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Guest Post: It Pays to Provoke

Prof. Sung Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University, a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, and a good friend of mine.  If you’re wondering how he lowered his standards so far so fast, the answer is that he wrote a comment that outgrew the comments section, and he graciously agreed to let me publish it as a guest post.


North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile on Dec 12, 2012, was almost pre-ordained. For Pyongyang, it almost always pays to provoke, and never hurts to do it. What’s more, the constellation of events in mid-December made provoking its longstanding adversaries, Seoul and Washington, near irresistible.

Some past patterns to consider:

North Korea has a long history of provoking South Korea and the US at a time it determines to be in its strategic interest; that is, when its adversaries are weak or distracted. Pyongyang also delights in adding insult to injury by provoking on major holidays. It also finds Sundays an opportune time to cause trouble, thereby capturing the global headlines for the rest of the week and putting added pressure on its adversaries to respond with concessionary diplomacy.

For example, Pyongyang calculated that the US would find it exceedingly risky to escalate tension with a belligerent North Korea in 1968 and 1969, when the Vietnam War became a political liability back home. Hence, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968, and held the crew of 82 as captives for 11 months, often torturing them. North Korea sent 31 commandos into Seoul to assassinate the South Korean president earlier that month. That fall, Pyongyang dispatched hundreds of armed guerrilla fighters into the South to foment communist rebellion. North Korea shot down a US surveillance plane on April 15, 1969, on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. North Korea shot down a US helicopter in August, and ambushed and killed four US patrolmen along the Demilitarized Zone in Oct 1969. With each provocation, there was no military response of any sort by the US or South Korea.

As for marking holidays with a bang, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test came on October 9, 2006, the eve of Party Founding Day—one of the most important national holidays in North Korea. That led to the resumption of diplomatic negotiations by the George W Bush administration and, sequentially, new rounds of diplomacy, the lifting of financial sanctions, the resumption of food aid, and the removal of North Korea from the US State Dept. list of state sponsors of terrorism. This landmark event, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, was preceded in July by a seven-rocket salute on America’s birthday, when it fired off six short-range missiles and one long-range missile on the morning of July 5, 2006 (the afternoon of July 4, Independence Day, in Washington DC). North Korea’s second nuclear test was on May 25, Memorial Day in the US. The 1983 Rangoon bombing also took place on the eve of Party Founding Day, which also happened to be a Sunday.

As for Pyongyang’s penchant for provoking on a Sunday, its first long-range missile test took place on Sunday, Aug 31, 1998. That led to a flurry of diplomatic activity on Washington’s part and the transfer from the US to North Korea of $177 million worth of food aid through the WFP (400,000 tons) in 1999, in return for the privilege of inspecting an empty cave in Kumchangri. The North’s third long-range missile test took place on Sunday, April 5, 2009. The North also blew up a Korean Airliner on Sunday, Nov 29, 1987.

Moreover, Pyongyang also likes to rain on Seoul’s parade. There are too many examples to mention—I’ll just cite one: On November 12, 2010, Pyongyang conducted a “poor man’s” uranium bomb test when it showcased its modern uranium enrichment facility to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, as Seoul was hosting what it had been touting as one of the most important international events ever, the G20 Summit.

Now, mid-December 2012, is a most opportune time for NK to set the table again vis-a-vis the powers in the region, raise the stakes with provocations, and try to paint the new leadership in DC, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow into a corner by creating a security problem that calls for concessionary diplomacy.

So, the real question is not why did Pyongyang conduct a long-range missile test, but why wouldn’t it have—provided the capability was there and the weather didn’t stand in the way? With exactly one week to go before South Korea’s presidential election, and five days before the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, and barely a month away from Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8, the temptation to stir things up must have been compelling.

