So when provocations serve your interests for building internal morale, it’s easier to manage clashes at sea as it’s less likely to escalate to full scale war or some level of violence you want to avoid. There have been efforts to negotiate and a number of rounds of talks have been held. But they failed to reach a solution and the North Koreans decided to seek military solutions to the issue—they’ve been becoming more aggressive in their military actions to resolve the maritime boundary issue to their satisfaction.
So, this issue didn’t suddenly emerge with the question of the succession. But the succession has become a focal point for the leadership to establish its nationalist credentials, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
What do you make of South Korea’s response? Do you agree with some officials’ view that the live-fire drills are unnecessarily provocative?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yes and no. I think robust military exercises are necessary, but it depends on how you do them. On the Yeonpyeong shelling specifically, there were a number of signals the North was going to do something —there were movements of artillery and troops and chatter had been picked up by intelligence sources about a military response in that area.
But the South Koreans were eager to do their own exercises as well as combined exercises with the United States, especially after the Cheonan sinking. There were so many weaknesses and problems revealed with the Cheonan that they wanted to address. Also, they had the intention of sending a signal to North Korea that they would face consequences for their provocations.
That was the intent. But one of the problems was they also needed to go to the UN Security Council. China was calling for restraint by all parties, and the US was trying to accommodate Beijing to maintain mutual cooperation on several international issues. The South Koreans were pushing a very ambitious exercise schedule, but the US had other considerations as well, including domestic bureaucratic obstacles.
I think you need to have a robust deterrent posture, but you don’t have to unnecessarily provoke the North Koreans. You already have, on the political and economic side, a policy or policies that the North Koreans have expressed their dissatisfaction about. So doing things to antagonize them—whether ideologically you think it’s right or wrong—and if this forms the basis of your relationship with North Korea, you’d better expect some provocations on their part. If you don’t think that’s coming, you’re either naïve or ignorant.
Looking ahead to the next few years, how optimistic are you about getting North Korea back to the table to talk about their nuclear programme?
I’m very pessimistic about it. A lot of smart people have been looking at this and have been going at it for almost two decades now. I just don’t see the way the current regime is structured, its policy orientation and everything else, why it would have the incentive to give up its nuclear weapon programme. So I’m very, very pessimistic about it.
Daniel Pinkston is North-east Asia Deputy Project Director with the International Crisis Group. ICG’s new report, ‘North Korea: The Risks of War in the Yellow Sea’, can be downloaded here.