The Measured Madness of North Korea

North Korea flag Arirang games

You’ve got to hand it to North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un: the man is a past master at panic promotion. He learned from the master, his dad, Kim “Dear Leader” Jong-il, whose tantrums, threats, and theatrics routinely rattled South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The reactions that followed were invariably the same: the United States and its Northeast Asian allies expressed their resolve, reaffirmed their alliances, made counter-threats and took countermeasures.

Well, here we go again. The latest bout of call-and-response was sparked by two events. First, following the February 12 nuclear-weapons test by Pyongyang (its third since 2006), the UN Security Council voted to expand the sanctions already being applied against North Korea. Second, the annual U.S.-South Korean “Foal Eagle” military maneuvers began this month.

In response Kim fils, perhaps in an effort to show North Korea’s military brass that he’s plenty tough despite his youth, has outdone the Dear Leader. He declared the 1953 armistice agreement null and void, threatened the United States with a nuclear first strike that would engulf it in a “sea of fire,” warned that Japan would suffer the same fate, and scrapped the hotline system and the non-aggression agreements signed with South Korea. For variety, there was a sexist remark about South Korea’s recently elected first female president, Park Guen-hye.

That’s a lot of bluster in a brief bit of time. You’d think that hanging with Dennis Rodman would have lightened Kim up. So much for America’s soft power.

North Korea’s melodrama is calculated, not crazy. Each time it engages in these apocalyptic outbursts, the results are precisely what it wants them to be. The United States and its North Pacific partners react in a semipanic, but also ratchet up the tension with warnings and moves of their own. Down the line, when the dust settles and diplomacy begins (the resumption of the on-again-off-again Six Party Talks that began in 2003 to induce the North to ditch its nuclear weapons program) memories of the last tirade linger and strengthen Pyongyang’s bargaining position. The reasoning of its interlocutors tends to be as follows: We’re dealing with a volatile regime that’s armed to the teeth, now has nuclear weapons, and could collapse under the weight of its economic problems. We need to tread gingerly and consider what carrots to offer. It’s a great self-protection racket.

So we’re in a familiar place now that North Korea is acting up again. True to the established pattern, the Obama administration has announced plans to beef up the ballistic missile systems in Alaska and California by adding another fourteen. Never mind that the price tag is $1 billion, that the success rate of this equipment is about 50 percent, and that the full deployment won’t be finished until 2017. The U.S. Navy dispatched four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to South Korea as part of “Foal Eagle,” and they may extend their stay. U.S. B-52 bombers, flying four thousand miles from their bases in Guam, have flown across South Korea.

South Korea has turned up the heat, too, warning Kim that his country “will cease to exist on the face of the earth” if it attacks. (Top that, big guy.) Some South Korean pundits have proposed that their country should develop its own stash of nukes. Polls show that over two-thirds of South Koreans think that’s a good idea.

Japan, as always, has been calmer. But it has a forty-five-ton plutonium stockpile (and a large reprocessing plant in the testing stage at Rokkasho), notwithstanding the plans to phase out its fifty nuclear power plants by 2040. It also has the technical know-how to build nuclear weapons if a political decision were taken to do so. There’s been speculation in the past that Tokyo might exercise this option were it to lose faith in Washington’s nuclear umbrella. That scenario has resurfaced following this latest Kim-tantrum and the North’s development of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. west coast.

How should the administration handle these stop-and-start crises on the Korean peninsula? Do nothing and say little. The alternative is to (again) give North Korea the satisfaction of seeing a superpower and two major powers, South Korea and Japan, whipped into a frenzy following its fulminations. That reaction merely increases the North’s leverage to bargain for aid, whether from the South (once the dust settles), or from China, its sugar daddy. Both Beijing and Seoul worry about war on the peninsula but also about the North’s economic collapse, which could send millions of North Korean refugees streaming into their countries.

“No Drama” Obama should live up to the label. North Korea’s leaders know that attacking the South, let alone the United States, would spell the end of their regime. Kim pere was never one to risk that result, his intermittent fits of rage notwithstanding. There’s no reason to believe that Kim fils is different. North Korea’s rhetoric is unrestrained, but its actions are generally well calibrated. That’s because it knows that the North-South balance of power is tilted decisively against it.

South Korea has a world-class economy, a GDP thirty times the size of the North’s, and per-capita income almost twenty times larger. This foundation and the U.S. arms pipeline have enabled it to build a military machine that, qualitatively, is in a different league than the North’s. South Korea spends three times the amount the North does on defense (and with far less strain on its economy). Pyongyang’s arsenal consists largely of outdated Chinese and Russian weaponry from the 1960s or earlier. These realities are often obscured in the standard discussions that dwell on the North’s numerical advantages in manpower and important categories of armaments to reach the predictable, though debatable, conclusion that Seoul can’t defend itself without Washington’s protection.

Moreover, South Korea and Japan have alliances with the United States. There’s no way that the North could wage war without killing American soldiers stationed in the South (about twenty-eight thousand at present, backed by a panoply of advanced armaments) and, very likely, those based in Japan. So Kim can’t harbor the illusion that an attack on South Korea would remain a bilateral spat. That makes his military position even weaker.

The notion that the North Korean regime is unhinged and hence immune to the logic of deterrence is commonplace, but it’s a canard. This is not the 1950s. The North is in a much weaker position. Back then, its economic resources were comparable to the South’s. But it has long since become an economic basket case plagued horrific famines (which are estimated to have killed as many as three million people) and hobbled by a Dickensian industrial system. South Korea, meanwhile, has become a first-rank economic power with a formidable industrial base, cutting-edge technology and booming exports.

What about China? Beijing surely has a stake in preventing North Korea from imploding, but none in getting sucked into a war of Kim’s making. The Chinese are growing weary of the saber rattling of a government that they prop up economically—but that won’t listen when it’s urged to eschew brinksmanship.

None of this means that what’s happening on the Korean peninsula now is trivial. This is, per square mile, the planet’s most militarized place. A war there would be calamity. But that’s the point. Rising to Pyongyang’s bait simply aggravates the periodic crises. That in turn increases the odds that one party might do something rash—accidentally, or deliberately, to show its mettle—that then spirals into a war that nobody wanted. So when Beijing tells Washington that the American decision to bolster missile defenses will merely add to the tension, it has a point.

The best reaction to Kim is no reaction. Continuing the old tit-for-tat pattern simply perpetuates it. Note to Seoul and Washington: Don’t just do something, stand there.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances. This piece first appeared in The National Interest.

Photo credit: Flickr user Joseph A Ferris III

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