[Viewpoint] Watch for a provocation

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[Viewpoint] Watch for a provocation

The South Korean media is preoccupied with the question of when and how dialogue with North Korea might resume, but in Pyongyang’s playbook it is possible, perhaps even probable, that the next move will not be dialogue, but another provocation.

The first factor is the rapidly slowing momentum towards dialogue. When Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan visited Washington on June 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly put some subtle encouragement, if not pressure, on Kim to relax the preconditions for North-South.

The Barack Obama administration does not want to be seen as diverging from the Lee Myung-bak government on North Korea policy and remains skeptical that the North will negotiate in good faith. But at the same time, Washington wants to resume some form of dialogue in order to discourage provocations by the North.

Senior Obama administration officials seem to think Pyongyang might be coaxed into a statement of nonaggression or a new moratorium on missile launches, which would help keep the issue on the backburner going into the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

The problem is that North Korea categorically rejected any form of apology in meetings with senior Blue House and Unification Ministry officials in May. Pyongyang is now trying to cast Seoul as the cause of the impasse, which to me is a sure sign that the North is seeking an excuse in preparation for further provocations.

If Pyongyang engages in further provocations, some in China or in the progressive camp will try to blame the Lee government, but in my view this will be completely unjustified. No democratic government could agree to resume talks without preconditions in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong Island attacks, for reasons of domestic politics and because of the need to re-establish deterrence and dissuade the North from thinking it can engage in such attacks and then easily return to business as usual.

Moreover, the pattern of North Korean escalations, particularly on the missile and nuclear side, has much less to do with reacting to moves by Seoul or Washington - which are tactical considerations for Pyongyang - and much more to do with the North’s unwavering ambition to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

This second factor is critical. Pyongyang has stated its intent to become a full nuclear weapons state by 2012. It will need to back its declaration with a demonstration of capability. North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are weapons systems, not just symbols, and the Korean People’s Army no doubt intends to continue with its testing schedule in order to miniaturize nuclear devices, improve triggering mechanisms and prove the range and improved payload of its missiles. Those full capabilities could be one year away or 10 years away. Either way, Pyongyang knows that successful demonstration of new capabilities has historically forced Washington into negotiations and concessions. It is Washington that is the center of gravity for Pyongyang, not Seoul. That is one more reason why the current impasse in North-South talks will not be the real reason for further provocations by the North.

For these reasons, I see a real possibility that North Korean provocations will come first in the form of a missile test and then in 2012 with a nuclear test. It is a hunch, I admit, but one informed by the patterns of North Korean behavior thus far. Much will depend on the state of the North’s technological advancement - it may be that the North is better prepared for nuclear rather than missile tests. Either way, conventional attacks like those against the Cheonan or Yeongpyong seem less likely for now.

Those attacks were strategic failures for Pyongyang, causing a tightening defense cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea, with little return for the North. Moreover, the Cheonan attack undercut the purpose of demonstrating the North’s uranium enrichment program to Siegfried Hecker, the famous American nuclear expert. Had there been no Cheonan attack, Pyongyang might have leveraged the revelations about its uranium program to try to pressure Washington back into dialogue. It may therefore be the case that the Cheonan and Yeongpyong attacks were more closely linked to short-term domestic succession and political issues in Pyongyang, though it is difficult to ascertain that with certainty.

Whatever the reasons for the Cheonan and Yeongpyong attacks, South Korea’s resolute determination to retaliate against any further conventional attacks seems to have effectively deterred the North. That is another reason to expect that provocations on the missile side are now preferable for Pyongyang.

Some may counter that Pyongyang would avoid provocations because it needs food aid, but there are real questions about why and how desperately the North wants that aid. NGO assessments of the North’s needs are incomplete at best and officials in the U.S., South Korea and Japan have reasons to suspect that Pyongyang’s real goal is to stockpile food for 2012 celebrations. If the purpose of receiving food aid is to reinforce regime legitimacy rather than forestall instability, then the regime would hardly be willing to compromise on the more important source of legitimacy it thinks it derives from missile and nuclear programs. In short, Pyongyang wants the food aid, but is probably not so desperate for aid that there could be compromise on what Pyongyang sees as a more fundamental national security objective: nuclear and missile programs.

If missile or perhaps further nuclear provocations are in the offing, what should the United States and South Korea do? Obviously some contingency planning will be necessary so that our diplomatic response is swift: probably a further tightening of UN Security Council sanctions, stepped up trilateral coordination among the U.S, Japan and South Korea, and additional interdiction efforts.

It will also be important to dilute Pyongyang’s propaganda argument that the impasse Seoul’s fault, and in that respect the Obama administration could clearly do more to demonstrate its support for the Blue House approach. Finally, Seoul and Washington should quietly but firmly signal that our respective relationships with China will be impacted by how forcefully Beijing responds to any North Korean escalation.

*The writer is a senior advisor and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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