Predictable Pyongyang

Don’t expect the pressure Washington and Seoul are putting on North Korea to lead to any real movement on the peninsula. 

In the wake of North Korea’s sinking of South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in late March and the responses of Seoul and Washington, the region is experiencing a new "Cold War" on the Korean peninsula. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to South Korea this week was part of the effort by Washington and Seoul to continue to apply pressure to the regime in Pyongyang. Visiting the DMZ, Clinton called on North Korea to see “another way” beyond belligerent and provocative acts. Clinton also announced new sanctions that target North Korean imports of luxury goods, the U.S. and South Korean navies will conduct a joint drill in the East Sea this September, and a State Department spokesman said the United States would attempt to convince China to take “additional steps” to pressure North Korea to change its ways. For its part, the South Korean government hailed the new moves to contain the North Korean threat and imposed coercive measures of its own, including cutting most economic ties with the North and naming the DPRK the “main enemy” of South Korea.

When speculating about how North Korea would respond to more focused pressure, it appears unlikely that Pyongyang would simply cave in and meekly agree to U.S. and South Korean demands. After all, the most predictable aspect of Pyongyang’s behavior is that it meets pressure with pressure of its own. Indeed, few long-time observers truly believe that more economic sanctions and political pressure from South Korea and the West will cause a change in North Korean behavior. It is fairly clear that the rhetoric from Seoul and Washington is aimed more at alliance solidarity and domestic consumption than any real belief that North Korea will back down in the face of threats.

In fact, North Korea has thus far reacted predictably: by claiming that the South forged evidence, cutting ties, and launching a tirade of criticism and threats. Looking past the symbolic acts, the North Korean leadership could very well favor a return to threats and balance-of-power politics on the peninsula. U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that the North Korean leadership approved the attack on the Cheonan as a means of revenge for previous skirmishes in the West Sea, and also as a way to bolster the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il who is widely expected to be the next North Korean leader. Thus, the recent spate of belligerent North Korean actions may be more a result of domestic politics and military-regime dynamics rather than a different strategic approach toward the South. Whatever the cause, it is difficult to see North Korea backing down in the face of external pressure.

Although the current approach has been good for the U.S.-ROK alliance, it is unlikely to help solve the North Korea problem. Given the number of other pressing matters facing President Obama, it is also unlikely that he will put sustained effort into North Korean issues. As a result, the current status quo is likely to persist into the future, with rhetoric from Seoul and Washington emphasizing their shared view of the need for change in North Korean policies, but no real movement on the peninsula.