In August, as the most recent skirmish in Korean War II began, I published two posts about the risk that Kim Jong Un would respond to stronger U.S. and South Korean policies with all-out war. Because that risk depends on whether Kim is rational, I used those posts to discuss the implications of answering this question in the affirmative and the negative.
In the first post, I argued that if Kim Jong-Un is rational, then his provocations since 2011 would appear to have been calibrated to avoid all-out war, but that they would escalate as he approaches a true nuclear capability. His provocations may have been part of a rational (if inhuman) strategy calculated to win concessions, overawe his subjects and neighbors, and gradually finlandize and neutralize South Korea. I also noted that Kim’s father had largely achieved this condition by 2007, but that in the past, stronger policy responses had caused both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to make temporary concessions, and to withdraw to fight another day rather than risk a war that would destroy them. Nonetheless, each emperor in this squalid little dynasty has amplified his leverage with the Madman Theory, cultivating perceptions that he was irrational, even eager for war.
In the second post, I reviewed the available evidence that Kim Jong-Un really is a madman. Most of the analysis judged him to be impulsive, unpredictable, and dangerous, but none found him to be irrational. The most alarming analysis, by an Irish psychologist, suggested that Kim’s key loyalists are addicted to the dopamine released by tension and conflict — that is to say, they are quite literally addicted to the infliction of terror. Viewed this way, Pyongyang’s provocations are rationally calculated to satiate this addiction, but this cycle of craving and satiation will eventually escalate, warp their judgment, self-reinforce, and cause them to take unreasonable risks.
Whichever alternative one accepts — that the provocations are part of a rationally conceived plan or a response to a biochemical craving — they are likely to deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities improve. Under either alternative, it is urgent that we find some way to either deter or preempt further provocations before Kim Jong-Un is effectively nuclear capable, when they will escalate to levels that would challenge our powers of restraint. As further evidence that these cycles are escalating, the ROK Army claims that Pyongyang has “intensified its provocations.” And, as you’ve almost certainly read by now, North Korea announced today that it intends to launch a long-range missile at “a time of its choosing” — probably around October 10th, the 70th anniversary of its founding conspiracy to commit phobocracy — and in flagrant violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.
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Before the August skirmish, we had yet to see Kim Jong-Un embark on one of these cycles of cross-border escalation and confrontation. The events of August have since provided us with new data suggesting that, psychologically speaking, His Porcine Majesty is just a fleshier cut from the same carcass as his father and grandfather. In August, he (or whoever planned it) chose his provocation strategy coldly yet rationally, carefully avoiding all-out war. Our first evidence for this is the meticulous analysis of John Grisafi for NK News, who informs us that North Korean forces calibrated their use of force down to the millimeter:
Most early reports described the first round fired by the North as possibly being a small rocket. But later multiple sources consistently described it as a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun (AAMG), citing the South Korean military. This would likely be either a ZPU-2 or ZPU-4. The ZPU series AAMG is a large-caliber machine gun originally designed as anti-aircraft artillery, though also commonly used for ground warfare as well.
The second volley of three rounds was fired from a 76.2 mm gun, likely a ZIS-3 or a North Korean-produced derivative thereof. This is a direct fire gun, meaning it is fired at a target for which the gunners have direct line-of-sight. It is primarily used as an anti-tank weapon.[*] This weapon is relatively small compared to most modern artillery. Even most standard infantry mortars are larger (North Korea’s primary infantry mortar has a caliber of 82 mm while South Korea and the United States use an 81 mm mortar). [NK News]
Grisafi also notes that South Korea did not return fire for nearly an hour, despite the fact that its counter-battery fire control system should have been capable of responding much sooner. This suggests that, notwithstanding South Korea’s announced shoot-first, ask-later policy, the ROK forces intentionally gave the North Korean gunners enough time to “shoot-and-scoot,” avoiding casualties on the North Korean side. Grisafi concludes:
Though the North may occasionally engage in military provocation and the South is willing to respond in kind, neither side wants an open conflict. The fact that this incident initially resulted in only controlled return fire by the South and no further military action by either side demonstrates the ability and desire of both sides to limit escalation. Both sides appear to have intentionally fired at such times and/or locations to provoke the opposing side but not actually inflict casualties. Avoiding escalation of an incident into open conflict requires strict discipline, strong command and control, and clear rules of engagement in the military forces on both sides. [NK News]
Grisafi’s entire piece is well worth reading. If his analysis is correct, might we eventually expect to see evidence of those “clear rules of engagement”? Yes. The Daily NK now cites “a military source in Kangwon Province,” who says that North Korean troops “received orders … to absolutely make sure no one got drawn into provocations from the South.”
