For Pyongyang, it always pays to provoke, writes Sung-Yoon Lee, a Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies, Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. A small step back does not connote a genuine peace overture, but a strategic decision to confuse the adversary.
Pyongyang has waited long for this day, when Americans are beginning to mesmerize themselves into believing they can live with a nuclear North Korea. But the Kim regime has to live with a far more successful, legitimate, attractive Korean state across the border. This internal dynamic of the Korean peninsula compels Pyongyang to continue to threaten war. Exporting insecurity is not only a means to reaping concessions from abroad and thwarting absorption by the rich and free South, but also essential to dominating Seoul.
In the long-term, Kim seeks to prevail over the South through controlled, graduated escalation, until the day he can force the US to abandon South Korea and make the South capitulate all but in name. To be firmly positioned to bully, blackmail, extort, and censor the South is the next best thing to completing the juche revolution, that is, communizing the entire Korean peninsula. This is a non-negotiable goal. Rather than a “lifestyle choice” or “perversion,” it is a rational strategy that best guarantees self-preservation. Becoming a credible, constant nuclear threat to the US is the keystone of this long-term strategy. Hence, a nuclear North Korea will not behave like a conventional nuclear state. Its nuclear threats will only grow.
North Korea: Is "War by Error" Possible?
Quite recently, the present writer offered theoretical remarks on the likelihood of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, noting that the probability of this has increased considerably this year. But the interest aroused by this subject compels him to discuss in greater detail what will happen if the conflict takes place after all, how it may develop and what possible consequences it could have for the region.
Even now, with full US support for the South, North Korea is able to enforce selective censorship on Seoul, forcing the South Korean government and public to choose between the false dichotomy of free speech and bombardment. In every instance of provocations by Pyongyang over the past decades, Seoul has retreated, at times reacting with incremental sanctions and even self-congratulatory celebrations of having gotten through to the North Koreans.
Defuse tension and get Pyongyang to back off has been the standard by which Seoul measures success in inter-Korean relations. The Six-Party Talks have been dead since 2008. They could be revived, if North Korea calls for them; however, under the current circumstances, they are unlikely to resume. At the same time, if and when they do, many will consider it a “breakthrough,” forgetting that the whole purpose of the talks was the denuclearization of North Korea.
Now, North Korea is poised to pose a direct threat to the US mainland, which means, more than ever, that Pyongyang holds South Korea, Japan, and the US hostage. Imagine if the North has pushed the US, through graduated escalation and credible threats of nuclear attack, followed by dramatic gestures of peace, to back off the South. Normalization of diplomatic relations, peace treaty, withdrawal of most US troops, suspension of all combined military exercises...Would Seoul then have the stomach to stand up to a threatening Pyongyang? Or would it flinch at the first summons for talks by its extortionist neighbor? The dynamics may come to resemble those in mid-June 1950 on the eve of the North's invasion – a South that's mesmerized by Pyongyang's calls for talks on reunification and a deceitful North that's one step away from completing its revolution.