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Geopolitics

North Korea Goes Incommunicado, Upping The Ante In North-South Standoff

A Chinese analysis of why Kim Jong II has provoked a new impasse with his southern neighbor. The North Korean leader has a special knack for provoking crises as a means to obtain concessions.

A fence along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea (Ben Kucinski)
A fence along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea (Ben Kucinski)
Wang Wenqi

经济观察报/Worldcrunch

The icy standoff on the Korean peninsula took a turn for the worse on May 30, when North Korea threatened to cut off a military hotline with South Korea and stop talking with its southern rival. At first glance, this decision might appear to be a sudden move, but in fact relations on the peninsula have been deteriorating since 2010.

In March 2010, South Korea accused North Korea of torpedoing its naval vessel, the Cheonan, and causing the death of 46 sailors – which North Korea denies. Two months later there was the shelling of Yin Ping Island, an incident the two sides blamed on each other. In a Defense White Paper dating back to December 2010, South Korea described its northern neighbor as an "enemy" rather than a "direct threat," North Korea's previous official designation. Tension between the two rivals is now palpable.

Compared to the aggressiveness showed by the South, North Korea had seemed surprisingly calm. When asked why North Korea's stance was less tough than before, the regime said it didn't want to respond to South's every provocation. But North Korea is now giving signs that it might become restless again. According to a Northern official spokesman, South Korea's continuous criticism of Kim Jong II and his regime, as well as the endless military exercises organized by the government of Lee Myung-bak, have become unbearable.

North Korea's extreme reaction probably has less to do with anything specific its Southern neighbor said or did than with the diplomatic strategy the regime has honed over the years. The question to be asked is: Why has it decided to cut off communications, and why now?

The timing of the announcement seems very interesting, as it came immediately after Kim Jong II's return from a trip to China. One can't help wonder whether his visit to the great regional power had something to do with the regime's hard line attitude towards the South.

In the meantime, South Korea is predicting there might be some major changes occurring in the North. Based on past experiences, this kind of assessment seems justified. Time and time again, North Korea has used military and verbal hawkishness to divert attention from problems at home. After stirring the waters in Northeast Asia, it usually waits to see what the reaction from the rest of the world will be. And while countries such as China, Japan, Russia or the United States are busy dealing with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the North can quietly take care of its domestic problems.

Much depends on relations between the two countries, and the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula has long monopolized the attention of the big powers. South Korea has America as its big brother, while North Korea feels it is relatively small and weak. So since the 1990s, it has often resorted to drastic actions, making the great powers nervous and thus more willing to compromise. Neither China, Japan, Russia nor America wants to see the crisis deepen. Should the tension ever become a full-fledged war, all sides will lose. So North Korea is keen on pushing every crisis to the brink without really provoking a war, which has proven to be a successful tactic time and again.

Apart from these domestic considerations, North Korea is probably also taking into account the changes taking place south of its border. Since Lee Myung-bak became President in 2008, the South has adopted a much tougher attitude towards the North, particularly since the last half of 2010. It is also worth bearing in mind that the government of Lee Myung-bak has domestic issues of its own, as South Korea is preparing for a presidential election in 2012.

North Korea knows that the Cheonan incident and the way in which South Korea handled it – President Lee was quick to say that he would counterattack, but never did – resulted in a crushing defeat in local elections (June 2010) for the South's ruling Grand National Party. This prompted the South Korean government to take tougher measures and reorganize the defense forces.

Although the South Korean public is not satisfied with the strength of the country's defensive forces, it clearly does not want to totally fall out with North Korea either. After all, the two countries share the same people and same roots. For this reason, the Lee government must make sure its diplomatic strategy does not result in cutting off relations completely with North Korea. It is very likely that North Korea's recent announcement is based on this very conviction.

North Korea is probably playing a multi-level game, with its decision to break relations based on a combination of all the factors mentioned above.

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - Ben Kucinski

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