North Korea’s state-run media reported Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country’s top security officials to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures,” which has been widely interpreted to mean that North Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang following North Korea’s missile test in October. A few days before Kim’s statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington’s tool, South Korea.
North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface, threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don’t succeed in actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something solid to threaten enemies with.
North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn’t. On the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.
There is brilliance in North Korea’s strategy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea was left in dire economic straits. There were reasonable expectations that its government would soon collapse, leading to the unification of the Korean Peninsula. Naturally, the goal of the North Korean government was regime survival, so it was terrified that outside powers would invade or support an uprising against it. It needed a strategy that would dissuade anyone from trying that. Being weak in every sense, this wasn’t going to be easy, but the North Koreans developed a strategy that we described more than 10 years ago as ferocious, weak and crazy. North Korea has pursued this course since the 1990s, and the latest manifestation of this strategy was on display last week. The strategy has worked marvelously and is still working.
A Three-Part Strategy
First, the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power. Second, they positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are, there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse anyway. And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them would be dangerous since they were liable to engage in the greatest risks imaginable at the slightest provocation.
In the beginning, Pyongyang’s ability to appear ferocious was limited to the North Korean army’s power to shell Seoul. It had massed artillery along the border and could theoretically devastate the southern capital, assuming the North had enough ammunition, its artillery worked and air power didn’t lay waste to its massed artillery. The point was not that it was going to level Seoul but that it had the ability to do so. There were benefits to outsiders in destabilizing the northern regime, but Pyongyang’s ferocity — uncertain though its capabilities were — was enough to dissuade South Korea and its allies from trying to undermine the regime. Its later move to develop missiles and nuclear weapons followed from the strategy of ferocity — since nothing was worth a nuclear war, enraging the regime by trying to undermine it wasn’t worth the risk.
Many nations have tried to play the ferocity game, but the North Koreans added a brilliant and subtle twist to it: being weak. The North Koreans advertised the weakness of their economy, particularly its food insecurity, by various means. This was not done overtly, but by allowing glimpses of its weakness. Given the weakness of its economy and the difficulty of life in North Korea, there was no need to risk trying to undermine the North. It would collapse from its own defects.
This was a double inoculation. The North Koreans’ ferocity with weapons whose effectiveness might be questionable, but still pose an unquantifiable threat, caused its enemies to tread carefully. Why risk unleashing its ferocity when its weakness would bring it down? Indeed, a constant debate among Western analysts over the North’s power versus its weakness combines to paralyze policymakers.
The North Koreans added a third layer to perfect all of this. They portrayed themselves as crazy, working to appear unpredictable, given to extravagant threats and seeming to welcome a war. Sometimes, they reaffirmed they were crazy via steps like sinking South Korean ships for no apparent reason. As in poker, so with the North: You can play against many sorts of players, from those who truly understand the odds to those who are just playing for fun, but never, ever play poker against a nut. He is totally unpredictable, can’t be gamed, and if you play with his head you don’t know what will happen.
So long as the North Koreans remained ferocious, weak and crazy, the best thing to do was not irritate them too much and not to worry what kind of government they had. But being weak and crazy was the easy part for the North; maintaining its appearance of ferocity was more challenging. Not only did the North Koreans have to keep increasing their ferocity, they had to avoid increasing it so much that it overpowered the deterrent effect of their weakness and craziness.
A Cautious Nuclear Program
Hence, we have North Korea’s eternal nuclear program. It never quite produces a weapon, but no one can be sure whether a weapon might be produced. Due to widespread perceptions that the North Koreans are crazy, it is widely believed they might rush to complete their weapon and go to war at the slightest provocation. The result is the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea holding meetings with North Korea to try to persuade it not to do something crazy.
Interestingly, North Korea never does anything significant and dangerous, or at least not dangerous enough to break the pattern. Since the Korean War, North Korea has carefully calculated its actions, timing them to avoid any move that could force a major reaction. We see this caution built into its nuclear program. After more than a decade of very public ferocity, the North Koreans have not come close to