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North Korea “Backs Off”?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
December 21, 2010

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il walks in front of his youngest son Kim Jong-un as they watch a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters)

So, the New York Times says that North Korea’s failure to respond to yesterday’s South Korean live-fire drills “could signal [a] new policy”—namely, that Pyongyang, to quote a South Korean analyst cited in the article, may be “trying to create the mood for dialogue.”

We’ll see.  But, sorry, I just don’t buy it.

Why didn’t North Korea act after all the bluster? The fact is, North Korea often rains fiery rhetoric on the South. And conflict this time was unlikely because North Korea did not need to strike, having already achieved many of its objectives.

Three explanations, taken together, probably explain what happened yesterday:  (1) Beijing, humiliated by the 23 November attack, surely used (private) channels to tell Pyongyang to knock it off.  (2) Pyongyang, quite simply, did not need to respond to yesterday’s exercise, having already accomplished its objective of humiliating South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and keeping Seoul off balance.  And (3) North Korea’s threats of future attack remain credible; put differently, yesterday’s non-response would in no way suggest to Seoul or Washington that Pyongyang has “gone soft.”

A statement from the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army blustered, but, ultimately, dismissed the affair; Pyongyang, the statement claimed, “[does] not feel any need to retaliate against every” South Korean action.

The bottom line, then, remains that North Korea is prone to provocative behavior, in large part for domestic reasons, and will continue to challenge South Korea, in particular. Such provocations seem most unlikely before Chinese president Hu Jintao’s mid-January visit to Washington; on that, Beijing and Pyongyang have probably reached consensus.  But, after Hu heads home, I suspect North Korea will again refocus on South Korea, judging its military to be vulnerable.

After all, unlike the events of 23 November, Seoul is better prepared for the next North Korean attack.  The South Korean military has been criticized for performing poorly during the 23 November incident.  So, Seoul has loosened its rules of engagement, deployed additional assets to the vicinity, and sought to bolster conventional deterrence through military displays, such as today’s live-fire exercise near Yeonpyeong island.  Some in South Korea, particularly in the military, are itching for a rematch, and it’s not that hard to see why:  they are determined to demonstrate (including to China) that the South will no longer be North Korea’s punching bag.

But North Korea is unlikely to be so accommodating.  Pyongyang will continue to make an issue out of the Northern Limit Line (which it does not recognize) but seems more likely to preserve the element of tactical surprise by striking elsewhere, and at a time (and in a manner) of its choosing.

Indeed, this is the central dilemma facing Lee and South Korea:  The South has everything to lose from a conflict, so the North benefits more from escalation.

For that reason, and despite some change in the South’s posture, I suspect this means Seoul will remain pretty risk-averse. The South will likely seek to preserve a ladder of escalation in future responses to North Korean actions.  It will aim to respond proportionately; more likely, it will still respond conservatively.

Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul continue to gamble that common sense and Chinese leverage will set limits on further escalation by Pyongyang.  But China’s track record of “restraining” North Korea is strikingly poor.  Since 2006, despite supposed Chinese pressure, Pyongyang has tested two nuclear devices, run four missile exercises, torpedoed a South Korean corvette, and shelled a South Korean island.  Indeed, China and North Korea have grown closer throughout this period, with the North feting Chinese officials and working to invest Beijing in the political succession to Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-un.

In truth, Pyongyang shows little deference to Chinese preferences.  But, as a logical result, the crisis has sharpened Chinese tensions with Washington and Seoul.  Like a growing number of issues in US-China relations, this one will produce more rancor than agreement.  And, for its part, Seoul remains furious at Beijing’s efforts to shield the North.  Rhetoric could heat up further in the wake of Seoul’s 18 December detention of Chinese fishermen.  But, unlike a similar September incident with Japan, Beijing and Seoul have every reason to deescalate.  Indeed, unlike all things Japanese, South Korea does not stir the same nationalistic passions in China.  Still, a bad taste will linger on both sides, further fueling mutual suspicion.

Even when it does, well, nothing, it’s extraordinary how North Korea still stirs the pot in Northeast Asia at everyone else’s expense.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Jeff Blokker

    North Korea is acting like a frightened little animal cornered with its back against the wall. South Korea should be very careful and not poke sticks at them. If they do, North Korea may have a near death experience and lash out with all the force it can muster (namely nuclear weapons) as a last ditch effort to save their own life. They need to be encouraged to look at China as a successful example of the direction a Communist society can take.

