As North Korea celebrates 80 years and uses the occasion to lash out at the treacherous South with vows of a “sacred war” and to boast of its nuclear strike capability against the US, it won’t do to brush Pyongyang aside as simply irrational and unpredictable.
Pyongyang is anything but irrational, and while it may be unpredictable, that only attests to the US Intelligence Community’s inability to get a handle on North Korea, which has very painstakingly and deliberately calculated every move it has made under the late Kim Jong-il and his successor son, four-star General Kim Jong-un.
There was no relief on 13 April, when North Korea’s launch of a multi-stage missile failed, exploding only two minutes into its flight over the Yellow Sea. North Korea’s main geopolitical negotiating card is the nuclear deterrent, and this failure means that it now has something more to prove, and that proof is certainly being seen as urgent in the corridors of the Pyongyang palace.
Satellite images reportedly show new digging at underground locations that have served as the site of previous nuclear detonations, and there are concerns that North Korea is preparing for another nuclear missile test.
Since the 1980s, North Korea has been working to produce weapons-grade plutonium and could probably make half a dozen nuclear warheads according to guestimates by various experts. In 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear warhead, which wasn’t as successful as Pyongyang hoped, producing a weak blast, less than one kiloton. The second test in 2009 was more successful, with a more powerful blast, though no one is sure exactly how powerful.
North Korea has also dabbled in a fair amount of nuclear proliferation (possibly with Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar), which is almost as important to Pyongyang as the nuclear deterrent for the money it brings in.
Here are two more cards that North Korea has to play – cards that allow it to demonstrate its nuclear deterrence without too much of a backlash: Russia and China have a vested interest in keeping their condemnations of Pyongyang to a bare minimum. Russia has its eye on building a pipeline through North Korea, so it wouldn’t do to rock that boat, and China’s investments in the country are not inconsiderable.
South Korea remains unprovoked largely, on the surface, ignoring the saber-rattling and focusing instead on addressing the North’s food crisis. The US continues to condemn Pyongyang with the same phrases that have been repeated throughout the years, though Washington did move in February to end a food aid deal with North Korea after an attempted rocket launch.
This response, however, seems to be informed by the perception that there is no negotiating with North Korea because it is irrational and unpredictable. Pyongyang can be engaged, but successful engagement will require the ability of the US Intelligence Community to chart the past decade of calculated moves by North Korea and base a strategy on the risk-award trends that emerge.
A good starting point is to understand Pyongyang’s massive insecurities and how those insecurities, which are growing, dictate policy. (Another good starting point is to admit that we are horrifyingly ignorant about North Korea).
Most recently, the late Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of current leader Kim Jong-un, has been stirring things up with dire predictions about the fate of North Korea, piling on internal insecurities. Jong Nam “disappeared” from North Korea sometime around 2002, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the next successor. Since then, he has been talking a lot, to the press. His comments about the weakness of the Holy bloodline have surely rankled in Pyongyang.
The death of Kim Jong-il and the very long process of ensuring a smooth succession in advance of his death was also an extremely insecure time for North Korea. When insecurities mount and North Korea feels it is losing ground in some way, it is forced to remind the world that it is, indeed, powerful.
There is nothing irrational about this, and certainly this demonstrates that there is room for engagement, combined with some more astute, innovative and comprehensive intelligence collection and analysis that can better determine what to trade diplomatically.
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.