Countdown on to next North Korean provocation
March 20th, 2013
07:54 AM ET

Countdown on to next North Korean provocation

GPS speaks with Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, about the latest developments in North Korea.

The past few weeks have seen North Korean threats of striking the United States, turning a South Korean island into a sea of fire, and “cracking the windpipes” of the country’s enemies. Is this the usual saber rattling that we’ve come to expect of North Korea, or is there something more to this?

It’s usual in the sense that we’ve grown used to North Korea’s blustery rhetoric, threatening others. So that part of it is normal. What is not normal is that the backdrop for this is about a year of very unpredictable behavior by a new leadership, and a sequence of provocations that is more concentrated over a period of time than we have seen in the last 20 years. So in that context, although to the average listener these threats may seem like it’s just the North Koreans firing their mouths off again, for those of us that look at this more closely this is a little bit different – and more concerning.

Is this rhetoric largely for a domestic audience? Is it a sign that Kim Jong Un is struggling to stamp his authority?

Certainly, part of the explanation could be a domestic one, in the sense that he needs to demonstrate his legitimacy as a 28 year-old that is taking over power. But the other thing that I think from a U.S. national security perspective is that this speaks to how unpredictability is really the new normal in dealing with North Korea. North Korea may have seemed unpredictable before. But for policymakers, Pyongyang was actually fairly decipherable. The thing is that now, no one would have predicted that Kim would sit there and spend a whole day with Dennis Rodman, but wouldn’t even meet the chairman of Google. If this guy is really interested in reform, then even just a handshake with the chairman of Google would have signaled that he was somewhat serious. But no, he didn’t do that. So it’s that aspect of it that is concerning and also makes it difficult to say for sure that he is doing this just for domestic legitimacy.

Back in 2010, we saw the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel. South Korea’s response was, I think it’s fair to say, pretty restrained. Would they be so restrained if something similar happened again?

No, I think if there were another provocation that resulted in a loss of life in the Republic of Korea, then there would be a kinetic response from South Korea. I think they’ve made it clear in the aftermath of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong events, and I think the military has rewritten their rules of engagement, such that they are hardwired to respond in a way that it’s a military decision and not a political decision as it has been for the past 40 years.

Do you think North Korea senses this and so will avoid stepping over the line South Korea has drawn in the sand?

One hopes that’s the case. In spite of all the rhetoric, there are a couple of things that point to the possibility of at least some restraint in North Korean behavior in the near future. The first is that the U.S. and South Korea are in the middle of military exercises, and I think even the North Koreans know that it’s not smart to do something in the middle of military exercises.

I think the second thing is that one of the roles that China has been playing has been, through their own channels, to tell the North Koreans – especially after the Cheonan sinking – that they think the South Koreans will respond. It is much more credible if the Chinese say that to the North Koreans than if the South Koreans say that or we say that.

So I think those two things are positive. And I hope that it will lead to more moderate behavior in the near term. But we did a study at CSIS that showed that North Korea does do a military provocation within 12 to 14 weeks of every South Korean presidential inauguration, going back to 1992. That means within the next three weeks or so, we may see something else from the North. That is a striking pattern. The South Korean president was inaugurated on February 25, so start the clock.

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Topics: Asia • North Korea

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. sand

    if usa wants a war it can try china is going to nuke very city in the west first is going to be ireland dublin that is going to get nuked then ghana accra is going to be pulverized then usa britain and australia are going to go of the surface of the earth.

    March 20, 2013 at 8:44 am | Reply
    • D Brown

      Your crazy.

      March 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Reply
    • bhatian

      Do you work in North Korea?

      April 1, 2013 at 8:52 am | Reply
  2. Marine5484

    We can quit antagonizing the North Koreans and try to engage them in peace talks, but the right-wing thugs in Washington act as though they never heard of such a thing and that makes me sick! This is stupidity at it's worse or these people want to gain public support by scaring the public which is ignorant enough to believe them!

    March 20, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Tom

      Are you for real? We've been trying to get North Korea to engage in talks for years, but they keep telling us (and everyone else) to bugger off.

      March 21, 2013 at 10:25 am | Reply
  3. diosdado sasil

    americans and the west, including the U.N. proved impotent against north korean blackmail. all they have to do is give in.

    March 20, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  4. Germanicus

    Nothing to see here folks. When NK threatens total annihilation they are referring to what we will see in the imminent release a cheesy film with video game footage set to elevator music.

    March 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    It's more likely that this young Kim is indecisive, how he should portray himself at home and abroad. All these trappings of power and sabre rattling might just be a camouflage. No doubt, he wants to assert himself as leader of the nation and vis-à-vis the establishment and the people.
    He might be naive and ignorant but not that stupid to believe that other big powers in the region and the superpower, the US would be afraid of him and his country. Deep inside, he must feel uncertain and lonely. He knew he would be at ease with Dennis Rodman but chose to shun Eric Schmidt, because he didn't have anything to offer the Google boss.

    March 21, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
  6. Hans

    No trust, no support, no collaboration for Koreans. Neither North nor South Korea should not be done any business with, because it does not bring any benefits, but endangeres Western World.

    March 21, 2013 at 11:47 am | Reply
  7. Hahahahahahahha

    I think the 3rd guy from the left needs a hat. Hahahahahhahhaa

    March 21, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  8. jia ming

    NORTH KOREA Is to CHINA what EAST germany was to Russia, a useful PROXY FOR SABRE RATTLING AND ERODING AND EXHAUSTING WESTERN PREPAREDNESS CHINA COMMUNIST PARTY IS TO NORTH KORE WHAT a PUPetteer is to puppet. North KOREA for all intents and purposes is an undeclared province of the PRC. THE SCRIPT THAT PORTRAYS NOrth Korea as a functioning, AUTONOMOUS state barely and thankfully controlled by Communist China, is a massive, carefully orchestrated fraud.

    March 28, 2013 at 2:45 am | Reply

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