North Korea’s youthful leader, Kim Jong-un, might seem an unlikely candidate to outmaneuver a seasoned politician like South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Yet that’s exactly what has happened over the past month, with dangerous consequences for South Korea’s security, democracy and the U.S.-Republic of Korea (U.S.-ROK) alliance.
How it occurred is a textbook example of Pyongyang’s influence operations, wedge-driving, and political warfare, elements of foreign policy at which North Korea excels. Understanding what North Korea did will be key to reducing the likelihood of a recurrence of such gambits in the future and a reinvigorated U.S. commitment to leading its allies in cooperating to confront such propaganda maneuvers will prove essential to defeating North Korea’s strategy.
It began with a clear-eyed assessment by Pyongyang of the new South Korean administration’s ideological proclivities, political calculations, and geostrategic vulnerabilities. The North recognized that the Moon administration’s deep commitment to the goal of Korean unification, and its belief that inter-Korean dialogue is the sole means to accomplishing that vision, could be used against the South. Some elements of the Moon government’s key leadership and support base still see the peninsula’s division as fundamentally the fault of foreign powers, such as Japan and the United States, and are willing to be more forgiving of North Korea, continuing to harbor hope that the North will emerge over time as a partner with an interest in achieving peaceful reunification.
Additionally, the North realized that the Moon administration — despite having until recently enjoyed unprecedentedly high approval ratings — nonetheless puts a high priority on hosting a successful Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and regards this as critical for the South Korean leader’s popularity and legacy. For the North, this represented a vulnerability that could be manipulated to achieve key policy goals such as staving off U.S. war threats, reducing international sanctions enforcement, buying time for further weapons development, driving wedges in the U.S.–ROK alliance, and bolstering domestic regime legitimacy.
Third, the North recognized that the Moon administration has confronted a difficult foreign policy and security environment since coming to office last May. China, seeking to force South Korea to overturn its approval for the deployment of a U.S. ballistic missile defense battery, fracture the U.S.-ROK alliance, and lay down a marker that would dissuade other Asian countries from taking steps Beijing opposes, was actively waging economic warfare against Seoul.
At the same time, Seoul was suffering from the twin concerns that the United States would either abandon Seoul or start a war that would come at South Korea’s expense. In mid-2017, President Donald Trump shifted into a war of words and existential threats against the North Korean leader following Pyongyang’s de facto murder of the American student Otto Warmbier, and more recently suggestions emerged that Washington might execute a first strike on North Korea, most recently described as the “bloody nose” option. And Japan, long the bête noire of the Korean left that represents the Moon administration’s most hardcore supporters, was refusing to accept the new government’s attempts to renegotiate the purportedly “final and irreversible” 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue.
As the fall and winter of 2017 wore on and the rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korean leaders escalated into personal invective combined with intimations of pending kinetic action, the position of the popular South Korean leader grew ever more difficult. With its most important neighbors ignoring its policy initiatives, the new Moon administration was increasingly boxed in and looking for ways to halt a slide toward war. Feeling that it had no ability to influence events that could prove existentially consequential, Seoul continuously sought reassurances that Washington would not strike North Korea preemptively, but continued to worry that its ally might be planning to do exactly that. The Moon administration also arranged for a visit to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an attempt to get beyond the missile defense dispute, a visit that Beijing used to cast the South Korean leader as a humiliated supplicant.
Recognizing Seoul’s growing isolation and sense of helplessness, Pyongyang saw its opening and moved with alacrity. On January 1, Kim Jong-un used his New Year’s speech to hint at a willingness to send a North Korean delegation to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics. Mindful that Pyongyang could try to derail the games the way it attempted to in 1987 when it blew up a Korean Airlines flight ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, many Korea watchers were increasingly concerned about North Korea’s intentions towards the games.
Kim’s speech wisely flipped that narrative on its head, arguing that the two Koreas should join hands to support inter-Korean dialogue and ensure the games’ success, resulting in the “PyeongChang Peace Olympics” image that the Moon administration ardently hopes to achieve. The exact terms of the price for Pyongyang’s cooperation were left unspecified, but have proven to be high in terms of the legitimacy of the South Korean government, the U.S.- ROK alliance, and the international sanctions regime.
The North’s strategy worked, with Seoul immediately indicating its openness to accommodating Pyongyang, apparently without even consulting Washington first. The Moon administration requested that the annual U.S.-ROK Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercises — to which Pyongyang objects because they require it to expend scarce resources maintaining military readiness — be suspended or delayed. Despite claims by the Moon administration that it was clear-eyed about the North’s goals and would not allow any gaps to emerge in coordination with Washington, Seoul’s efforts to win U.S. support for this request induced substantial doubt about its willingness to sustain a coordinated strategy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” Such concerns were further aggravated by the Moon administration’s repeated decisions to focus on the negative aspects of relations with Tokyo even as it sought to appease Beijing, thereby creating two further sources of concern with Washington.
