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North Korea Changes Its Tune (Again)

A look at how Pyongyang backed away from its latest provocation, and what that might mean for the future.

By Ulv Hanssen for
North Korea Changes Its Tune (Again)
Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

After capturing the world’s attention by threatening “warmongers” in the U.S. and South Korea with “thermonuclear war” and by unilaterally shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, North Korea gradually toned down its bellicose rhetoric and eventually all but disappeared from the radar
of the international community. But anyone who follows the news of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA, North Korea’s official news outlet aimed at an international audience) on a daily basis will have noticed a recent rhetorical shift in the usually flamboyant articles. The daily Japan bashing and the reprimands against the U.S. presence in South Korea are still there. However since approximately the beginning of August the language toward its Southern neighbor changed almost beyond recognition. Not only did the KCNA refrain from referring to South Korea in derogatory terms, it embarked on a charm offensive which almost bordered to desperation for dialogue and negotiation.

The realization of the colossal miscalculation of using the actual shutdown of Kaesong, rather than the threat of a shutdown, as a bargaining chip is most likely the main reason behind Pyongyang’s change of tone, but the fact that North Korea’s latest provocation was met with “strategic patience” by the Obama administration and overt dissatisfaction by Beijing might have taken North Korea by surprise, as this broke the familiar pattern of fence-mending responses. In the end, North Korea was left with an even more tarnished reputation and a defunct industrial complex which until then had benefited the North far more than the South. For hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un, only 30 years old and surrounded by skeptical veterans, this disastrous outcome must have felt like a dangerous blow to his credibility as a leader.

As inter-Korean trade plummeted to its lowest level since the Sunshine Policy was enacted some 15 years ago—despite a new South Korean president who was actually willing to deal with North Korea on relatively friendly terms—the leadership in Pyongyang belatedly realized their mistake. Pyongyang’s atonement attempts have been reflected almost daily in the articles by the KCNA in the month of August. Acknowledgement of its provocation failure is particularly evidenced by three often reoccurring tendencies in the KCNA articles in August: an almost desperate eagerness to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex; a complete absence of direct criticism of the ongoing U.S.-South Korea joint military drill Ulchi Freedom-Guardian; and an attempt to improve its international image by presenting itself as a “peace-loving state.”

Calling for Cooperation

Just a cursory glance at the KCNA’s headlines throughout August reveals Pyongyang’s newfound desire for cooperation with the South. Take these mid-August headlines: “Rodong Sinmun [Workers” Newspaper] Calls for Mending North-South Relations,” “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Improving Relations with S. Korea through Dialogue” and “Rodong Sinmun Calls for North-South Dialogue, Cooperation.” Add to them countless calls for unity and reunification: “Rodong Sinmun Calls on Koreans to Turn Out in Efforts to Achieve Reunification” (August 13), “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Ending National Division” (August 14), “All Koreans Called upon to Bring Future in Unity” (August 15), “Opening Up New Phase of Reconciliation, Unity Called for” (August 15).

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These headlines are a far cry from those of March and April which among other things warned of “retaliatory action […] without any notice” and “powerful sledge-hammer blows” against the South (April 16, “KPA Supreme Command Sends Ultimatum to S. Korean Puppet Forces”). When the two Koreas finally came to an agreement on the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on August 14, the KCNA stated that normalization of operations “will bring joy to all compatriots aspiring after reconciliation, cooperation, reunification and improved inter-Korean relations” (August 14, “7th Round of North-South Working-level Talks Held”). The restoration of one of the North’s biggest legitimate foreign currency earners was certainly a good reason to jump for joy.

Turning a Blind Eye to U.S.-South Korean Military Exercises

Fierce North Korean protests against the Ulchi Freedom-Guardian military drill have been so regular since the drill was initiated in 1976 that they could almost be taken as a sure sign of autumn. In 2011, the KCNA labeled the drill as “extremely provocative and aggressive” and warned that “it is self- evident that the DPRK should put spurs to bolstering its nuclear deterrent for self-defence both in quality and quantity to cope with this situation” (August 17, “Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry Slams Ulji Freedom Guardian”). And in 2012 it stated that “if they wage the reckless war games to invade the DPRK and even a single shell is dropped on its inviolable territory or waters, its revolutionary armed forces will deal a deadly counter-strike at them and wipe out the aggressors from this land through a nationwide holy war” (August 19, “DPRK Institutions Condemn Ulji Freedom Guardian Exercises Projected in S. Korea”).

Given the menacing language by Pyongyang in March and April one would expect nothing less this year than a response in similar fashion to the above examples. This has so far not been the case. In fact, not only has North Korea toned down its criticism in August, it has eliminated it. Almost. KCNA still prints indirect criticism in the form of reports of anti-exercise movements by non-DPRK actors such as “Projected Ulji Freedom Guardian Condemned in S. Korea” (August 16), “Anti-War Actions Staged in S. Korea” (August 20), “Ulji Freedom Guardian Denounced in South Korea” (August 20), and “U.S.- S. Korea Military Drills Denounced by British Organizations” (August 23). However no articles contained direct criticism by North Korean agencies. This may not seem like a big deal, but given North Korea’s documented sensitivity to these (and other) U.S.-South Korean military exercises, North Korea’s silence on this occasion speaks volumes. It is worth remembering that as recently as in 2010 Pyongyang cited a U.S.-South Korea joint exercise as its reason for shelling Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Koreans, including two civilians. Silence was by no means a given or an insignificant outcome.

