Making Sense of the Korean Shelling
Like most foreign policy geeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what motivated North Korea to trigger one of the most dramatic confrontations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 a few days ago.
Here is my short analysis of the situation thus far, with two caveats: 1) I don’t claim to have any special knowledge of North Korea beyond what I’ve read, studied and heard others say; 2) the extent to which one can make sense of the actions of a hermetic and unpredictable regime like Pyongyang, needless to say, is quite limited.
It is tempting to read the skirmish as simply a response by an irritated North Korea. According to most press reports, North Korea warned South Korea to halt military drills near their sea border, and only began shelling when Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters (but away from the North Korean shore). I don’t think this argument holds up though. South Korea holds such exercises four times every year, and confrontations have not occurred on such a level previously. Why did they occur this time?
Furthermore, most analysts who have studied North Korean behavior for years insist that Pyongyang is a remarkably strategic actor, and thus tend to ascribe more strategic motivations to the incident beyond just a reaction to alleged South Korean provocations (see here for commentary from experts Victor Cha and the Fletcher School’s own Professor Sung-Yoon Lee).
In this vein, I think the first North Korean motive was to use the incident as part of an effort to burnish the credentials of Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un, who is still in his mid-20s amidst an ongoing succession process. From this perspective, the revelation of a new, surprisingly advanced uranium enrichment plant a few days ago, combined with the brazen shelling, could be central to building a personality cult of a futuristic and brave leader committed to strengthening the nation’s technological and military prowess. After all, the untested and inexperienced Kim Junior no doubt needs something to earn the respect of the country’s military.
But the particular timing of the incident suggests to me that the succession explanation alone is insufficient. The provocation occurred just as U.S. special envoy for North Korea (and my current dean) Stephen Bosworth was planning to visit the region, days after the unveiling of a new uranium enrichment program, and a week after the North Korean government told a team of visiting experts that it was willing to effectively dismantle one of its nuclear weapons programs if Washington again pledged that it had “no hostile intent” toward the current government.
Piece all those things together and I think this is partly Pyongyang’s way of telling the United States that it is interested in bilateral talks, and that the status quo of ‘containing’ the North Korean threat will not work since it will otherwise continue to bolster its nuclear program and destabilize the Korean Peninsula through its traditional path of brinkmanship. While this mixture of intimidation, revelations and airing of new deals may fall right in line with the pattern of North Korean behavior as others have suggested, U.S. officials have indicated that this North Korean offer was “unusually explicit”.
Of course, the fact that North Korea is simply ‘interested’ in talks alone may not in and of itself inspire a lot of enthusiasm about the situation in the Korean Peninsula given the regime’s history of duplicity. What is clear to me though is that there are few good options going forward to deal with a nation that escalates provocations to the most dangerous levels if ignored and extracts concessions with a sketchy record of honoring its side of the bargain if engaged (as a South Korean report concluded a week ago). I’m guessing the Obama administration will continue to urge all sides to exercise restraint, demonstrate solidarity with its South Korean ally, attempt to lean on China to pressure North Korea, and perhaps at least consider Pyongyang’s proposals for talks. I wouldn’t expect sunshine anytime soon.
Photo: BBC News