What the Hell Was That All About?

After scaring the world witless, has North Korea slunk back into its cave?


"Oh, you need timing" — Jimmy Jones’s memorable lyric from the summer of 1960 may be a bit retro for Kim Jong Un’s iPod. But it’s sure in his playbook.

Take those Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. After weeks of cat-and-mouse games, trundling the missiles around North Korea’s east coast, on May 6 spy satellites reported them gonethe day before U.S. President Barack Obama met South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Washington. Quite a gift to the "hostess" of the Blue House, South Korea’s government, as the Pyongyang party daily Rodong Sinmun rudely tagged her. As she huddled with Obama to ponder what to do about North Korea, Pyongyang sent a clear signal that, for now, the crisis is over. Indeed, after several weeks of tension, things are mostly calm again (though North Korea did manage to pop off a few short-range projectiles in recent days). And we’re left wondering: What the hell was that all about?

Even by North Korean standards, the tensions stoked this year have been extreme and prolonged. In February, the North has conducted its third nuclear test; it later cut hotlines to the South and tore up the 1953 Armistice and inter-Korean non-aggression pacts. On March 30 it declared a "state of war" with the South. Twenty separate statements, the latest on April 18, called for a "final battle" with the United States and South Korea, often also threatening a "merciless nuclear strike." What does it mean? What does Kim (or whoever actually runs North Korea) want from the world?

The ostensible reasons the North Koreans give — outrage at being denied peaceful use of space, a U.S.-led global conspiracy targeting them, and fear of U.S.-South Korean war games — won’t wash. Kim Jong Un may be new to this, but veterans like former nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan — who, during the Six Party Talks in 2005-2008 seemed to bond so well with U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill — know the rules. Launching a big rocket, with or without a satellite, in U.S. and U.N. eyes is a long-range missile test, and leads to more censures and sanctions.

Pyongyang’s faux rage at Security Council Resolutions 2087 of Jan. 22, and 2095 of March 7, which condemned its rocket launch and nuclear test respectively, recycled similar ludicrous canards it hurled at similar resolutions in 2006 and 2009, calling the Security Council, a "marionette of the U.S." A U.S. plot, and puppet? Hardly: Every resolution has been unanimous. China and Russia water down the wording, but they’re on board. It’s North Korea versus the world.

And that’s just the way they like it. Some believe that all their banging and shouting is just a bumpkin’s way of knocking on the door — rude and rough, but they are out in the cold and they want in. If that were true, Kim Jong Un just missed a prime opportunity. In 2002, Park, then an assemblywoman (but always the daughter of a former South Korean president) came to Pyongyang and dined with his dad, then leader Kim Jong Il — so they know her. Since 2011, she has called for "trustpolitik." Vague? No. It means: I Am Not Lee Myung-bak (the former president who refused to negotiate with the North). Try me. We can do business.

Yet Kim Jong Un refused to give Park or peace a chance. As in 2006 and 2009 — Pyongyang can be so predictable, when it’s not being unpredictable — Pyongyang followed its rocket launch with a nuclear test. Its timing — on Feb. 12, 2013, a fortnight before Park’s inauguration — not only rained on her parade but guaranteed yet one more Security Council knuckle-rap to wax angry about. Pyongyang also took more than its usual umbrage at the U.S.-South Korean war games that roll around every spring. North Korea is even notified of the dates, so its shrieks that this is an invasion plan ring hollow. (The North Koreans don’t believe their own propaganda, so nor should the rest of the world.)

But the United States flying stealth bombers over Korea in April as part of the annual military exercises: that was new. Writing in the London Review of Books in May, journalist Richard Lloyd Parry calls this "a very stupid thing to do" which "sprinkle[d] gunpowder on the North’s indignation," as Washington soon realized. But, as he also notes, North Korea was "issu[ing] an inflammatory statement pretty much every day," including threats to nuke the United States. As Chuck Hagel put it in early April, "it only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense that was wrong once."

Some northern bluster was clearly bluff, and was duly called. The government offered to help diplomats in Pyongyang leave; none did. With monstrous cheek — states just don’t do this — they also urged foreigners in the South to flee; one or two did. But since that cohort includes 200,000 Chinese, it was clear they had to be kidding.

Yet their April feint to shut the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which looked like a bluff too, turned out to be serious. That Pyongyang closed it is both worrisome and confusing. As the last major inter-Korean joint venture, staffed by citizens of both countries and providing $90 million of wages annually to North Korea, the complex served to restrain hotheads. It’s now suspended, unlikely to reopen soon, or perhaps ever. When the next crisis rolls around, as it indubitably will, this restraining influence won’t be there. Provocations à la 2010 — when Pyongyang torpedoed a South Korean ship and shelled an island near the border — may thus be likelier.

The puzzle is that North Korea recently said it wants more Kaesongs. On April 1, then premier Choe Yong Rim told the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament: "Joint venture[s] should be actively promoted" and "setting up economic development zones be pushed forward." A week later the North pulled out its workers and sabotaged Kaesong.

Kim Jong Un reckons he can have guns and butter. Known as "byungjin" in Korean, this is the new party line: both nuclear weapons and a b
etter economy. How Kim will square the circle is unclear. The threats have subsided, but the demands have begun and they remain as unreasonable as ever. To restart Kaesong, Pyongyang insists not only on apologies but also cancellation of several upcoming military exercises. Noting that Kaesong was premised on separating economics and politics, Seoul rightly branded this demand "completely incomprehensible and unfair."

Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons distinguished two types of action: instrumental and expressive. Diplomacy usually runs on the former, where its purpose is to achieve something. But expressive action, like Muhammad Ali’s "I am the greatest," just is.

Much of the recent Pyongyang bombast proclaims what North Korea is, rather than what it wants. March 30’s declaration of war, after threatening "the U.S. imperialists" with "merciless nuclear attack," went on: "They should clearly know that in the era of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the greatest-ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past." Maybe the other wild threats should be read the same way, though it’s hard to know — and one still wishes a sovereign state wouldn’t talk trash like a terrorist.

Or perhaps this is covert instrumentalism. "Don’t mess with me" is Kim’s message — but to whom? The West? China? Or his own generals — whom he is busy divesting of juicy mining contracts? It is hard to make sense of North Korea’s recent actions and current demeanor. Bellicose bluster is nothing new, but it used to be calibrated to achieve specific goals.

A surprising variety of experts still insist that the North is a rational actor. Maybe before Kim Jong Un. There’s a new kid at the wheel, and despite claims that he could drive at a young age, he doesn’t seem to know either how to steer or where he’s going. His learning curve may prove steep for us all.

<p> Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Britain's Leeds University. </p>