised during a 1962 Workers Party Central Committee meeting at a time when Kim Il-sung was seeking to build a home-grown military defense and economy, instead of relying on what he reportedly viewed as an unreliable Soviet Union and China for regime security. Byeongjinnoseon was apparently adopted officially in 1966 and became the North’s basic guideline. Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon also seems to be the method by which to achieve his late father’s dying injunction of building North Korea into a “mighty and prosperous nation” (gangseongdaeguk) in 2012, which the young Kim seems to have downgraded for now to “powerful state” (gangseonggukka).

Contrary to conventional wisdom and his decades-old tyrannical image, Kim Jong-il’s dying wish apparently also included economic prosperity, according to Kim Jong-un’s March 2013 Workers Party Central Committee speech.

Thus, the young Kim seems to have taken a decades-old policy of parallel military and economic development, and repackaged it to include nuclear development. In doing so, he apparently aims to establish his own legacy while fulfilling the goals of his two predecessors.

Will Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon succeed? He may have no choice but to try to make it work.

This doesn’t herald an end to provocations from Pyongyang. It also doesn’t mean the world won’t see continued activity at North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, just as the latest news points to satellite imagery of resumed operations at the Yongbyon 5 MW research reactor. Rather, it suggests that the Kim Jong-un regime may alternate between pursuing the nuclear and economic tracks, or both paths simultaneously, depending on which route is more advantageous to the regime at any given time. 

Provocations are an integral component of North Korean tactics, and history has shown that they are a matter of time and circumstance. Indeed, North Korea has every technical and political reason to continue nuclear and missile tests, as well as both domestic and international political interests in periodically provoking.

For the time being, however, Pyongyang may opt to stick with its charm offensive as a way of advancing the economic track of the new strategic line and managing international relations. After all, Kim Jong-un already established his “national security” credentials, beginning with a series of missiles launches and the country’s third nuclear test. Besides enhancing Kim’s credibility with important domestic audiences, Pyongyang may believe these actions have also put it in a more “powerful” position for negotiations, further enhancing the attractiveness of engagement at this time. Thus it may be feeling freer to pursue diplomacy, resulting in the Kaesong agreement (despite the difficulties implementation will entail) and agreeing to family reunions. 

South Korea’s Trustpolitik

Under President Park Geun-hye, South Korea has adopted a vision of trustpolitik, which aims to create a process that leads to a rapprochement, denuclearization and peace via trust-building measures. Already, doubts are being raised as to whether it is a viable and sustainable solution to solving the long-standing rivalry with Pyongyang.

Still, party platform and politics aside, it is notable that trustpolitik is the only vehicle that exists among the five parties, and Washington may piggyback on it until the White House devises a real denuclearization strategy of its own. At present, no one has an alternative solution.

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