The North’s January 8 negotiations with the South on the terms of Pyongyang’s participation achieved a number of important goals for Pyongyang, while costing it little. The two Koreas marched into the Olympics together under a joint flag and field a joint women’s ice hockey team. Moreover, the South is paying for the travel, accommodations, and participation costs for the North’s 550 person athletic, coaching, and cheerleading delegation, a move that requires Seoul to bend the rules on international sanctions preventing any transfer of resources to the North Korean regime, including transferring fuel to the ship that the majority of the North Korean delegation arrived on. The North’s delegation will be headed by Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state, despite South Korea’s own constitution claiming that Seoul is the sole legitimate government on the peninsula.
Pyongyang also humiliated the Moon administration by sending Kim Jong-un’s purported ex-girlfriend Hyon Song-wol to inspect the facilities that the South was offering to host the North in; Hyon reportedly complained that the facilities were insufficiently opulent to meet the North’s standards. The South Korean government purportedly took substantial steps to muzzle South Korea’s freewheeling media and protect Hyon from criticism; despite this, the North still harangued the Moon administration for permitting its press to suggest that Hyon was once a paramour of the potentate of Pyongyang.
The North’s strategy not only succeeded in raising concerns in Washington and Tokyo about the Moon administration’s reliability and judgment; it also coincided with the steepest drop in the South Korean president’s domestic approval rating since he took office. This was most apparent with younger voters aged 40 and under, among whom there is a low and declining level of interest in reunification with the North and a suspicion of South Korean politicians who believe in prioritizing relations between the two Koreas over pocketbook issues and security ties.
It is clear that the North is using the Olympics as a stage to promote two key propaganda messages. Pyongyang’s first message is that it is a peace-loving regime that has sought nuclear weapons solely for deterrence and wants nothing more than security and reunification. Such a message appeals to South Koreans on the left who believe that if only the United State would stop threatening North Korea and preventing Koreans from solving their own problems, the two sides could work things out amicably. This message seeks to drive a wedge in the U.S.- ROK alliance. At the same time, the North staged a major military parade in Pyongyang on February 8; on display were its new intercontinental ballistic missiles intended to convey the message that in addition to being able to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” and “sink” Japan, North Korea can now reduce the U.S. homeland to “ashes and darkness” if provoked.
U.S. policymakers continue to debate how much time remains before North Korea’s nuclear breakout becomes impossible to roll back. This debate has pitted those who argue the merits of deterrence plus crippling sanctions against those who believe a limited “bloody nose” strike intended to degrade or destroy the North’s nuclear architecture while leaving the regime in place and forcing it to negotiate away the remainder of its nuclear and ballistic missile architecture from a position of enhanced U.S. strength.
Both sides argue that the other side is accepting too much risk. Advocates of a strike argue that sanctions haven’t worked and that the North will continue to grow its arsenal; proliferate nuclear technology to other actors such as Iran, Islamic State, or al-Qaeda; or employ it as a shield behind which it can initiate conventional attacks on the South without fear of U.S. reprisals, thereby breaking the alliance. Those who argue against the notion of a limited strike recognize these risks but believe carrying out attacks on the North would precipitate a nuclear exchange and bring about the worst-case scenario (or at least make it more likely that the North would use its weapons or proliferate them).
Yet it is critical that U.S. analysts recognize that — for the North at least — warfare is not simply a matter of kinetic action that destroys enemy targets; political warfare is just as real and is constantly ongoing. At a time when many national security experts around the world are focused on the problem of clandestine influence operations, it’s worth remembering that traditional diplomatic gambits can also constitute important and powerful tools for changing the regional security picture. The North, in employing just such a diplomatic strategy, has already exacted damage on the target of United States and allied trust in the South Korean administration’s reliability; perhaps more importantly, Pyongyang has struck at the Moon administration’s relationship with its own populace, driving down the trust of the South Korean people in their government’s judgement.
In order to counter the North’s political warfare strategy, Washington could seek to ensure that the United States, South Korea, and Japan remained closely aligned. One option could be to revive the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group that was set-up in the mid-1990s when North Korea’s nuclear program came to light and use it to ensure close cooperation among the three parties; indeed, there have been some hints that Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Japan and South Korea may attempt to bring the three sides closer together.
Seoul and Tokyo are unlikely to initiate such a move on their own, and will require their U.S. ally to exert leadership. Such a move might help counteract North Korean efforts to undermine South Korea’s stability, fracture the U.S.-ROK alliance, and frustrate Northeast Asian cooperation aimed at deterring or defeating North Korean aggression.
Washington could also urge Tokyo and Seoul to regularly signal their solidarity with each other in the face of North Korea’s threats, even if continuing tensions over history and territorial disputes linger. Washington could also urge Seoul to ensure that its own moves do not undermine international sanctions or induce doubt about South Korea’s commitment to the strategy of putting maximum pressure on the North.
The United States and its allies hold the upper hand in terms of capabilities, power, resilience, and influence. So long as they cooperate closely and avoid falling into divisive traps laid for them by the North, Pyongyang will not be able to succeed at playing the three parties off one another so as to enable its own nuclear breakout.
Scott W. Harold is associate director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty.