Suicidal, Calculating, or Constrained? Yeonpyeong Island and North Korea’s Motives

People watch as plumes of smoke rise up from buildings on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island after North Korea fired hundreds of artillery rounds. (Photo: Reuters)

If I were slightly more egocentric, I would suspect that Kim Jong Il always waits until I travel abroad to do something spectacular, finding sinister pleasure in my desperate attempts to keep up with the course of events and urgent requests for comments. I suppose reality is a bit more complex.

Sometimes, one can’t help but ask: Do they want to kill themselves? Among most experts, at least those who deserve this description, there is broad agreement that North Korea is a rational actor in the sense that its actions serve a predefined purpose. Whether Pyongyang’s assessment of the effects of its actions is always correct and realistic is another matter. However, even in this regard, North Korea is anything but unique. Misperceptions are based on asymmetrical and incomplete information and hence part of everyday life.

So if a suicidal attempt can most likely be excluded, what did North Korea want to achieve by firing on South Koreans on November 23? This may only come to light in hindsight. For now, we can simply make another educated guess.

It is no secret that North Korea has lots of problems and interests. The economy is in very bad shape—the result of decades of inefficient socialist economic order, misguided economic policies, and massive international sanctions. The latter are a consequence of Pyongyang’s foreign policy that builds on aggression and puts the country in a kind of permanent state of war. The resulting siege mentality allows the leadership, to a certain degree, to argue domestically for a primacy of politics over the economy. In this context, regularly occurring military provocations are part of a strategy to maintain regime security. This strategy is risky, but has been successful thus far. And there is no better argument than success.

Considering that South Korea is still on top of the North’s foreign policy agenda, we can also draw a connection between the artillery shelling and the G-20 Summit that took place in Seoul just over a week ago. South Korea received international recognition, even a leadership role, which clearly annoyed North Korea. Pyongyang, with its not unrealistic fear of absorption in the case of unification, refuses to accept that the once poor and underdeveloped South has become a globally respected, vibrant democracy and dynamic market economy. North Korea was smart enough not to start its provocation during the summit; this would have affronted its vital supporter, China. And despite what its public image and many of its actions may suggest, North Korea is actually very concerned about its international image. Offending the “fascist puppets” in Seoul is one thing; provoking all G-20 members at once is another. This concern is also reflected in the instant claim that the South fired first.

We should also not forget about the internal processes that became visible during the Party conference in September—the first to occur in 44 years. North Korea is going through a process of power restructuring, possibly also of power transfer. We have limited insight into the internal dynamics, but common sense suggests that any change, anywhere, is prone to risk. North Korea is no different. In a way, it is even more vulnerable, as such changes take place rarely and arbitrarily—unlike a democracy where the leadership changes regularly. The Korean Workers’ Party as a central power institution has been strengthened significantly, and the rule of Kim Jong Il’s family has been reemphasized by providing top positions to his son, his sister, his brother-in-law and other relatives. Now the task is to create legitimacy for the new leadership. Being a relative might provide an entry ticket; but to remain in power, there must be achievements. A resolute answer to an actual or alleged South Korean provocation would fall into this category.

There is also the possibility of more or less openly expressed doubts among the elite and the people about the correctness of the September decisions. In that case, the latest incident would be an expression of the century-old practice to divert attention away from domestic issues by raising tensions externally.

Those who give North Koreans the credit of strategic thinking ability will also see a connection between November 23 and the visit by Sigfried Hecker to Yongbyon on November 12. The nuclear expert was shown facilities that strongly suggest the existence of a highly enriched uranium program in North Korea—one that is surprisingly well developed. Now, this is of course not an accidental observation. Hecker became, unintentionally, the messenger of Pyongyang. Here is the message: We finally want to achieve results in our relations with the United States. On North Korea’s wish list are economic aid, the end of sanctions, access to international finance and trade, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, recognition as a nuclear power, and a peace treaty to end the Korean War. The latter would include some financial compensation.

Against this backdrop, the incident on November 23 looks like an attempt to exclude Seoul from possible negotiations. After such a grave incident, it is impossible for President Lee Myung Bak to sit at the same table with North Korea. Domestic sentiment against such appeasement is too strong. And even if he manages to swallow his pride, North Korea can and will repeat the argument that the South fired first and hence as the aggressor, is not qualified as a dialogue partner. In the eyes of Pyongyang, Japan lost this status long ago. What remains then, are the long aspired quasi-bilateral talks with the United States, represented by a weakened President Obama and supported by Beijing. China would in that case be regarded by North Korea as an ally, which is not necessarily a misperception. And clearly, Beijing’s interest in finding a solution to this permanent crisis has just grown.

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