North Korea approaching provocation phase of its “vicious cycle”

North Korea’s bipolar cycle is now familiar to most Korea watchers, including the President of South Korea. The North pursues its nuclear weapons capability with consistent determination in all phases of that cycle, but not always with consistent ostentation. There are periodic acts of satellite theater — a new excavation here, a new launch pad there, or steam from a cooling tower. Words vacillate between conciliation (often cryptic) and belligerence (but mostly, belligerence).

You can’t really time North Korea’s cycles with a calendar — although it does strike me that it would be interesting to try — but it is possible to identify some broad patterns. The cycles have higher tides and lower ebbs when the North wants to test a new or weakened administration in the United States or South Korea. The tides ebb when the North calculates that it’s about to get a payoff, or that it has gone as far as it can without suffering some consequence that it fears. They probably rise due to a combination of domestic political motives, a desire to keep its opponents off balance, and simple extortion. As for how the tone of North Korean propaganda has changed under Kim Jong Un, I’ll recommend this analysis by the Daily NK.

What is increasingly clear is that North Korea’s current moon-faced tyrant has entered a waxing phase.

Three years ago the retaliation was limited to Yeonpyeong, but in the future it will include the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae and other centers of the puppet South Korean government,” said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

The KPA command, which is responsible for units facing the sea demarcation line in the Yellow Sea, claimed that if Seoul has forgotten the “crushing defeat” it received in the past, it will face greater tragedy for making any kind of impudent provocations.

A senior North Korean official has also threatened the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with “a nuclear catastrophe.” (North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.)

By the end of the Lee Myung Bak administration, the North had posted banners on the KCNA website calling for the slitting of Lee’s throat. We can already see that Pyongyang has begun the process of making Ms. Park its new Emmanuel Goldstein. Last week, KCNA called Park “a political prostitute.” This week, it’s Uriminzokkiri’s turn:

Uriminzokkiri, North Korea’s main Internet-based media and propaganda website, said a Pyongyang printing house released a booklet called a “diagnosis of the South’s theory of principle” that dissected the follies of policy goals being pursued by the conservative Park government.

It said the so-called principled approach lauded by the chief executive who took power in late February effectively aims to change the North, and is based on the arrogant idea that the South can dictate actions of the North.

According to the website, the booklet claimed South Korean hardliners want to wrestle the initiative in inter-Korean dialogue and use this advantage to strive for unification based on a free and democratic political system.

Where else is this headed? For one thing, we continue to read rumors that the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test. Recent strains between the U.S. and China may tempt Pyongyang to see a moment of opportunity to get away with a provocation.

Personally, I hope North Korea does test a nuke. If it can be said that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy at all, that policy clearly isn’t working, and is allowing North Korea to rush toward nuclear breakout almost unimpeded. The administration seems disinterested in North Korea, perhaps because it has quietly resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea, or perhaps because it’s distracted by domestic troubles or Iran. Whatever the cause of the administration’s apparent lack of a coherent policy, it’s not going to change unless busy policymakers stop thinking about immigration reform, Obamacare, the 2014 elections, or Iran long enough to focus on this problem for a week or two. Every time they do, it becomes more obvious to them that the old approach has failed and that a new, tougher approach is needed.

What will make this test different from every other test is that this time, there is a ready policy alternative at hand that threatens to cause severe (and possibly fatal) damage to North Korea’s ruling class. At the very least, a sudden case of bankruptcy should convince an unsteady new North Korean leader that time isn’t on his side.


  1. Immigration reform, Obamacare, the 2014 elections, and Iran are as important as North Korea. To stop thinking about them would be a mistake.


  2. I agree that those are important issues, but Washington has ADD, and the news cycle crowds North Korea out of our thoughts until someone pops a nuke. Meanwhile, the centrifuges keep spinning.


  3. Let me take Joshua’s bait.

    North Korea’s ongoing autumnal “peace offensive” (loosely defined as lack of blatant attacks or weapons tests) is almost “preordained.” Over the past dozen years, Pyongyang has usually come out swinging with hostile rhetoric in the first half of the calendar year only to revert to conciliatory gestures in the second half. Not to paint the Kim regime as some masterful, inscrutable, strategic genius, but Pyongyang’s strategic goal has been to remind its adversaries that it is a political factor to be taken seriously (investment), then to reap their concessions (dividends).

    For example, in October 2002, Pyongyang, very much expecting concessions from Washington, received the Jame Kelly delegation after announcing “reforms” in July. In Aug 2003 the six-party process was launched, after Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the NPT in January and restart of its Yongbyon reactor in March. In 2004, the six-party soliloquy process picked up again that summer. In 2005 came the Sept 19 joint statement. In 2007 and 2008 the tide had turned in Pyongyang’s favor with various concessions were made by the Bush administration, such as the lifting of financial sanctions, resumption of food aid, and the removal of North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list. In Dec 2009, Pyongyang received US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Amb. Stephen Bosworth. In July and October, 2011, meetings between Bosworth and Kim Kye Gwan were held, respectively, in NYC and Geneva.

    The notable exceptions to this predictable pattern of provocation-negotiation-concession are: 2006, when the North conducted its first-ever nuclear test (Oct 9, on the eve of Party Founding Day); 2010 (the lethal attack on Yeonpyongdo on Nov 23, preceded by a “poor man’s uranium test” via Sig Hecker on Nov 12, as Seoul was hosting the G20 Summit,); and 2012 (the Dec 12 ICBM test). 2010 was when Pyongyang was rushing through its hereditary succession process. And 2012, of course, was the annus mirabilis when North Korea was all of a sudden to become a “powerful and prosperous state.” Therefore, one might say that in 2006, 2010, and 2012, NK was driven by compelling reasons to provoke late in the calendar year. In particular, in 2012, the international correlation of forces were aligned in the North’s favor, with leadership transitions taking place in all the capitals of the North Pacific. What better time is there for a political statement like another nuclear test when all of Pyongyang’s “targets” are enveloped in misty visions of peace, prosperity, and a lasting legacy? In other words, these exceptions to the “rule” all took place in banner years. 2013 is not one of them, so it’s unlikely that North Korea will resort to another major provocation this late in
    the calendar year.

    Hence, Pyongyang’s latest mood swing is not an aberration. Through its latest “conciliatory” gestures, Pyongyang seeks in the short term to bolster Kim Kong Un’s credentials as a “statesman.” That means summit meetings, notably with Xi Jinping early in 2014, and perhaps also with Putin down the road. Talks with Tokyo are also in the cards–for cash. In the long term, Pyongyang seeks to advance its strategic interests of improving its ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal, sue for a peace treaty with Washington so that the raison d’etre of the US troops in South Korea and the
    necessity of the US-ROK alliance would be called into question, create pressure for the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, foment pro-North Korean sympathies in the South, and strengthen its political/military leverage over Seoul with periodic nuclear threats and limited attacks. In other words, work toward achieving its highest national goal of completing the North Korean revolution.