Now is the best time for Pyongyang to jolt the South’s electorate, instill in the public the fear of possible war and the consequent loss of lives and treasure, and intimidate ordinary citizens into voting for the candidate of “peace and reconciliation,” the pro-North Korea leaning progressive Moon Jae-In, former chief of staff of President Roh Moo Hyun. North Korea has ten years of experience reaping rewards for periodic provocations against the South during the sunshine years, 1998-2008, when Seoul kept pumping unconditional aid worth nearly 10 billion dollars in cash, food, and fertilizer into Pyongyang’s palace economy. A return to that kind of favorable arrangement would enhance Kim Jong Un’s leadership credentials at home and enable the young inexperienced leader to deal with Seoul from a position of strength. 

The view that took hold in the past few days that perhaps Chinese pressure had forced Pyongyang to take a step back on the rocket launch and postpone it discounts history and Pyongyang’s strategic considerations. North Korea has never caved into Chinese pressure on matters of vital national interest. “Kwangmyungsong,” the name of the satellite, is after all the honorific name given to Kim Jong Il. Putting it aside to appease Beijing makes as much sense as Kim Jong Un going on a diet to placate Joshua. Moreover, North Korea has a long history of resorting to maskrovka, or strategic deception (e.g., suggesting “unification” talks one week before June 25, 1950; or asking Beijing to pass on a message to Washington that it seeks diplomatic talks with the US on the eve of the Rangoon bombing on Oct 9, 1983, etc.). By mentioning technical difficulties signaling it may postpone the test, Pyongyang was merely attempting to dupe its foes, a ploy that worked.

As for concerns of any military or harsh political reprisal, even in the most egregious provocations like assassination attempts on the South Korean president (January 1968 and October 1983) or shooting down a U.S. spy plane in international air space (April 1969), neither Seoul nor Washington has ever retaliated. In more recent times, even under the so-called “hardline” President Lee Myung Bak, the more Pyongyang has provoked Seoul, the more the Seoul has tried to appease Pyongyang. Less than two months after holding live ammunition drills in the wake of the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, President Lee announced that he would be open to a summit meeting with the North Korean leader. In May 2011, the North and South held secret meetings, with Seoul even asking for not just one, but a series of summits with Kim Jong Il.

Hence, North Korea was virtually bound to provoke when it did. In particular, it had powerful incentives to go ahead with the test before the December 19 election, ideally, on December 12, which would leave a one-week window of opportunity for the matter to matter in the presidential race without fading from memory. And it will probably not stop with just the missile test. I would now watch out for a follow-up provocation soon, perhaps even in the next day or two, for a special South Korean public-tailored provocation. If Kim Jong Un stops with just the missile blast, then that would indicate that Kim III is not nearly a formidable foe as Kim II or Kim I.

As to how to respond, I second Joshua’s “novel and serious” response idea. Like Joshua, I also feel those who actually make policy will probably shy away from it, even in the face of another nuclear test. Perhaps Pyongyang’s future demonstration of its capability to combine an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead may finally tilt this balance. In the meantime, I would suggest launching a sustained human rights campaign against the Kim regime and actively sponsoring efforts to transmit information into the North. I realize this is also quite unlikely to be implemented, for it will not bring about an immediate change in Pyongyang’s behavior or create the diplomacy-summitry-friendly atmospherics favored by statesmen. But nor will it lead to the collapse of the Kim regime, an eventuality that Pyongyang’s neighbors fear. Rather, what it will do is incentivize the North Korean people gradually to demand more of their own leaders, even if that demand is only a modest step in protecting their most basic civil liberties. It will also encourage more North Koreans to depart their gulag nation. And that means saving lives.


  1. It should pay us to provoke back. I call NK’s bluff. We should have shot down this rocket, and then shrugged at the outcry, feigning wide-eyed innocence.


  2. They took the Pueblo after they saw our response to Israel’s attempted sinking of the Liberty, which would have gone down, and with greater loss of life had it been the size of Pueblo. They also hijacked a small turbojet for kim I, a YS-35? US response must have been tepid at best. Increased patrols, etc.



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