All signs suggest that North Korea is getting ready to conduct a major provocation, which is likely to include testing nuclear weapons for a fourth time.
Although U.S. officials like to claim North Korea is “dangerously unpredictable,” its provocations tend to follow a well-established pattern. As I’ve explained in the past, the provocation cycle begins with North Korea mounting a highly visible charm offensive towards South Korea, which creates the impression that Pyongyang is seeking to dial down tensions. Amid this persistent charm offensive, North Korea makes a seemingly innocent demand of South Korea and/or the United States, usually that they halt military drills. In the thick of North Korea’s charm offensive, this demand seems to outsiders like an inconsequential afterthought. However, the demand always has two characteristics: it is very specific and it is something that Pyongyang knows full well won’t be obliged. Pyongyang then seizes upon South Korea and America’s failure to comply to justify the provocation it undertakes. Often, this takes the form of a medium or long-range ballistic missile test, which is sometimes followed by a nuclear test (which is justified as a response to the the international community’s “hostility” over the initial ballistic missile test).
North Korea’s behavior over the past few weeks follows this pattern to a t. On the surface, all signs suggest that North Korea is ramping up its efforts to engage South Korea and the United States. For instance, in his New Year’s speech this year— which is always the most important annual speech in the DPRK— Kim Jong-un largely focused on domestic issues. Near the end, however, he made an overture to Seoul, stating: “We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”
Having already referenced past major Inter-Korean agreements, Kim held out the tantalizing possibility that he wants to hold a leadership summit with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. “And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created,” Kim said.
The charm offensive continued in official DPRK media in the days that followed. For example, a Rodong Sinmun editorial last Friday stated: “If the north and the south open their hearts with each other and approach with an open mind the issue of the nation and reunification... it is possible for them to remove differences and record a new history of the inter-Korean relations [sic].”
The same editorial added: “It is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold inter-sector talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”
Naturally enough, these calls for dialogue contained “suggestions” that South Korean authorities drop their “confrontational” stance against North Korea. Some were more specific in demanding that South Korea abandon its anti-DPRK human rights activities and halt all provocative war drills.
North Korea then turned its charm towards the United States— and upped the ante. Specifically, on Saturday the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korea had sent a message proposing that the U.S. “contribute to easing tension on the Korean peninsula by temporarily suspending joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.” In return, North Korea promised that it “is ready to take such responsive step as temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned.”
President Park had already rejected North Korea’s calls to halt its joint military drills with the U.S., which are scheduled to begin in late February. Instead, she urged North Korea to resume talks without preconditions, something that Pyongyang itself has proposed repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. backed its ally in Seoul. As Reuters reported, the State Department rejected Pyongyang’s proposal and “called the offer by North Korea a veiled threat that inappropriately linked nuclear tests and the joint military exercises that have been carried out for decades.”
On Tuesday, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador responded to the rejection by proposing a joint dialogue with the United States. “The government of the DPRK (North Korea) is ready to explain its intention behind this proposal directly to the United States. We're ready for that if the United States wants additional explanation about our proposal," North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador An Myong Hun said at a New York press conference. He added that "many things will be possible this year on the Korean Peninsula” if the proposal is accepted.
In other words, North Korea has perfectly laid the groundwork for another nuclear test. On the surface, it has presented itself as a reasonable party genuinely interested in dialogue and compromise. But, as the State Department recognized, the seemingly overture by the North was in reality a “veiled threat” that linked the U.S. and South Korea’s joint military exercise to North Korea’s nuclear tests. This creates the pretense that a North Korean nuclear test is justifiable if the joint military exercises proceed as they do each and every year. Thus, once the military drills begin, watch for North Korea to respond with a major provocation, which could very well take the form of a fourth nuclear test.
Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck