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North Korea Needs to Extort Democracies to Survive

As it cuts off communications, Pyongyang falls back on an old playbook.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House in Panmunjom, South Korea, on April 27, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House in Panmunjom, South Korea, on April 27, 2018. Pool/Getty Images

Pyongyang has made clear this week that its patience for business as usual with Washington and Seoul is wearing thin. Cutting off all official communication lines, including military hotlines with Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and its chorus of state media outlets deemed South Korea an “enemy” that it would turn against.

The swift deterioration of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang once again dashed the lofty aspirations of the peace-craving administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which had staked its legacy on emerging as “the architect of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.”

The events of the week harkened back to the single most scrutinized line in Kim’s 2019 New Year’s address—his admonition that if the United States maintained its pressure campaign against North Korea, he would be compelled to find a “new way … for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.” Analysts at the time predicted a renewed spate of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests or a North Korean pivot back to China.

Pyongyang has made clear this week that its patience for business as usual with Washington and Seoul is wearing thin. Cutting off all official communication lines, including military hotlines with Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime and its chorus of state media outlets deemed South Korea an “enemy” that it would turn against.

The swift deterioration of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang once again dashed the lofty aspirations of the peace-craving administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which had staked its legacy on emerging as “the architect of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.”

The events of the week harkened back to the single most scrutinized line in Kim’s 2019 New Year’s address—his admonition that if the United States maintained its pressure campaign against North Korea, he would be compelled to find a “new way … for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.” Analysts at the time predicted a renewed spate of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests or a North Korean pivot back to China.

But this isn’t a masterful new strategy. The reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely constrained North Korea’s maneuvering space, and it is thus returning to old methods – ones that have worked well for it in the past.  Two years after Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, with much fanfare, signed a historic joint statement in Singapore, the United States and North Korea are locked in a very different kind of “freeze for freeze” than envisioned.

Pyongyang’s latest ploy to stir the pot by antagonizing the Moon administration is part of a well-established diplomatic playbook to extract near-term concessions from both Washington and Seoul—a gambit made all the more urgent by the devastation that the pandemic has wrought on North Korea and its economy. And while Pyongyang has consistently reported zero COVID-19 cases, a statistic widely rejected by experts, cities straddling the China-North Korea border have recently seen a surge in infections. To safeguard against cross-border transmission of the virus, North Korea took swift and drastic action beginning in January such as locking down its borders to the outside world, including China, its largest trading partner.

These measures have deeply afflicted an economy already battered by sanctions. North Korean trade with China reportedly contracted by 24 percent in January and February at the height of the pandemic, according to official statistics from China’s customs agency. Meanwhile, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea this week cited a 90 percent fall in trade between North Korea and China in March and April and warned of “drastic” food shortages in the country.

But while North Korea has been forced into a position of relative vulnerability, a series of time-tested diplomatic stratagems give Pyongyang strategic cover to maneuver with strength.

Since the June 2018 Singapore summit, Pyongyang has embarked on a war of attrition—draining U.S. diplomatic stamina by flip-flopping on rhetoric, keeping commitments as vague as possible, and dragging out verification procedures and timelines. Kim has wagered that he can use negotiations to seek economic relief and investments, particularly from Beijing, while evading any meaningful denuclearization action by waiting out the Trump administration and its demands for rapid, complete denuclearization. Kim’s foot-dragging tactics have squandered precious time for negotiation to work, running the clock out on “maximum pressure” and weakening the severity of sanctions arrayed against North Korea. Barring a sudden U.S. decision to unilaterally escalate tensions, the time-killing strategy has undermined a real chance at curbing North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Pyongyang’s playbook has been undergirded by a keen understanding of the importance of steadily building constructive relationships with key stakeholders in the region—which brought it the time it needed. In the months following his initial foray into diplomacy with the Trump administration, Kim shuttled between Beijing, Panmunjom, and Vladivostok, building up credibility with some of the most important players in the region. He thrust his country onto the world stage by tugging at the heartstrings of a dovish South Korean government, while positioning North Korea to extract concessions from the United States and China by playing off mutual antagonism.

And despite its isolation, Pyongyang is closely attuned to the political environments in democratic countries—as well as the peculiarities of their leaders. North Korea’s diplomacy has been buoyed by a unique alignment of stars. The political upsets that swept Trump and Moon into power provided North Korea with a narrow window of opportunity to break out of its decadeslong deadlock with two of its longtime adversaries. Kim found in Trump a highly unorthodox, perhaps even sympathetic U.S. leader, and in Moon a deep-seated yearning for inter-Korean peace—and Kim has aggressively capitalized on their idiosyncrasies.

Yet while Kim certainly shares Trump’s penchant for theatrics and fiery rhetoric, he and his cadre of advisors are fundamentally incrementalists when it comes to navigating nuclear negotiations. As a matter of regime survival, they cannot afford massive, abrupt change or risk. In the past two years, Pyongyang has thus not only sought to pressure South Korea and reassure North Koreans of North Korea’s military might, but it has also probed the upper limits of the United States and its allies’ trigger points. In 2019 alone, after a year of silence brought on by the promise of post-Singapore concessions, North Korea launched 19 short-range ballistic missiles into South Korean and Japanese waters. The latest provocation is thus effectively a test—and one particularly aimed at Seoul.

At base, the Kim regime’s provocations are rooted in a desire for resources, survival, and stability. In weighing and executing its responses, Washington and Seoul should judiciously separate Pyongyang’s latest theatrics and rhetorical flourishes from its underlying intentions.

The humanitarian crisis that is brewing within North Korean borders amid the pandemic should certainly be a priority for South Korea as well as the United States. The Moon administration, in coordination with Washington, would be well served to lead a coordinated response within existing multilateral structures, including and beyond the United Nations, to meet pressing needs that the North Korean population faces, such as for medical supplies. This is particularly critical as Beijing is angling to tighten its vise over North Korea by casting the Kim regime a lifeline through capacity building and other assistance in combating the pandemic.

But as Pyongyang revisits an old playbook, Washington should also return to the fundamentals that undergird U.S. policy in Northeast Asia—that is, alliance management. As North Korea probes for new pressure points in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, it has never been more imperative that Washington carefully steward its ties with Seoul. In particular, this requires moving away from a maximalist position in future Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks. The Trump administration’s focus on maximizing the financial resources put up by U.S. allies has introduced additional friction into the United States’ alliance with South Korea at a time when renewed volatility in inter-Korean relations demands airtight coordination between the allies.

Fortune has not favored the bold in dealing with North Korea. While the United States has confidently pursued summitry with North Korea and Moon has called for “bold action” to bring an end to the Korean conflict, Pyongyang has quietly and incrementally laid the groundwork to tighten its grip over and even expand its nuclear arsenal. Unless Washington can return to fundamentals of alliance management, Pyongyang will only continue to opportunistically exploit pressure points in the U.S.-South Korea relationship and manufacture crises to extract concessions from one or both countries.

 

Kristine Lee is a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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