  • Posted by Danram

    Totally agree. North Korea is just biding its time until its next military provocation. Thanks to Wikileaks, NK’s rulers now know that the Chinese are getting tired of covering for them, making it much more likely that they will lash out militarily to try and save their tottering regime.

    It’s time to acknowledge the fact that, however much we wish it weren’t so, war with North Korea is coming sooner or later. As such, we now need to be doing everything in our power to weaken and undermine that odious, utterly contemptible regime so that when war does come, we can get it over with as quickly as possible.

  • Posted by pat kelly

    Having an eleventh hour diplomat show up in North Korea to save the day, made all of the sacrifice and strong stance taken over the last several years, have the look at least, of being in vain.
    Even if no official ties to the Richards visit is openly given, it exists; no one waltzes into North Korea with out bearing gifts. I can only imagine how sold out the South must feel, like useful idiots to coin J.S.
    Now the world political landscape hinges on Wiki and the Koreas.
    Even if somehow Wiki is an asset and Kim buys it and sets his sites on China, hoping to gain a new master in the west.

    this could be a mistake because the North Koreans are not as weak as Vietnam was in the late 1970, when china briefly invaded.
    If the North Koreans strike China you will be hard pressed to keep Taiwan out of it and
    China could loose. That would create a mess similar to Europe when the USSR dissolved leaving a power chasm in its place.

  • Posted by David Gravit

    Remember, South Korea’s live fire drills also have ‘domestic reasons’. As noted at, the live fire drills allowed the Lee Myung-Bak administration to demonstrate resolve in the face of a North Korean threat, thereby reducing critics of the administration’s response to the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyong shelling. There certainly was a lot of rhetoric floated in the media regarding this particular North Korean threat of force (despite similar threats coming every second statement).

  • Posted by Mike Urena

    Personally I think Evan’s post is spot on with regard to DPRK thinking, to wit: “The South has everything to lose from a conflict, so the North benefits more from escalation.”

    Victor Cha made similar arguments in his piece for International Security back in the Summer of 2002. Cha noted the DPRKs risk acceptant approach in pursuit of its interests and applied behavioral theories, and in particular Prospect Theory, in a manner that helps shine some light on DPRK thinking. Much of the analyis on the DPRK assumes they won’t cross various red lines (despite the record of recent provocations cited above)out of fear they’d have prohibitive costs imposed on them by the UNC or because the Chinese will coerce/persuade them to do otherwise but I worry that this reflects a poverty of expectations, or worse wishfulness, more than an accurate depiction of likely DPRK behavior.

  • Posted by Zach Alsgaard

    We can write and analyze things from thousands of miles away, but none of us can understand or begin to predict what happens when soldiers and civilians on the ground are being shot at. Short of some miracle, I believe this crisis has already escalated to a point where all-out war is all but guaranteed in the coming decade…

  • Posted by john

    if you actually think china will actually step in and stop n.korea’re crazy …china thinks “long term “..its in their interest to have an “agitator ” keeping the West at bay ..contained at the North limit line .China has only capitulated to the expansion of “capitalism ” because its contained within their borders ,under their terms .controlled by them ..when their country has been sufficiently developed industrially..they will find a way to kick out outside influences and investors..N. Korea serves their interest to stop such expansion by the west and also to appear as a “bargaining chip ” ..that they will intercede ..which ..they never have ..and i doubt they ever need only look at the recent law imposed outlawing the use of written english within China see where they stand .

  • Posted by Ian

    China will never abide by a western style democracy on its borders. People keep saying that China has the most number of bordering countries in the world. Well, if South Korea was to absorb the North, there will be just one country along its borders with strong western style democracy and with strong economy. This is probably something that would be deeply unsettling to the Central Polit Bureau of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore the insistence on the part of China for the existence of North Korea at all cost. This is precisely the reason why the US and the rest of the world with vested interest in thawing the one-party controlled monolithic frozen China to support efforts for the South Korea to unify/absorb the North Korea.

  • Posted by pat kelly

    China is changing rapidly and it must be hard to keep a tight lid such a large country with so many people. Cultural protection laws are a sign control errotion. They must be scared that the changes are taking place with little to no effort. That can translate into becoming interdependant with the world economy and not being isolated with only Hong Kong as their western role model. Once they take a dip in that pond along with its corruption and greed, going backwards would take a lot more than to quail than their last uprising.
    Dr. Kissanger mentioned that with their 10percent pop growth they would soon expand their border, but where.
    North Korea is a cancer on their growth, it is their problem to solve, and it will bite them one day.

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