War of Words: A Post-Mortem

The “war of words” between North Korea and the United States and its allies ended as suddenly as it began. But while U.S.-China cooperation has improved, the unwillingness of North Korea to make serious moves toward denuclearization means tension will inevitably flare up again in the future.

South Korean protesters gather with a mock North Korean rocket, center, and defaced portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally against North Korea ahead of the 63rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, June 24, 2013. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)
South Korean protesters gather with a mock North Korean rocket, center, and defaced portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally against North Korea ahead of the 63rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, June 24, 2013. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)

The so-called war of words between North Korea and the United States, as well as its allies South Korea and Japan, appeared to end just as quickly as it began, with tensions greatly reduced though not completely absent.

A period of extreme tension on the Peninsula began in December 2012 with North Korea’s long-range rocket launch and nuclear test, as well as the resulting U.N. Security Council resolutions opposing efforts to hit the North with tougher sanctions. In addition, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was inaugurated in February, and large-scale joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises began in early March.

North Korea’s belligerent tone in response had little parallel, and every day seemed to bring new threats of nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies. For over a month, North Korea was front-page news, no doubt to the delight of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his closest associates. When North Korea moved Musudan rockets to the east coast, seemingly preparing for a missile test of their newest weapons system, the situation appeared to be hitting a boiling point. Some were even calling for a preemptive strike by the United States on these rockets, while Japan made contingency plans to shoot them down if any parts threatened to hit its territory.

But the movement of the Musudan rockets actually represented the final provocation in the war of words. The North celebrated their founder—and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather—Kim Il-sung’s birthday in an uncharacteristically subdued fashion and without the rocket launch that accompanied last year’s festivities. Military Foundation Day also came and went with only a military parade to celebrate. The rhetoric, while still harsh, was reduced to a more or less normal level. And even Kim Jong-un began to eschew visits to military units in favor of watching soccer games and concerts.

So now that the dust has settled, it is worth looking at the lessons learned from this war of words.

First, there appears to be a breaking point to Chinese patience with their mercurial ally North Korea and Pyongyang’s actions and rhetoric. But signs of overt action still remain mixed. Even as Chinese banks begin to implement financial sanctions to a degree not seen in the past, for example, Chinese aid to North Korea has reportedly been restarted, and major economic projects between the two continue to move forward. Yet there has also been a definite shift in the public dialogue about North Korea, with more Chinese scholars and citizens voicing their disapproval—on websites such as Weibo, China’s version of Twitter—of not only the North Korean regime but also China’s blanket support for it. The detention of 16 Chinese fishermen by the North Koreans only exacerbated tensions between the two countries. Even though North Korea may be wary of Chinese influence within the country, the fact that Kim Jong-un personally sent a high-level envoy to meet with the Chinese leadership shows that North Korean leaders understand there are limits to how far they can push things.

There also appears to be an increase in China’s willingness to discuss the situation in North Korea with the United States. The amount of time devoted to North Korea at the recent summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping was an especially positive sign. President Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, confirmed both sides agreed that North Korea must denuclearize and neither would accept North Korea as a nuclear state. They also pledged to deepen U.S.-China cooperation on the issue. While China’s strategic concerns will limit the amount of pressure it is willing to apply, its actions in response to North Korea’s provocations are a step in the right direction. One major question going forward is whether China is willing to engage with the United States and the Republic of Korea, or ROK, on contingency planning in case the North Korean government collapses. Thus far, China has resisted talks on the future of the Korean Peninsula, but a frank discussion would create much-needed transparency on what comes next.

Second, a strong but measured deterrence policy can have an effect, even in preventing small-scale North Korean provocations. South Korean President Park should be commended for having shown a steady hand in the face of her first major foreign-relations crisis. While saying she “will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation,” Park has also consistently pushed for engaging North Korea and building trust. She has called, for example, for delinking from the political situation any humanitarian aid for North Korean citizens. North Korea likes to test the newly inaugurated leaders of the United States and South Korea to see how far they can be pushed; in this case, President Park passed with flying colors.

Furthermore, her willingness to engage the Chinese, as well as her ability to speak Mandarin fluently, may also boost cooperation between the two countries on the North Korean issue. Her summit meeting with President Xi last week was largely seen as a success, with China reiterating that North Korea must denuclearize and the Chinese and South Koreans also releasing a joint communiqué calling for cooperation along a wide range of political and security issues. Seventy-one South Korean businessmen also joined President Park on the trip, which could lay the groundwork for expanded economic ties between the two countries.

Third, an effective North Korea policy requires cooperation and coordination between the United States, South Korea, and Japan in order to present a united front. A very positive sign in the past month is that the three countries have approached North Korea’s “peace offensive” with caution, not allowing themselves to be played against one another, as North Korea has done with some success in the past. Historical issues unfortunately continue to seriously harm the Japanese-South Korean bilateral relationship.

Finally, the North Korean regime remains as highly resistant to change as ever, and while not a new lesson, it is one that bears repeating. The country remains resistant to reform at the elite levels, even as underground markets that have sprouted since the late 1990s continue to change the country from the bottom up by introducing capitalist elements outside of the regime’s control. At a party meeting in April, North Korea introduced a new policy line of simultaneously developing the economy and nuclear weapons (byungjin), an indication that the nuclear program is likely here to stay.

Since tensions eased, the North Koreans have been on a peace offensive, opening up—or holding out—the possibility of negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States, as well as sending a high-level envoy to China. But at the same time they have made clear that their nuclear program is here to stay—a position completely at odds with the four other major players in the region. There is therefore little likely to be accomplished by high-level negotiations as long as North Korea is intent on being recognized as a nuclear power. The fear of legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear program means there must be a high threshold for bilateral negotiations between the North and the United States. Even negotiations over humanitarian aid must include proper oversight to ensure the aid ends up in the mouths of needy citizens, not the elite and military.

Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Luke Herman is a researcher with the National Security team at the Center.

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