Although North Korea’s attack last week on the island of Yeonpyeong was the first time since the Korean War that it has directed artillery fire on South Korean land, targeting civilians and homes, it follows a long pattern of calculated acts designed to compel South Korea and the United States to resort to crisis management; that is, to reward the North for little more than temporarily backing down. The response by Seoul and Washington this time should be to impose a palpable penalty on Pyongyang.
North Korea, by its own choice, is unique in the world. It is the world’s sole communist dynasty, the sole industrialized-cum-literate but famine-stricken society, the most militarized country, arguably the most systematic violator of human rights and the most isolated economy. Yet, this nation of singular category — a “G-1" — has again, with another deadly attack on South Korea, managed to make itself relevant to the world’s major nations.
To ascribe Pyongyang’s actions primarily to puerility or perversity would be to repeat the errors of taking a one-dimensional, patronizing view of the Kim Jong Il regime. The North Korean leadership, as outlandish as it is, resorts to periodic confrontations based on a careful calculation of potential costs and benefits. And very little in the response from South Korea or the United States to past offenses would strike the Kim regime as a deterrent to further provocation.
In fact, if the past is any guide, Pyongyang’s aggressive actions have a high probability of pushing its adversaries to engage the provoker even more vigorously. Over the last dozen years, in virtually every instance of North Korean offense against the South — even after serious strategic provocations, such as the North’s intermediate ballistic missile launch in 1998 and its first nuclear test in 2006 — Seoul and Washington have pledged to deliver to Pyongyang even bigger blandishments.
Such responses by South Korea and the U.S. reflect the two countries’ preference for damage-control diplomacy over confrontation with Pyongyang. However, pragmatism aside, beneath the surface of such consideration flows a steady stream of condescension, the notion that Seoul and Washington can eventually coax the Kim regime to make bold concessions on fundamental state priorities, such as dismantling nuclear weapons or adopting meaningful economic reforms — both central to the question of regime preservation.
In the ever-challenging contest for pan-Korean legitimacy against the stunningly more successful Seoul, Pyongyang’s options for long-term survival are severely constrained. For, as long as the South Korean state exists — as an attractive alternative Korean nation for the North Korean people — the Kim regime will not relinquish the key to staying in power and staying relevant to the world’s great powers, which is to control its people through extreme repression and gain economic and political concessions from abroad through nuclear extortion.
It’s time to abandon the patronizing view that North Korean strategists merely “react” to signals — no matter how hostile or conciliatory — from Seoul or Washington, and instead focus on Pyongyang’s unique points of vulnerability.
The Kim clan must cope with four systemic problems: dynastic succession, an inherently challenging task for a regime beset by severe economic stresses; the long-term dependency on foreign aid because of the inability of its economy to feed the population; the dependence on illicit international transactions to maintain Pyongyang’s palace economy that supplies the elites, which means having to commit resources to evade U.S.-led financial sanctions; and the increasing information flow into the country, which undermines the regime’s totalitarian control of the public.
The only way to end North Korea’s cycle of provocation-negotiation-compensation is to apply concerted force on these four pressure points. These systemic weaknesses should give those who wish to exercise power over Pyongyang substantial leverage. What has been lacking is the will to push that lever in full force for fear of destabilizing the Kim regime.
Once South Korea and the United States manage to contain the current situation, the two nations probably will go back to pondering — until the next North Korean provocation — the questions of global financial reform, free trade and regional cooperation. They should rather ask: Why is the continued survival of this great outlier to these global goals really necessary?
That’s a question that even China, Pyongyang’s biggest patron, may in time come to consider in earnest. As North Korea continues to march to its own tune against a concerted show of force by South Korea and the United States, the choice for all the regional powers will become clear. They can go on delivering aid to a dangerous, despotic, dependent North Korea through open-ended, damage-control diplomacy. Or they can build a better future with an open, democratic, capitalist, reunified Korea with its official seat of government in Seoul.
Sung-Yoon Lee is an adjunct assistant professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a research fellow at the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.