John Nilsson-Wright
Head, Asia Programme

North Korea's latest set of provocations including its warning that it cannot guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats in Pyongyang in the event of a conflict, its recent deployment of two medium-range missile barriers to its east coast, the temporary withdrawal of all North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and now a warning that foreign residents of South Korea should be readying their evacuation plans, have all led to intensified fears in the region that the peninsula may be inching perilously closer to full-blown war. 

Notwithstanding this growing sense of unease, the mood on the Seoul street remains remarkably calm. Ordinary South Koreans go about their business, apparently oblivious to the looming nuclear-armed threat some 30 miles north of the South Korean capital. Part of this reflects the long history of living with a neighbour that routinely deploys such uncompromising and hostile rhetoric, as well as the assumption that North Korea’s leaders are, contrary to the cartoon-like imagery sometimes found in the international media, rational actors who know full-well that any direct attack on the South would be tantamount to national suicide. 

History largely supports the assumption that the North (with the exception of the Korean war itself) has stopped short of invasion, while nonetheless seeking routinely to destabilize and antagonize its neighbour. Pyongyang has a well-established track record of using strategic provocations to try and extort concessions – whether political or economic – from the international community. The most recent cases of this were in November 2010 when it shelled the South Korea island of Yeonpyeongdo, and in March 2010 when it appeared deliberately to have sunk a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

What does North Korea want?

The goal in this crisis, as in the past, has been to advance a number of objectives. By fostering a sense of crisis with the outside world, the North hopes to create a siege-mentality at home and unify its domestic population squarely behind its inexperienced 29-year old leader, Kim Jong-un. Since taking over from his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, the new leader has been the subject of a carefully calibrated public campaign to present him as a near-omniscient national saviour and military genius, part of a family lineage that has its origins in the ‘partisan state’ founded in 1948 through a war of national liberation against the former Japanese colonial occupiers. 

Provoking and sustaining a crisis is also an opportunity for the North to justify its recent decision to reopen its plutonium and uranium-based facilities at Yongbyon. By doing this, the North can hope, within perhaps as little as six months, to begin converting spent fuel into fissile material that can be used to build more nuclear weapons, thereby expanding its strategic weapons-of-mass-destruction arsenal beyond its existing complement of some half-a-dozen crude nuclear devices.

Alongside these domestically-oriented goals, Pyongyang appears to have a broader international objective. It wants to express its irritation and opposition to the new, tougher sanctions, embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 2094. It also is expressing its opposition towards the large scale joint US-ROK Foal Eagle military exercises that have been taking place on and around the peninsula.  

Time to change tack?

Above all, North Korea wants to engage the US in direct talks designed to enhance the North’s status as a legitimate, independent sovereign state, while also prising open the door to further concessions from the West. This is something that the Obama administration, wedded to a policy of 'strategic patience' where the North is concerned, has resolutely refused to do for fear of appearing to reward Pyongyang for its bad behaviour. From Obama’s perspective, the Kim administration must first seriously demonstrate its willingness to freeze and ultimately abandon its nuclear programme, before it is willing to embark on substantive talks.

Yet as the crisis intensifies and Pyongyang threatens to launch further provocations, it is unclear how long the Americans can maintain their conditional approach. With some diplomatic agility, the North has been trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Last week, North Korean diplomats at the DPRK's UN delegation in New York reportedly convened an unusual meeting with a South Korean reporter, at which they indicated their desire to begin a dialogue with the new conservative administration of Park Geun-hye in Seoul. Such discussions would be an opportunity, according to the North Koreans, to reactivate the provisions of the June 15 Declaration announced at the historic 2000 summit meeting in Pyongyang between the late ROK president Kim Dae-jung and his then counterpart in the North, Kim Jong-il. The Declaration makes, among a number of provisions, a long-term commitment to promoting the unification of the peninsula, as well as measures to strengthen bilateral economic ties. 

Seoul’s susceptibility to such talks is potentially a point of difference between Presidents Obama and Park. While the new ROK leader has firmly backed military deterrence in preventing any direct attacks from the North – a point reinforced by the deployment of US B52 and B2 stealth bombers and F22 stealth fighters to the region – she has also, as part of her policy of 'trustpolitik' towards Pyongyang, been willing to provide unconditional humanitarian assistance to the North while hinting at a closer economic and political dialogue between the two Koreas. 

If dividing the US and ROK administrations is one of the North’s objectives, it does not, so far, appear to be working. Despite calls from opposition and some governing party politicians in the South for direct talks with the North or the despatch to Pyongyang of an international representative, such as Ban-ki Moon, Park is maintaining a calm, but firm posture, carefully avoiding contributing to an escalating war of words with the North.

Attention seeking

Notwithstanding Seoul’s measured response, there is also a danger that if the North is unable to persuade the Americans to talk, that Kim Jong-un will order ever more high profile provocations that could in turn be misread in South Korea or in the US as the first step in a more aggressive approach by Pyongyang. Such provocations might include the firing of medium-range test missiles off the East coast of North Korea, timed perhaps to coincide with the forthcoming April 15 birthday celebrations in honour of Kim Il Sung. A test firing, while provocative in itself, would not constitute a direct attack, but if it were ineptly conducted or if the missile, as a result of technical errors, veered of-course it could prompt a disproportionate response by nervous observers on the South Korean and American side. 

Pyongyang’s leaders also have a track record of surprising the international community and they might opt for the unexpected – perhaps a blockade of one of South Korea’s islands in the contested waters off the West Coast of the peninsula, or maybe, according to some more alarmist scenarios, infiltration into the South by some of the North’s highly trained Special Forces. Historical records from the Cold War not only reminds us of the North’s penchant for such limited provocations, but also makes clear – as was the case during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 or the Taiwan Off-Shore Islands crises of 1954 and 1958 – that national leaders, however experienced, are often poorly equipped to cope with the unexpected in situations involving nuclear weapons. 

All too often, simple luck rather than sober-minded rational calculation, has been the decisive factor in preventing such conflicts from escalating out of control. For the Obama administration it may be worth keeping in mind these historical lessons when considering how best to respond to North Korea. Maintaining deterrence is clearly critically important, but it may be prudent to combine it with a more flexible and imaginative attitude towards negotiating with the DPRK as a way of lowering the risks in this most volatile of regions.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Mail on Sunday.

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