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Mar 28, 2008 | 13:12 GMT

6 mins read

North Korea: The End of Crisis Diplomacy?

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
North Korea has tested several anti-ship missiles in the West Sea. In addition, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has issued a statement warning that the dismantling of the North's nuclear facilities could be delayed and suggesting that progress in nuclear negotiations could be lost if the United States does not change its attitude. On the heels of the expulsion of 11 South Korean government workers from the joint Kaesong economic zone, North Korea is seeking to stir up a sense of crisis before a new round of talks. But the fact that Pyongyang's actions and rhetoric are being greeted with general ennui suggests that North Korea might have reached the limits of its crisis diplomacy.
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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