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Something's rotten in North Korea: Why this time is different

The bombastic rhetoric and belligerent actions are familiar. But beneath the veil of mystery, something is different – and dangerous – about this latest North Korean temper tantrum. It’s not just that Pyongyang hates the balloons carrying Bibles and critical leaflets launched over the DMZ, the proximate cause of the latest friction.

For starters, something is not right with Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnThe foreign policy canyon between Americans over China Blessing for Trump: a campaign devoid of foreign policy Bolton: North Korea 'more dangerous now' MORE. Whether it is COVID19 or the health consequences of being morbidly obese, smoking, drinking, not exercising and a family history of heart problems, he is not well. Even after he surfaced last month, his public appearances have been rare

How else to explain the spectacular political theater of the rising public profile of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, hurling epithets and picking a fight with Republic of Korea (ROK) leader Moon Jae-in, threatening and then literally blowing up inter-Korean cooperation? She oversaw the  destruction on June 16 of the four-story inter-Korean Liaison building, the symbol of a 2018 reconciliation process.

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Dramatic video aside, it will not be the last such bellicose act. At the same time, Pyongyang has moved its forces back to the DMZ, undoing a 2018 demilitarization accord and restoring the status quo ante. There are threats to blow up the Kaesong Industrial Zone, once a shining example of inter-Korean economic cooperation. Many expect a military provocation in the West Sea, where in the past the North has launched attacks over a disputed sea border.

Why? The short answer is the overused tactic of manufacturing pseudo crises to extort concessions. The Kims are angry that the Moon administration in Seoul has been unwilling to break United Nations sanctions and offer economic goodies. This has been the pattern in the past — provocations aimed at payoffs.

Projects like the Kaesong factories, which brought some $50 million into Kim’s coffers, proposed North-South railways and many other plans on the drawing board designed to enrich the Kim family are what they have in mind. Such steps by Seoul would also jeopardize an already volatile U.S.-ROK alliance. Pyongyang’s long-standing goal is to drive a wedge in the alliance by playing to Korean nationalism.

But it should be understood that all of this stems from weakness and desperation, not strength. There is the economic turmoil, with negative growth projected for 2020. COVID-19 fears led to a closing of the border with China, accounting for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. Prices of rice, corn and oil all spiked. This, added to the pressure from U.N. sanctions, means tough times for Pyongyang’s elites, whose support the Kim family needs. 

Though most focused on Kim’s slamming the door to nuclear talks with the U.S., the focus of the Fifth Workers Party Plenum last December was about how to “reorient the economy.” Kim had concluded that Trump would not offer the benefits he seeks, and thus North Korea, he concluded, must cope with continued sanctions and the U.S. “hostile policy.”

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If past is prologue, Pyongyang will limit its bellicosity, keeping it below a threshold of provocation that would force a U.S. response. The South Korean military has in the past responded to provocations aimed at Seoul, and is gearing up to do so again.

How should Seoul and Washington respond? For Seoul, the most sensible response would be to not take the bait. Simply ignore it all, difficult politically as that might be for President Moon. It’s only a provocation if you are provoked. No need to create a crisis. As long as the North Koreans stay on their side of the DMZ and are not shooting, taking a page from the 19th century British policy of “masterly inactivity,” employed against Russia in the “Great Game.”

A South Korean active response would almost certainly lead to either one-sided economic and political concessions or to confrontation. Allowing Pyongyang to play out its string of efforts to incite would turn the tables and force the North to either end its extortion game or risk escalation that might bring confrontation with the U.S. Do no more than quietly restore the pre-2018 ROK troop presence on its side of the DMZ, and South Korea could bolster deterrence and resume military exercises needed for readiness.

As for Trump, having made North Korea a signature issue of his foreign policy and then spectacularly failing, in this election year, he wants North Korea to just go away. Trump has declared the nuclear threat from North Korea over. Yet he has been, in effect, a Kim enabler, making it clear he had no objection to all missile and nuclear improvements – 14 rounds of missile tests in the past year – so long as they don’t test an ICBM or nuke. That might explain why the U.S. has been relatively silent in the face of Pyongyang’s belligerence.

The risk is that Trump wants to make good on his campaign pledge to “bring the boys home.” If he actually does withdraw 9,500 troops (30 percent of the total) from Germany as advertised, there is a good chance he will exit about 6,000 troops from the ROK as well. If the Blue House tries to accommodate North Korean demands and goes beyond U.S. policy and U.N. sanctions, Trump will have a case for pulling out U.S. troops.

This all adds up to new levels of risk and uncertainty. Ms. Kim’s new profile could become a contested or unstable power transition. North Korea’s antics could easily spin out of control in different directions. A South Korean over-reaction, either in the direction of concessions to Pyongyang or a military response to North Korea’s bellicosity, could result in new instability on the peninsula. A North Korean escalation, perhaps an “October Surprise” for Trump in the form of an ICBM test, could bring back his threats of “fire and fury.”  

Robert A. Manning, a longtime Korea-watcher, is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the under secretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.