Daniel W. Drezner

So can I automate my posts on North Korea or not?

So can I automate my posts on North Korea or not?

Your humble blogger has been too hard at work trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I’ve been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.

Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it’s necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I’ve been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I’m nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.

So, after the missile test and the third nuclear test and the inevitable ratcheting up of United Nations sanctions, what’s so troubling now? Well…

1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."

2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.

3) North Korea’s propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.

4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.

5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now — a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.

So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?

Well … I think it’s the former. First, let’s just ignore the DPRK’s rhetoric, because it’s always over the top — or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let’s look at the DPRK’s actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn’t necessarily mean much, as McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter points out:

Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…

The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.

But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.

So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there’s the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it’s actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.

So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:

No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)

The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.

The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.

Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing’s growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind’s assessment that this disenchantment won’t necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:

One shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions — this time as before — the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…

Because the specter of North Korea’s collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country’s [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China’s dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.

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I’d be even more skeptical. Obviously, China’s leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner — but they really don’t want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they’re disenchanted, they won’t apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.

So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.

Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I’m dubious that anything will change.

Am I missing anything?