North Korea is not irrational but this crisis may escalate

Heather Williams
MANY experts claim North Korea is irrational and unpredictable. And its behaviour is certainly belligerent and dangerous. Pyongyang continues to lob threats, has evacuated personnel from the Kaesong Industrial Complex (a collaborative economic development between North and South Korea), warned foreign governments that diplomats may not be safe in the event of war, and most recently appears to be preparing for further military tests. UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon warned the situation could become “uncontrollable”, and the world is on edge.

But to label North Korea “irrational” or “unpredictable” is to ignore the fact that its behaviour can be explained by pressures its leaders face at home. Importantly, its recent activities fit into a pattern of past behaviour, even if there is an increased risk that this time may be different.

We are in the middle of a well-tested Pyongyang Circus: North Korea has a history of using its nuclear and missile capabilities as bargaining chips to gain international attention and to draw regional powers into negotiations. The next phase is to gain concessions in food and fuel. This occurred most recently in the 2012 Leap Day Agreement, in which the US agreed to provide North Korea with 240,000 tonnes of food, in exchange for a promise to cease nuclear and missile testing and to allow in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

But ultimately, North Korea cannot balance its international commitments with its domestic pressures, and it violates agreements with crisis escalation. Less than two months after the Leap Day Agreement, North Korea tested a missile and the agreement collapsed. Based on the past cycle of behaviour, the current North Korean crisis will not be the last, and we can conjecture the next two phases: negotiation and cheating.

Looking ahead to negotiations, trust will be the greatest challenge. How can we trust any commitments made by North Korea? Negotiation and cooperation require judgments of trust based on past behaviour, domestic support, and personal contacts. None of these are present for either side in the Korean crisis. The deck is already stacked against the next round of negotiations.

Following negotiations, North Korea may abide by its commitments for a time, but ultimately it will cheat and escalate another crisis. And in the next crisis, North Korea will be more militarily advanced and confident. The country successfully tested a missile in December and is hinting at further testing. More nuclear tests might enable North Korea to miniaturise its weapons and gain greater confidence in its arsenal. These improved capabilities risk increasing North Korean aggression, as the military continues to play a key role in influencing the young leader Kim Jong Un.

This crisis is an opportunity to gain understanding of North Korean strategic culture and capabilities, and to strengthen partnership with China in reining in Pyongyang. But it’s also an opportunity to look ahead and consider options for negotiations. Or perhaps North Korea will break this cycle, for better or worse.

Heather Williams is a research fellow at Chatham House.