This article was (not coincidentally) originally posted on January 20, 2017, President Trump’s inauguration day
Provoke to survive: a dysfunctional dynamic.
North Korea’s regularly provokes its neighbors (South Korea and Japan), the United States, and the United Nations, with aggressive behavior, and non-compliance with UN-resolutions that are imposed because of its nuclear and missile program.
How long can this dysfunctional dynamic continue?
The problem is that North Korea’s leadership has become dependent on these provocations and threats for its own survival: By threatening its neighbors and the United States, and by provoking the United Nations, it provokes ‘counter threats’ the leadership uses to legitimize its absolute control over North Korea. North Korea’s population is left in the delusion that it is under constant siege, and that only its leadership – Kim Jong-un – can protect it from outside aggression and collapse. It is North Korea against ‘the World’.
Each ‘successful’ threat is used to further reinforce Kim Jong-un’s status, and further fuels the personality cult the leadership carefully nurtures.
Total isolation is a prerequisite for the North Korean leadership to keep this perception intact: No information is allowed to leak in. It is the Truman Show at a different level, where the North-Korean leadership is the cast, and North Korea’s population ‘plays’ the role of Truman, and is skillfully misled.
A vicious circle, with its own dynamic.
North Korea’s threats follow a standard script, at least until now: North Korea makes a specific threat towards its neighbors and/or openly defies the United Nations. By doing so, it provokes counter threats that allow the North Korean leadership to re-confirm its vital role for its population; concessions from the ‘enemy’ are presented as a victory. The North Korean leadership is ‘served’ at its wishes.
These threats and counter-threats have become a vicious circle – a self-containing dynamical system – of which North Korea’s neighbors, the United States and the United Nations are integral parts. North Korea’s increasingly dysfunctional behavior is facilitated by a number of ‘supporting actors’.
For North Korea’s threats to be credible, it must have the means (capabilities), and the will to carry them out. For that reason, North Korea constantly improves its nuclear and missile capabilities. Its ‘will’, it demonstrates by testing these capabilities, and by provocative actions in the region. Because these threats and provocations necessarily become ‘greater’, there is a limit to this dynamic.
The fact that it is only a (very) short matter of time, before North Korea can directly threaten the United States with ballistic missiles it is currently developing, is a game-changer. Although, the United States is probably aware of the threat/counter-threat dynamic it is itself an integral part and facilitator of, as a Great Power it cannot allow itself to be blackmailed by North-Korea: That are the ‘rules’ of the anarchistic International System, in which status and credibility play an important role.
Because of the increasing rivalries and tensions in the International System, the United States will be more sensitive to these threats and counter threats. The aggressive style and assertiveness of the new American president, will further reinforce these escalatory dynamics.
How to deal with North Korea’s threats?
(1) Ignoring North Korea’s threats. Ignoring North Korea’s threat would stop the dysfunctional dynamic. However, for North Korea’s leadership is ‘backing-down’ not an option. If a counter-threat fails to materialize, North Korea’s leadership cannot confirm its vital role with respect to its population; its leadership fails.
It should also be recognized that North Korea’s threats are probably no bluff; the survival of its leadership depends on it. In case North Korea’s threats are ignored, it will probably increase the stakes. The United States will interpret these (new) threats as a test of its own credibility.
Given the current condition of the International System (the high tension levels and rivalries), other states will probably try to interfere in these developments, and use them for their own interests.
(2) Pushing China to reign in North Korea. It seems that China still has some influence over North Korea’s leadership. However, from China’s perspective, allowing North Korea to collapse, or the United States to ‘take on’ North Korea, risks the unification of North and South Korea, probably implying that an ally of the United States will border directly with China. It can be expected that China will not allow the United States to interfere directly in China’s sphere of influence. It should be reminded: At this stage, China is in the process of enlarging its sphere of influence.
(3) Preemptively destroying North Korea’s capabilities. This is a very risky course of action; it is probably possible to destroy North Korea’s nuclear (and long-range) weapon capabilities in a first strike, but North Korea can also deploy significant other capabilities against (especially) South Korea, which cannot be neutralized in such a strike. A confrontation (war) is unavoidable.
(4) Subverting North Korea’s leadership. This can be accomplished through ‘leaking in’ information. The effect of such a campaign – subverting the leadership – is until now not successful. Its contribution is not (yet) clear.
(5) Guaranteeing ‘free passage’ for North Korea’s leadership. In case of this course of action North Korea’s leadership is guaranteed an alternative future.
The options are limited, and not without risks. The threat/counter-threat dynamic runs its own course.
Like the Truman Show however, it is just a matter of time before the ‘stage’ will unravel; time is running out for North Korea’s leadership, but also for its neighbors and the United States.