“Unlike the strong countermeasures we usually hear about, threatening to turn the South into a sea of fire if they even so much as touch a blade of grass in our territory, the orders were to make sure not to get involved, so the soldiers were puzzled,” the source explained. The orders were handed down from the KPA General Staff to each military corps from the commander in chief Kim Jong Un, he added.
Specifically, ranking officials were told to ensure no actions were taken based on emotions and to manage troops well to avoid any conflict stemming from accidental fire. Not only that, high-ranking officers under the KPA General Staff were dispatched to units along the border area to confirm the orders were being implemented. [….]
“The order drafted in the name of the KPA General Staff did cause some anxiety among soldiers and their families, but it also led to some officers making sarcastic comments about being scared off without even giving it a fight,” she concluded. [Daily NK]
The gap between the rules of engagement and the rhetoric confused the soldiers.
“The whole notion of all-out war was to boost soldiers’ morale, but the border areas would have seen huge losses if that really happened, since we would have been attacked with state-of-the-art weaponry from the U.S.” he asserted. “The commander in chief (Kim Jong Un) is well aware of America’s power, so that’s why he probably gave out those orders through the General Staff.”
Added the source, the incident has led to confusion among soldiers, since they know that it’s the North that first provokes the South, yet they are told not to get drawn into provocations. Most soldiers are aware that provocations along the border area originate from the North.
The Daily NK also claims to have corroboration from “another source in North Hwanghae Province” who reported that “[n]aval troops based in Haeju in South Hwanghae also received the ‘restrain from engaging’ order.”
Another significant fact is that so many of Pyongyang’s submarines were ready to deploy, something I doubt they’re ordinarily ready to do. The North Koreans also flew at least one drone over the DMZ, probably to check on the extent of South Korean deployments in the area, to help them better assess and adjust the risk of escalation.
The picture this paints is of a regime that planned and calculated the initial provocation (planting the mines), planned for a range of potential South Korean responses (loudspeakers, artillery), monitored its adversary’s response (drones), and also planned for a credible threat of escalation (submarines), to force South Korea to bargain away concessions (sanctions, which any Peace Studies grad student can tell you never work, but which are always inexplicably at the front of Pyongyang’s list of demands). The agreement both sides made to “de-escalate” this calculated crisis has already devolved into an agreement to walk away, keep talking sh*t about each other, and fight another day. It solved approximately nothing, except to soothe South Korean investors, and let North Korea demobilize the troops it needed to bring in a meager harvest.
True, Pyongyang did not pay a price for its outrages, but at least it hasn’t turned profit from them yet. Psychologically, the tensions were no more than a temporary relief for North Korea’s hungry and demoralized troops, and may have disillusioned anyone needing a dopamine palliative. Park Geun-Hye has successfully spun the incident as an example of her facing down the North Koreans. She achieved a significant political boost, and used the incident for her own domestic propaganda, bracing the foundations of patriotism in a society that could form a division with of all its draft dodgers abroad (and should). Talks about civil exchanges and family “reunions” continue, but since the North has denied making an apology, the South has said that it will not lift bilateral trade sanctions imposed in 2010, after Pyongyang torpedoed the ROKS Cheonan.
Best of all, Seoul discovered the deterrent value of information operations, and had already threatened to turn the loudspeakers back on if the North tests a missile. Imagine what a strong deterrent it would have if it built cell towers along the DMZ.
It sickens me a little to see anyone talk of a “winner” in this crisis. I doubt the answer matters much to Kim Jung-Won or Ha Jae-Heon, whose fate was to become objects of the malignant indifference that Kim Jong-Un inflicts on millions of North Koreans, and of the more apathetic kind that most South Koreans hold for his victims. The question that matters now is whether Kim Jong-Un still believes that crime pays, and how many victims his next crime will take. The developing evidence now suggests that he did not achieve his financial and political objectives, but wasn’t strongly deterred, either. It also suggests that if anyone has gained a short-term political advantage, it is Park Geun-Hye. Unfortunately, this also means that Kim Jong-Un will now feel intense domestic pressure to secure a victory to legitimize his rule. That virtually ensures that we’ll see another provocation in the short term, and we’ll probably also see a significant escalation from Pyongyang within the next year. That is the inevitable cost of breaking such a long established cycle of provocation and payment.
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* A small quibble here. It was used as an anti-tank weapon against German panzers in 1941. Today, a 76.2-millimeter gun might destroy an armored personnel carrier or other lightly armored vehicle, but it would be useless against a modern main battle tank. I suppose most of the North’s 76.2-millimeter artillery shoots high explosive rounds today.