North Korea is out of options

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North Korea must provoke its ‘enemies’ – especially the United States – to survive. By provoking its enemies – who respond with predictable countermeasures to North Korea’s aggression – the North Korean leadership can prove to its citizens that they can only survive because of the bravery of its ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Un.

North Korea is dependent on the creation of tensions, it then uses to ensure internal stability, and the survival of its regime.

This dynamic – of which the United States has become an integral part – is highly dysfunctional; because threats for the North Korean regime to be effective, must be made at an increasing rate. An increase in threats is accomplished by introducing increasingly destructive weapons – long-range nuclear missiles – and by increasing the frequency of threats. In the process, North Korea’s leadership has become ‘addicted’ to tensions.

So far, this ‘sick’ strategy has worked for North Korea, but has now reached a number of limits: (1) The United States no longer accepts the increasing threats, now the United States itself has come within reach of nuclear capabilities, and (2) self-reinforcing threat-dynamic has now reached a point when it is no longer sustainable for North Korea.

North Korea has not only put the United States in a corner, but has itself also run out of options, I explain in this article.

In an article in the Washington Post with the title “A timeline of North Korea’s five nuclear tests and how the U.S. has responded” is shown.

See below figures:

NK tests

NK, five nuclear tests

However, this data reveals much more than is discussed in the Washington Post: The data also reveals the unsustainability of this ‘dynamic’ for North Korea, irrespective of the response of the United Nations, in the current show down.

See figures below:

NK, afb tests 98-16, PNG

Above figure shows the moving average of the number of tests during three successive years, starting in 1998. The moving average makes it easier to identify trends (which is not a challenge). This figure shows that the threat- frequency constantly increases. Such an increase is at a certain point unsustainable, independent of reactions of the United States.  

NK, afb nuclear tests, PNGAbove figure shows the months between successive nuclear tests. The tests were probably temporarily delayed because of the transfer of leadership to Kim Jong Un. The figure also shows that the threat- frequency constantly increases. Such an increase is also unsustainable. 

The threat level – the fact that the United States has become vulnerable for a (nuclear) attack from North Korea – and the threat frequency have (almost) reached their limits as useful instruments for North Korea to raise tensions: North Korea cannot develop a more serious threat, and an increase in the frequency of threats is not much longer sustainable.

For an increase in the frequency of threats, ‘increasing’ amounts of resources are required.

What will now happen? It is possible to distinguish a number of scenario’s that would stop these dynamics, including:

(1) War. In this scenario, a showdown escalates into open war, because of a (1) pre-emptive attack of the United States, (2) an attack of North Korea, or (3) a simple incident.

(2) A fundamental change in strategy to produce tensions; pushing other limits. North Korea’s leadership decides to decrease its threat frequency, because they are no longer sustainable (for example because investments in threats become counter productive and start undermining North Korea’s stability). Such a decision poses serious risks for North Korea’s leadership; it has made itself dependent on threats and tensions. It then – according to its own logic – loses credibility and ‘legitimacy’ with its citizens. In other words, its strategy backfires, and its leadership is unmasked as bluffers. To avoid this, North Korea must ‘invent’ other provocations and threats, to raise tensions.

(3) Comply with demands. This would mean – from the perspective of North Korea’s leadership – that defeat must be accepted. Safe-facing measures could be helpful in organising a soft-landing. China could play a crucial role.

However, then still, the crucial – underlying – issue is not yet addressed: Will a united Korea align with the United States or witch China?  Both powers still have enough to quarrel about: To be continued.


Addition (this article was written yesterday (15 April, 2017), before North Korea’s failed missile test, later that day): The failed missile launch yesterday, reveals certain North Korean limitations, however, this failed test will not make the world a safer place; probably to the contrary.

Although, the failure will be kept secret (as far as possible) within North Korea, to ensure the credibility of the “Dear Leader’, it will urge North Korea to proof to its ‘enemies’ that it poses a serious threat, and cannot be ignored.