Heavy artillery is just how they show their love

Fifty shades

There has been plenty of analysis speculating on why North Korea chose to kick things off this time around, but the best interpretations I have found… No, strike that… The only good interpretations I have found have been in the Korea Herald, suggesting – albeit in an oblique manner – that creating an urgent confrontation was the only way that North Korea could return to the negotiating table without losing face:

Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said that Pyongyang was resorting to its signature brinkmanship diplomacy based on meticulous consideration of Seoul’s reactions.

“I think the North has once again resorted to brinkmanship tactics — creating a crisis through limited attacks and trying to bring about a change in the current (deadlock) in its favor,” he said.

“The offer of dialogue appears to have come as the military gaps between the two Koreas remain big, particularly when the South Korea-U.S. combined military power poses a burden on it. The provocations might have been conducted based on careful calculations and meticulous planning.”


But it may be more accurate to think that the North has acted under a careful plot to mix provocative acts with calls for dialogue for the purpose of stopping the South’s propaganda campaign. Pyongyang conveyed its intention to hold talks with Seoul shortly after Thursday’s artillery firing. It also made the proposal for high-level talks Friday while it threatened that it was ready for an all-out war.

The North’s sincerity toward improving inter-Korean ties beyond its immediate aim of stopping Seoul’s propaganda broadcasts will be proved if it accepts the South’s demand for an apology for its recent provocations.


Essentially, both sides can now ignore all the previous little niggles that had brought negotiations to a standstill, because This Is A Crisis and we all have to sit down and talk it over For The Greater Good, whatever we may have said previously. The exchange of fire essentially gives both sides a clean slate and an opportunity to sideline previous provisos, while the agreement lets both sides claim to have achieved their stated aims. In game theory terms, it’s close to a perfect outcome: each side has sacrificed something to which it accords little worth but which the opposition values highly (‘regret’ costs the North Korean government nothing; equally, the South Korean electorate is more or less willing to allow the government to switch off its propaganda loudspeakers in exchange for the North’s semi-apology).

Two additional factors back up this idea:

  1. The North could easily have blasted the propaganda loudspeakers to smithereens with its artillery. It didn’t, instead aiming carefully for a spot where the explosions would do pretty much no damage whatsoever. (Aiming to miss has a long history in inter-Korean diplomacy.)
  2. While this North-South psychodrama has been being enacted, other inter-Korean activities have carried on as normal – something which suggests that Park Geun-hye’s administration realises what the North is trying to do here, and is willing to connive in its plans as long as it can extract a little good PR from the fact.

Interestingly, various analysts (all Western) have rushed to dismiss the idea that this latest crisis may have been engineered by the North and abetted by the South purely to allow both parties to continue negotiations starting from what is effectively a tabula rasa position.

And they’ve dismissed it because… well… just because. They – Western academics that they are – wouldn’t do it that way, so obviously it can’t be true.

For Troy Stangarone:

The two sides agreed to talks that extended beyond North Korea’s deadline and, in the end, North Korea did release the statement of regret that South Korea initially demanded. South Korea then ended its loudspeaker broadcasts. In addition, the two sides have agreed to a renewed working-level dialog on family reunions, and announced that they would hold further talks aimed at improving North-South relations.

Was all this what North Korea intended? Probably not. The landmine incident most likely was a misjudgment by the North Korea Army, trying to act a little aggressively to protest the long planned joint ROK-U.S. military exercises, but without intending to trigger a crisis.  In the face of the ROK’s demand for an apology, North Korea fell back on its traditional bluster and saber-rattling, probably assuming that the ROK would back down and seek a face-saving gesture.  When that did not happen, North Korea had no next step, and had no alternative other than to enter into talks and, in the end, issue the apology.  The language of the statement of regret is qualified, but it is still a statement of something other than defiance.


For Stephan Haggard:

If North Korea had wanted talks, all they had to do was pick up the phone.

We would have to give Pyongyang extraordinary prescience to believe they could have planned the highly-contingent set of events over the last two weeks that lead to the talks and agreement.


For even the usually excellent Aidan Foster-Carter:

And why on earth does the North feel it has to arrange a crisis and go to the brink of war, in order to get a dialogue which could have been its for the asking anyway? Seoul had long been offering unconditional talks. There was no need to mobilize troops, launch submarines and declare a state of semi-war. Kim Jong Un could have just picked up the goddam phone.


There are two problems with this:

  1. The tendency among WASP-y professors to believe that the world’s default setting is ‘WASP-y professor’. This has been covered here before, see under: I am normal, you are exotic. Sure, sitting in an a nice warm office hugging your academic tenure tightly, nothing could be easier than picking up the phone and solving the 70-year history of division and strife on the Korean peninsula. There is a possibility, however, that the people whose job it is see it rather differently. And in saying this I’m not trying to imply that either the Korean negotiators or the professors are necessarily right, sub speciae aeternitatis. I’m merely pointing out that if you try to analyse the behaviour of one group using the motivations and mindset of the other, you are likely to come a cropper.
  2. Politics and international relations professors aren’t generally terribly good at politics or international relations. They’re good at avoiding committing themselves to opinions that may turn out to be wrong (or at least frowned upon by more senior professors) and at writing long articles full of polysyllabic truisms that no one will read. If they were good at politics they’d be doing that instead; it’s much more fun.Their key objection to the idea that North Korea engineered this crisis seems to be that they themselves would not be capable of thinking in such a devious manner. Well, yes. I wouldn’t be capable of formulating Boyle’s law, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in it. If the original landmine blast was engineered by the North Koreans, they could quite easily have guessed the sort of stand-off it had the potential to lead to. Equally, if it wasn’t, that still doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have worked out how to take advantage of the South’s riposte and escalate the confrontation until an urgent return to the negotiating table was the only viable option.

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