North Korea appears to be laying the groundwork to begin a new round of provocations, which could very well take the form of a missile and/or nuclear test.
Despite its deliberate (and successful, in the U.S. at least) attempts to portray itself as an irrational actor, North Korea’s provocations usually follow a well-worn playbook. This begins with North Korea mounting a charm offensive that is aimed primarily at South Korean audiences. The purpose of this charm offensive is to create hope that Pyongyang could be turning over a new leaf. Amid this charm offensive, North Korea quietly demands that South Korea and/or the United States do something that Pyongyang knows full well they won’t do. When they predictably fail to meet the demand, Pyongyang insists that it is being provoked, and uses this supposed provocation to justify its brazen actions. This allows North Korea to blame its own actions on South Korea and the U.S., which can be convincing to some audiences in China, South Korea, and even the West.
North Korea has carefully put all these pieces into place over the past few weeks. First, it has launched a huge charm offensive containing more carrots than usual. For example, it has agreed to hold the first family reunions in years between Koreans living on opposite sides of the 38th Parallel. The reunions are scheduled to occur for five days starting on February 20. Important constituent groups in South Korea place a great deal of importance on these reunions, and would be extremely disappointed if they were called off.
Secondly, earlier this month an inter-Korean committee discussing the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) reached an agreement to allow some internet connectivity in the business park in North Korea. It will be the first time any internet has been allowed at KIC in a decade. In announcing the agreement, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson said, “Officials and employees in the North’s border city will be able to use most of the online services now available in South Korea.” The prospect of having the internet at KIC is attractive to the many South Korean businesses that operate there, as well as to those hoping that North Korea will gradually open up to the outside world.
Thirdly, as my colleague Ankit reported, North and South Korean officials held two rounds of talks at the border town of Panmunjom on Wednesday. The talks were held at North Korea’s request. South Korean officials said they were “pleasantly surprised” (in the words of the BBC) to receive the North’s invitation. South Korea’s delegation was led by Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Kyou-hyun, making these the most senior-level talks the two Koreas have held since 2007. Before the meeting began, NSA Kim declared, “This is an opportunity to open a new era of the Korean peninsula. I would like to attend the meeting with ‘open attitude and mind’ to study the opportunity.”
There have also been some less noticed overtures made to Japan and the United States. For example, Kyodo News Agency has reported that Japan and North Korea held talks last month in Vietnam. Tokyo immediately denied the reports, with a Shinzo Abe spokesperson saying that Japan cut off official talks with North Korea after it launched a missile over Japan in 2012. That being said, last May North Korea’s state media announced what was supposed to be a secret trip to Pyongyang by a close Shinzo Abe aide. There have also been reports that the same aide met with North Korean officials last October in northwest China. Thus, the Abe administration’s denial of the meeting in Vietnam last month cannot be taken at face value.
North Korea has been stingier toward the U.S. during this current charm offensive. That being said, it did raise expectations that it might be amenable to releasing the American-Korean prisoner Kenneth Bae, before once again shooting down that possibility. Moreover, Donald Gregg, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, is currently leading a delegation to North Korea for talks with government officials. Gregg’s trip came at the invitation of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
If all this seems too good to be true, that’s because it almost certainly is. Since at least as far back as the middle of January, North Korea has been quietly demanding that South Korea and the U.S. cancel their annual military exercise, Foal Eagle, which will begin on February 24 and run through April. This demand has grown progressively louder as the exercise’s start date nears, and North Korea has threatened to withdraw from the planned family reunions if the military exercise takes place.
As North Korea well knows, there is virtually no possibility that the U.S. and the ROK will agree to call off the exercise, which is precisely the reason it has made the demand. At most, the allies might agree to forgo some parts of the drill that the North sees as most provocative. Even then, they would only do so quietly with no formal announcement.
Pyongyang and Seoul plan to continue discussions ostensibly aimed at finding a compromise that allows for the family reunions to move forward. These are likely to be futile as North Korea almost certainly doesn’t want to find common ground, but rather wants to use the Foal Eagle exercise to blame Seoul for a breakdown in relations.
It’s possible that it may be content with stopping there. However, given how much effort it has put into the charm offensive in recent weeks, North Korea likely has a larger goal in mind. The best case scenario is that the charm offensive has been a ruse to woo China. Chinese-North Korean relations have continued to deteriorate in recent months, with some of the discord playing itself out in public. Beijing consistently urges all parties on the Peninsula to take measures that improve peace and stability, and North Korea may hope its charm offensive — along with blaming the breakdown on South Korea and the U.S. — will put it back in China’s good graces.
The more troubling scenario is that the charm offensive has been laying the groundwork for another round of provocations. If so, there have been a number of signs that suggest that it will take the form of a missile test, likely to be followed closely by the country’s fourth nuclear test. Last week Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North said satellite imagery showed that upgrades to a launching pad were nearing completion, and when finished would enable the site to launch larger rockets.
Then, on Monday, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told the National Assembly that North Korea had finished preparations for a fourth nuclear test, while adding that there were no signs that one was imminent. Still, North Korea’s nuclear tests are almost always preceded by a missile test, which North Korea disingenuously portrays as part of a peaceful space program. It then uses the international community’s “hostile” response to its space exploration to justify a nuclear test.