This Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used an odd measure of assessing diplomatic success with North Korea. He implied that the fact that North Korea is “quieter” now than it was last year implies that the United States has made some progress with Northeast Asia’s irascible rogue state: “I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the denuclearization, but we are working on that and moving forward.”
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the extent to which North Korea is silent — or loud for that matter — tells us anything about where it stands diplomatically with its foes and what its short-term intentions are. Kerry’s remarks were likely inspired by the sharp uptick in violent rhetoric emanating from the North last spring. Back then, North Korea was threatening all-out war, an end to the 1953 ceasefire, and promising the annihilation of the South. Pyongyang additionally threatened to nullify the joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; it later also threatened to restart its Yongbyon nuclear complex. This was also roughly the time when Pyongyang threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. Some of these threats were inspired by the 2013 U.S.-South Korea annual Foal Eagle exercise. The rest of them were arbitrary, designed to help Kim Jong-un consolidate power and appear strong.
The problem with Kerry’s yardstick for measuring how successful the international community is at working with North Korea is that there is really no way to tell what Pyongyang is planning at this point. Silence does not indicate that North Korea has been placated any more than it tells us that it is planning a nuclear test for this weekend. Furthermore, in general, it’s not quite true that Pyongyang has been quiet this year. It protested the 2014 Foal Eagle exercise between the U.S. and South Korea with the same vigor that it did last year. True, it did cooperate with South Korea on the issue of family reunions earlier this year and may be sending athletes to participate in the 2014 Asian Games in Seoul. At the same time, it has continued to conduct ballistic missile tests, condemn the United States and South Korea, and shows no signs of slowing down its nuclear program.
Furthermore, according to the Wall Street Journal, North Korea has fired around 100 missiles just over the past few months. It has additionally continuously presented the international community with threatening rhetoric to match its kinetic provocations. North Korea’s National Defense Commission, the apex political body in the country, issued a statement the same day Kerry made his comments, blasting international criticism of its ballistic missile tests: “The self-defensive deterrent forces of the DPRK will keep themselves fully ready to punish all undesirable forces in the world.”
It is apparent that North Korea remains a threat to international security. To be fair to Kerry, he does note that there is a long way to go on the denuclearization issue. Diplomacy can succeed with time, but rhetorical silence from Pyongyang represents little worth celebrating.