by Sung-Yoon Lee
A year has passed since the annus horribilis in inter-Korean relations. 2010 was marked by the North’s torpedoing of a South Korean navy ship in March and shelling of an inhabited island in November. After a year of relative calm, North Korea watchers may now be wondering: Is Pyongyang inclined to seek better relations with Washington and Seoul as it gears up for its self-proclaimed annus mirabilis in 2012 – the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founding dictator of North Korea and father of the current leader – when North Korea claims the impoverished country will transform into a “powerful and prosperous state”?
It depends on one’s definition of “better relations.”
From the Kim Jong Il regime’s standpoint, relations with South Korea and the United States are best when these two old adversaries are pumping cash and other blandishments into its palace economy. And history shows that the best way to secure this provisional pipeline lies not in making conciliatory gestures but taking provocative action. For example, when Pyongyang threatened in 1994 to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” an international consortium composed of the U.S., South Korea, Japan, etc. came into being. Dubbed the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the consortium’s mission was to supply energy aid to the North. In return, Pyongyang froze its plutonium reactor, all the while pursuing an alternate nuclear weapons program.
The record over the past dozen years is even more reassuring to Kim Jong Il. Once Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan in August 1998, the U.S. finally got serious with its North Korea policy. What followed the next year was food aid to the North worth $177 million. In return, the Kim regime allowed U.S. inspectors to visit an empty cave suspected of housing military materiel.
2006 proved another banner year for the Kim regime. Multiple missile tests in July followed by a nuclear test in October led to the U.S. dropping financial sanctions against Pyongyang’s money-laundering practices and, progressively, resuming food aid and removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. In return, Mr. Kim repeated his professed desire for the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a codename for the abrogation of the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance treaty and the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South. Meanwhile, Seoul pumped into Pyongyang at least $7 billion worth of unconditional aid in cash, food, fertilizer, and other blandishments over ten years, from 1998 to 2008.
The lessons from the past are clear. Despite common perceptions of Kim Jong Il as “crazy” or “irrational,” the North Korean leader has a rational plan to advance his regime’s interests and has stuck to it, often outmaneuvering his outsized opponents. To alter course and abandon what has worked so well would indeed signal that Mr. Kim is not in full possession of all his faculties.
So what should South Korea and the U.S. expect of North Korea in 2012?
At the very least, Seoul and Washington should have a fair chance of predicting, preventing, or effectively punishing the next provocation by Pyongyang. A clear pattern in North Korea’s strategic provocations is timing: the Kim regime prefers holidays and Sundays for provoking Seoul and Washington. For example, North Korea’s terrorist attacks on Seoul in the 1980s (the Rangoon bombing on November 29, 1983, and the bombing of a Korean Airliner on October 9, 1987, on the eve of Party Founding Day celebrations) and ballistic missile tests (August 31, 1998 and April 5, 2009) each took place on a Sunday. Its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006 came, again, on the eve of a major holiday. Pyongyang’s seven-rocket salute on July 4, 2006 (July 5 in Korea, but clearly the intended “target” was the U.S.) and its second nuclear test on U.S. Memorial Day (May 25, 2009) are further examples of attempts to put maximum pressure on its adversaries to come up with a compensatory response by dominating the week’s headlines.
A related penchant shown by Pyongyang is to rain on Seoul’s parade. These range from the petty to the serious, like attempts to wrest the spotlight away from South Korean presidential inauguration ceremonies in 2003 and 2008, to instigating a deadly naval skirmish as the South was engrossed in hosting the World Cup in June 2002. But the most recent example of this understudied strategy came on November 12, 2010. As Seoul was hosting the G20 Summit, the Kim regime showed off its brand new uranium enrichment plant to an American nuclear expert.
Such behavioral patterns make preparing for the next provocation possible. Pyongyang’s most likely next move would be another nuclear or ballistic missile test. Showing its capability to marry a warhead with a long-range missile would increase the Kim regime’s leverage on a host of political and economic issues vis-à-vis Seoul and Washington. It would certainly bear implications on the U.S. Forces in Korea, whose removal from the South is an oft-repeated state priority for Pyongyang.
2012 is a golden opportunity for the confirmation of Kim Jong Un, the son whom the current leader favors for succession. Conventional wisdom would dictate that a regime looking ahead to reaffirm the legitimacy of its dynastic line during its centenary celebrations would seek better relations with its neighbors out of preference for stability. But North Korea is not a conventional country. The regime faces a broken economy while living with a far richer competitor Korean nation just across the border. Its modus operandi has long been to import peace dividends by exporting threats, and the Kim regime’s military-first politics also necessitates the bolstering of Jong Un’s tenuous military credentials.
Among the many epithets Kim Il Sung, the dynastic founder, enjoys is the “Sun of the Korean Nation.” Fittingly, April 15, the late leader’s birthday, is celebrated each year in the North as “Day of the Sun,” which in 2012 falls on a Sunday, as does Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8. But the most opportune time for capturing the world’s attention with a blast comes when leaders from some fifty nations gather in Seoul in March for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. The Kim regime may calculate that showcasing its ever-improving nuclear and ballistic weapons capabilities on Sunday, March 25, the eve of the summit, would likely pay the greatest dividends.
The stage will be set. Distinguished guests will be in the audience. The nuclear theme song will be playing. And the clear skies of early spring will be an enticing environment for a test. The record on what follows North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons tests—a brief interlude during which the international community expresses umbrage and makes condemnation, only to come up with new offerings for Pyongyang—gives credence to Mr. Kim’s credo (as characterized by North Korea expert Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea): “Build them, and they will pay.”
But this tired old leitmotif need not be played out again. At the very least, the United States and its allies can jointly warn Pyongyang before the event of imminent and intrusive penalties to come instead of meekly reacting to a fait accompli. These penalties can range from extensive combined U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises lasting throughout the centenary celebrations, to reinforced interdiction operations and financial sanctions. The case for bringing China and Russia on board also will be stronger if the argument is made before, rather than after, the event.
Thus, to paraphrase Andrew Marvell: though we cannot make North Korea’s Sun stand still, we will make him run. Mr. Kim is highly unlikely to preside over a “powerful and prosperous country” in 2012. At the same time, his passionate desire to create the semblance of one through confirming his successor and extorting concessions from abroad is a weakness to be exploited.
2012 has the makings of a banner year. Relations with the Kim regime indeed can become better; for once, on Pyongyang’s interlocutors’ terms instead of Mr. Kim’s.
About the Author
Sung-Yoon Lee is a research fellow of the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.