The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

A Guide to North Korea’s Crisis Playbook

The current “crisis” in inter-Korean relations follows a similar pattern from Pyongyang.

By Khang Vu for
A Guide to North Korea’s Crisis Playbook
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On June 6, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatened to pull out of an inter-Korean military accord, withdraw from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and abolish the joint liaison office if South Korea failed to stop its citizens from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border. On June 9, North Korea cut off all channels of communication with South Korea, including the inter-Korean military communication hotline, the inter-Korean general hotline, and the hotline between the leaders of the two countries. A week later, the North made good on Kim Yo Jong’s threat and demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. The North has also declared the South to be an “enemy,” refused to participate in future inter-Korean talks, and vowed to develop its nuclear weapons. The cooperative spirit of the 2018 summits are over.

Scholars quickly noted that North Korea’s latest provocations are meant to manufacture a crisis in order to pressure the South and the United States to make concessions. However, there has been little effort to dissect what a North Korean artificial crisis consists of and how we can distinguish costly signals from cheap talk. Remember that North Korea issued a threat during the period of détente a year ago – the 2019 end-of-year deadline and the “Christmas gift.” Many policymakers and scholars at the time were afraid that Pyongyang would test a nuclear weapon or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in December. North Korea fortunately did not carry out those threats. Still, the failure to understand the elements of Pyongyang’s crisis manufacturing can unnecessary raise tensions and fall into North Korea’s trap.

A North Korean manufactured crisis has three elements. First, the threat is high-stakes, meaning Pyongyang threatens what the United States and South Korea value most. Second, the threat is short-term, during which Pyongyang imposes a deadline and undertakes actions that are reversible. And third, the actions to be taken after the threat are unclear. North Korea can either carry out those threats or let them pass without repercussions. These elements are not costly signaling because they neither tie Pyongyang’s hands nor force it to incur sunk cost. As a result, North Korea can issue threats whenever it wants without any fears of a long-last negative impact on its charm offensive. Examining North Korea’s 2019 threats based on these elements should help illuminate the current artificial crisis.

One month after the Hanoi summit ended in disappointment, North Korea declared that unless the United States changed its negotiating stance before the end of 2019, Pyongyang would not seek another summit. After working-level talks at Stockholm did not lead to any breakthroughs, Kim Jong Un added that he would send a “Christmas gift” to the United States, but the content of the present depended on what Washington could offer. Around the same time, Kim threatened to demolish the symbols of inter-Korean relations at the Mount Kumgang Resort, and called upon his military and diplomats to prepare for unspecified “offensive measures” as the end-of-year deadline loomed.

North Korea’s 2019 threats follow the aforementioned pattern. First, its threats were high-stakes. U.S. President Donald Trump valued his personal diplomacy with Kim and North Korea’s self-imposed nuclear and missile moratorium. By refusing to meet with Trump and hinting at “offensive measures,” Kim put Trump in a passive position and tried to force the United States to choose between either making concessions or living with Pyongyang’s nuclear and ICBM tests. The fact that South Korea President Moon Jae-in was seeking to reopen Kumgang in 2019 also explained Kim’s threats to demolish the resort — even though such a move would be counterproductive, since it would hurt any prospects of resuming inter-Korean tourism and other joint projects. Kim thus was putting maximum pressure on Moon to honor his commitment in the 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration to reopen Kaesong and Kumgang even in the absence of significant international sanctions relief. This move fits North Korea’s general strategy to detach South Korea from the United States by creating sanctions policy dissonance between the two allies.

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Second, North Korea’s threats were short-term and raised a great sense of uncertainty. Research has shown that people prefer the present if the future is unclear; to avoid this uncertainty, individuals will accept immediate gains and losses. After the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang likely perceived that the United States would not bring any new deals to the table if there was not any pressure for it to do so. Thus, the country’s end-of-year deadline aimed at shortening the amount of time the United States had to come up with a new calculation and creating a sense of urgency. The deadline delineated a clear line between the present and the future. If the United States wanted to avoid an uncertain future, it would be more likely to accept losses now, which was to yield to Pyongyang’s demands. Moreover, Pyongyang’s deadline was reversible, meaning it did not leave a long-lasting impact. If North Korea let the deadline pass without any provocations, there would not be any sharp breaks between now and the future.

Third, North Korea’s threats were vague and left many options on the table regardless of outcomes. Despite the harsh rhetoric, North Korea never explicitly said that it would test an ICBM or a nuclear device. Its “offensive measures” were open to different interpretations. Combined with a sense of urgency and high-stakes outcomes, it is not hard to understand why such vagueness would automatically translate in many minds to a return to North Korea’s “fire and fury.” Pyongyang only went so far as to suggest it would no longer abide by the moratorium. Still, it is important to note that so long as North Korea does not test long-range missiles or nuclear weapons, the moratorium technically holds. Here, Pyongyang can claim that it refrains from ICBM testing due to a list of other reasons not associated with its promised moratorium with the United States. The result of such ambiguity is that North Korea kept the negotiation track open with the United States in 2020 without losing face even though Washington did not acquiesce to North Korea’s demands.

North Korea’s latest threats should be taken seriously, though not with a sense of desperation. Similar to its 2019 threats, North Korea’s denunciation of further talks with the United States and South Korea as well as its hint at a “new strategic weapon” are high-stakes. North Korea implies that it will take away Trump’s North Korea policy success by breaking the moratorium and shuns Moon’s attempt to preserve the Korean détente. Its moves to cut inter-Korean hotlines and abolish the liaison office are reversible but directly hurt Moon’s championed symbols of his North Korea policy. Finally, Pyongyang’s pledge to develop a nuclear deterrent and threats to disrupt the U.S. presidential election are vague and open to many interpretations. North Korea simply can choose what to do next independently of the United States and South Korea’s responses. If North Korea issues another deadline, it is likely that the playbook will not be different from that of last year.

This guide is based on the assumption that North Korea is still committed to its charm offensive and that the motive behind the threats is to drive a hard bargain within a framework of engagement. However, the moment Pyongyang strays from the three elements, for instance undertaking an irreversible and costly move such as testing an ICBM that can reliably re-enter the atmosphere, we can be certain that North Korea is no longer invested in engagement with the United States and South Korea. In the meantime, it is important to dissect North Korea’s threats to better gauge its intentions. Based on Pyongyang’s moves so far, South Korea and the United States should stick to dialogue rather than confrontation.

Khang Vu is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department at Boston College.