North Korea, the Peace-Loving State

A third trait of the KCNA news coverage in August is the tendency to appeal for peace and to identify North Korea as the frontrunner in the march toward peace. The leadership in Pyongyang has undoubtedly realized that the fruitless provocations in March and April served little other purpose than to taint an already abysmal international image. In an apparent attempt to redeem itself North Korea now seeks to transmit a new image of itself as a “peace-loving state.” This shift is very apparent in the KCNA headlines of August which read, “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Creating Peaceful Environment” (August 12), “Aspiring after Peace Is DPRK’s Consistent Foreign Policy: News Analyst” (August 13), “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Replacing Armistice by Lasting Peace” (August 16), “DPRK Makes Consistent Efforts for Peace” (August 17), “Peaceful Environment Is Prerequisite for Nation’s Prosperity: News Analyst” (August 19), and “Independence, Peace and Friendship Are Avowed Idea of DPRK’s Foreign Policy: Rodong Sinmun” (August 23).

This rhetorical about-face was moreover accompanied by a hefty dose of exceptionalism in that Koreans were singled out as the world’s most peace-loving people (who were frequently differentiated from American and Japanese “imperialists”). For example, the August 16 article stated that “the Korean people love peace more than any others and the DPRK is a peace-loving state which regards it as the main tenet of its foreign policy to preserve peace. Its socialist policy is peace-loving in its nature.” The August 19 article similarly stressed the exceptionalism of the Koreans” desire for peace: “the lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula are the cherished desire of the Korean nation. No nation has craved for peace and stability so much as the Korean nation which has had its cradle of life being reduced to the theatre of scramble by outside invaders.”

So, here we are again.

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Another so-called provocation cycle has run its course and Pyongyang is now “magnanimously” (a pet phrase of the KCNA as of late) turning its other cheek. How should South Korea respond without falling into the infamous pitfalls of broken commitments and reoccurrence of enmity?

First, Seoul should be cool-headed both in times of confrontation and in times of détente. The Park Geun-hye government should therefore be applauded for its ability to strike a determined balance between panic and overexcitement during and after the latest crisis. Park’s decision to publicly announce that the government would compensate the 123 South Korean companies which were denied access to the Kaesong Industrial Complex for financial losses took Pyongyang by surprise and thoroughly drove home the point that South Korea was prepared to abandon the project permanently. This was probably the last thing North Korea wanted, and its tone immediately turned more conciliatory.

In addition, Park’s decision to compromise on protocol issues, such as the agreement’s wording, the negotiators’ rank and the location for negotiations, was key to the success of the reopening agreement on August 14, as such issues have been detrimental to countless talks in the past. Park got what she wanted; a guarantee that North Korea would not shut down the complex due to political reasons in the future (Park cleverly chose to ignore the fact that the agreement stipulated that both parties were responsible for preventing future shutdowns). Why should South Korea trust North Korea on this point? Because North Korea has much more to lose from a permanent closure than the South has. Now that Pyongyang has realized that the Park administration is willing to abandon Kaesong if it has to, it will certainly think twice before repeating past mistakes. The final outcome of the seven rounds of negotiations has undoubtedly decreased North Korea’s leverage in Kaesong. If we didn’t know it before, it is now obvious that the North’s occasional threats of shutting down Kaesong permanently are empty.

What about the bigger issues? Now that North Korea depicts itself as “peace-loving” and cooperation-seeking, can we expect progress on for example the nuclear issue? Most likely not. North Korea’s rhetoric as presented in the KCNA is notoriously volatile, sometimes shifting from threats to rapprochement in a matter of days. What is unique about the current volte-face is its magnitude rather than its content. North Korea suddenly changed its language on two principal issues (the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Ulchi Freedom-Guardian exercise), and spiced it up with “peace-loving” self-depictions for good measure. This should first and foremost be interpreted as a North Korean acknowledgement that its recent bluster was a failure. And a dangerous one at that, as China demonstrated an unprecedented degree of irritation, publicly stating that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” Even without an explicit reference to North Korea, this must have caused great concern in Pyongyang.

The realization that its tried and tested provocations no longer work as a bargaining chip could lead to two different outcomes besides the obvious option of status quo. The first is a nightmarish scenario in which North Korea feels that it has to up the intensity of its provocations in order to get what it wants. In the second, more desirable scenario, it comes to understand that integration with the outside world is in its interests. Unfortunately neither scenario necessarily entails denuclearization. The North has invested too much in the acquisition of nuclear weapons to trade them away. Being accepted as a nuclear power has become a goal in itself, and this goal is not likely to disappear even in the wishful event of political reform and economic integration.

Acknowledgement of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state is unacceptable to the rest of the world. But even though denuclearization is likely to remain off limits in negotiations with Pyongyang in the unforeseeable future, this does not render negotiations and cooperation with the North meaningless. As Andrei Lankov pointed out in a recent interview, “when North and South Korea interact economically there are far fewer military clashes and serious confrontations.” This goes for other nations as well. Even the far more pessimistic Victor Cha concedes in his latest book that negotiations with goals short of denuclearization have merit: “if the choice is between dealing with a dictator with a runaway nuclear weapons program or one with a program capped and under international monitoring, the latter surely serves U.S. and Asian interests better.”

It is also worth remembering that Kim Jong-un has been in power less than two years. Despite the breakdown of the U.S.-North Korea “leap day deal” in February 2012, it is still worthwhile to carefully test the waters, particularly after the flop of the most recent provocation and the subsequent change of tone. However, a disclaimer is always needed: Negotiators should be careful about taking North Korea’s rosy rhetorical shift at face value and North Korea’s sincerity should always be measured by its deeds rather than its words.

Ulv Hanssen is a Research assistant at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (East Asia Program).