North Korea is once again seeking to stir up a crisis: testing several surface-to-ship missiles March 28 in the West Sea, warning that U.S. insistence on disclosure of its uranium program (rather than just its plutonium program) could stall or end progress on the dismantling of North Korea's already-declared nuclear facilities, and kicking South Korean government officials out of the Kaesong joint economic zone
. But so far, no one is biting Pyongyang's crisis bait. The North Korean leadership might be learning the limits of its crisis diplomacy.
For nearly two decades (since the collapse of its Cold War patron system), North Korea has survived well beyond the expectations of many analysts. In fact, the country and its regime haven't simply survived. Through a series of carefully scripted nuclear and missile "crises" and the exploitation of differences in policy and security sensitivities among their neighbors and between their neighbors and the United States, they also have been able to remain relevant and shape and constrain the actions of "big" nations. These include the United States, China, Russia and Japan, as well as South Korea, of course. Other Soviet allies saw their regimes change or their significance fade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But North Korea's location — near China, Japan and Russia and across the Demilitarized Zone from tens of thousands of U.S. forces in South Korea — and the fact that Asia was one of the most dynamically changing and expanding regions at the time allowed Pyongyang to succeed where many of its contemporaries failed. North Korea defied the odds, employing what STRATFOR dubbed back in 1999 the "Crazy Fearsome Cripple Gambit."
This strategy involves three interlinking pieces:
- Be crazy: North Korea projected an international image of a crazy, reclusive regime — one that just might be suicidal enough to take on the United States in a conventional or even nuclear confrontation. North Korea worked very hard to appear unpredictable.
- Be fearsome: North Korea showed off its real, imaginary or potential military might through a series of exposures of its nuclear work, with missile tests, military exercises, extreme rhetoric and, in October 2006, through its most extreme action — a nuclear test.
- Be crippled: Despite its constant military posturing, North Korea economically is considered a failed state, a country that since the 1990s has not been able to feed its own people and always appears to be teetering on the edge of a social rebellion or a complete political collapse.
Taken together, this strategy makes North Korea too dangerous to ignore, but too weak and unpredictable to take strong action against. Instead, the world has tried over and over to manage the North Korea issue, waiting for the "inevitable" collapse of the regime. And each time things settle down, North Korea stirs up a new crisis. But when the United States lost interest in playing Pyongyang's game after the 9/11 attacks, North Korea began a series of escalating steps to try to regain attention. These culminated in the July 2006 missile tests
and October 2006 nuclear test
— an action that had long been thought of as a red line that North Korea would not cross and the United States would not tolerate. The nuclear test ultimately led to the resumption of talks with North Korea, which put into motion the dismantling of the North's nuclear facilities and included promises of economic aid and the potential for diplomatic recognition. But in testing a nuclear device, North Korea played its last and most extreme crisis card. And the world's reaction was much more blase than its response to the North's 1998 missile launch. North Korea had begun seeing the limits of crisis diplomacy. Stirring a crisis before negotiations allows the North to shape the talks and keep them focused primarily on returning the situation to the pre-crisis status quo in return for benefits, aid and promises to Pyongyang. But the current set of six party nuclear talks has slipped from crisis mode to bureaucratic negotiations
. North Korea is losing leverage
. Pyongyang failed to meet its December 2007 deadline to release a list of its nuclear facilities and programs. North Korea claimed it had given full disclosure, but Washington insisted on information about not only the well-known plutonium program, but also the uranium program and proliferation activities. Pyongyang stalled, but rather than creating a sense of crisis, Washington portrayed the move as simply a bureaucratic hiccup. Because stalling failed to change the tone and backroom negotiations are continuing, Pyongyang has again tried to create a sense of crisis with its latest moves. But the South Koreans are not reacting. The new government in Seoul is showing its resolve not to give in to what some in the United States and abroad have labeled as North Korean "nuclear blackmail." The fact that North Korea has resorted to its previous brinksmanship is a signal that Pyongyang is nearly ready to re-enter talks and wants to have some added leverage. There have been numerous rumors of a tacit deal between North Korea and the United States to have either a phased disclosure or two lists — a public plutonium one and a secret uranium and proliferation one. Pyongyang seems amenable to these options, but does not want to come into the talks giving Washington the initiative. Thus it seeks to stir a sense of immediacy and a fear that all the progress to date could be lost without concessions from the United States or other players in the six-party process. But Washington, Seoul and even Beijing are growing weary of Pyongyang's repeated use of crisis diplomacy. This crisis fatigue was seen most vividly in the near lack of response to North Korea's nuclear test
. Pyongyang played what it thought was its most powerful card, only to find it had laid down a joker. If the nuclear test could not stir the world into reaction, lobbing a few anti-ship missiles off its shore is certainly not going to get anyone's blood pumping. North Korea is reaching the limits of crisis diplomacy, and after two decades it might finally have to develop a new plan.