Editor's Note: The following Geopolitical Weekly originally ran in January 2013. We repost it as recent turmoil in North Korea returns it to the spotlight.
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 a deliverable weapon. But since if you upset them, they just might, the best bet has been to tread lightly and see if you can gently persuade them not to do something insane.
The North's positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.
The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil
There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is still worth noting.
The Chinese and the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige. This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device, the North isn't interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be drawing on the test's proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese — terribly afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next — will be grateful to China for defusing the "crisis." And who could be so churlish as to raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force North Korea to step down?
It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea. For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises — and their subsequent Chinese interventions — at quite useful times for Beijing.
It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious, weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear — Iran just doesn't have the famines North Korea has.
Additionally, Iran's rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy: Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have proved false.
I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the "ferocious, weak and crazy" strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the solace your opponents find in your weakness.
Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least, it has worked.