The Debate

North Korea’s Next Provocation: When and Why?

The current charm approach notwithstanding, there are reasons to expect a return to aggression.

Following an extended period of North Korean threats and inter-Korean tension during March and April of this year, North Korea prepared then abandoned a missile launch, opting instead to shift back to charm diplomacy. Low-level inter-Korean talks over a possible restart of Kaesong drag on, as the North Korean leadership has turned its focus toward economic improvement, and Kim Jong-un presided over an unprecedented military “fatherland victory” parade to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice in late July. But it would be a mistake to think that recent calm will be sustained.

In fact, North Korea analysts including Bruce Bechtol argue for a three-stage North Korean strategy that consists of brinkmanship, charm offensive, and renewed provocation; suggesting that the time is ripe for new North Korean provocations.  Plus, the annual U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise is scheduled for mid-August, providing North Korea with its latest pretext for testing the patience of the United States and South Korea. Certainly, the North Korean system’s seemingly inherent need for instability—and the frustrations of its current situation—provide every reason to be on guard against new provocative actions by North Korea. But exactly what sort of provocative actions should South Korea and the United States prepare to meet?

Ken Gause analyzes the situation in a new paper from CNA on North Korea’s Calculus in the Maritime Environment, in which he distinguishes between North Korean motives for covert versus overt provocations as a critical distinction in signaling of North Korean intent, and therefore, as a factor that should have a bearing on the preferred type of U.S./ROK political/military response. The main argument is that motivations for overt provocations require North Korea to justify its actions before its own people and the outside world, but that covert provocations “are almost entirely tied to internal reasons, namely leadership dynamics” for which the regime does not want to be held accountable. Since covert actions may be tied to political consolidation and not to external objectives, Gause concludes that there is no “umbrella deterrent” to North Korean provocations and urges consideration of regime intent as part of the decision on how to respond.

But Gause’s most sobering point is one that contradicts widely held conventional wisdom among U.S. analysts and policymakers that North Korea’s provocation strategy is primarily designed to frame international negotiations and to secure short-term economic concessions. Gause argues that this element of North Korean strategy (that was part of North Korean modus operandi under Kim Jong-il) has changed under Kim Jong-un toward the goal of reshaping North Korea’s relationship with the United States. Why? Because the North Koreans said so when they stated that: “the U.S. is seriously mistaken if it thinks that the DPRK had access to nukes as a bargaining chip to barter for economic reward.”

This conclusion is particularly concerning in light of the outcome of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee plenum held last March which affirmed the simultaneous development of the economy and North Korea’s nuclear program as regime priorities because it ties Kim Jong-un’s success as a leader to perpetuation of North Korea’s nuclear program. The bottom line: expect more nuclear and missile tests and/or other North Korean provocations sooner or later, because Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy and his prospects for survival may depend upon it.

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Scott A. Synder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy. He blogs at Asia Unbound where this piece originally appeared.