North Korea has threatened to annul the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War if the United States and South Korea do not cease joint military exercises by March 11. Pyongyang issued this threat as Washington and Beijing agreed on the language to be used for new U.N. sanctions against North Korea in response to its most recent nuclear test. North Korea makes frequent threats, but even so, the buildup of rhetoric warning that the nearly 60-year-old armistice is fraying — and blaming what it calls hostile U.S. policies — is notable.
If North Korea stops respecting the 1953 agreement, it would in essence be declaring that the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas is no longer in effect and the war against the United States is once again active. There are plenty of reasons to believe the threat is merely rhetorical. Despite recent missile and nuclear tests meant to demonstrate Pyongyang's deterrent capabilities, the North Korean military would stand little chance in a full-on war against South Korea and the United States. Pyongyang has little trust that it could rely on Chinese assistance this time around were war to break out. Beijing has hinted for several years now that if hostilities erupt again, Chinese forces are more likely to seize North Korea — on behalf of the United Nations, Beijing says — than engage in a major war against the United States on the peninsula.
However, the threat of war remains a major tool by which North Korea tries to achieve its political ends. A war on the Korean Peninsula is an unlikely prospect, but if it occurred it would devastate both Koreas, particularly with the major Seoul-Inchon area so close to the border. The odd North Korean missile volley could possibly strike Japan, and U.S. and likely Chinese forces would be rapidly drawn into the conflict. Even if the war was relatively short, and the North Korean military collapsed, the reconstruction costs and the cost of integrating the two Koreas, as well as the major political cost of any attempt to keep them apart after another war, would be immense and would significantly strain economic activity in Northeast Asia. This assumes the best-case scenario, where the United States and China do not end up on opposite sides of the conflict.
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This posturing has allowed North Korea, since the end of the Cold War, to pose enough of a threat to have countries like China, the United States, Japan and South Korea offer incentives at times to avoid a war. But over the years, North Korea has found that its message of impending doom is growing ever less alarming.
In 1993, the mere threat of leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty raised tensions to a near fever pitch, and the intervention of Jimmy Carter gave North Korea the reprieve it was looking for, along with the promise of light-water nuclear reactors and food and economic aid. As the effects wore off, North Korea carried out its first long-range rocket test in 1998, triggering another crisis that led to renewed diplomatic ties with several countries and to the first inter-Korean summit.
A decade later, in 2003, North Korea completed its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, setting in motion the six-party talks that Pyongyang used to manipulate the competing interests of the other parties. As the talks began losing steam, North Korea raised the stakes again, testing its first nuclear device in 2006, just months after an attempted long-range rocket test. Within a year, the six-party talks had produced results from Pyongyang's perspective, and North Korea hosted the second leadership summit with a South Korean president. By 2008, Pyongyang had convinced the United States to drop North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
A year later, in 2009, North Korea saw the need to raise the stakes yet again, so Pyongyang attempted a satellite launch and performed its second nuclear test. Pyongyang also suggested it was no longer bound by the 1953 Armistice Agreement. When the world effectively yawned at this action, North Korea followed with the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette ChonAn and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, along the maritime Northern Limit Line. North Korea also showed a visiting U.S. scholar one of its uranium enrichment facilities, confirming Washington's accusations that Pyongyang was pursuing an alternate nuclear program.
With a somewhat successful satellite launch and another nuclear test under his belt, the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has established himself as someone willing to continue the hard-line independent stance of his predecessors and has attempted once again to foster a sense of crisis internationally. But, as in 2009, the latest missile and nuclear tests have largely been brushed aside, leading to verbal retorts and a new round of sanction talks rather than any significant economic or political concessions to Pyongyang. The threat to revoke the Armistice Agreement is, once again, meant to heighten tensions. North Korea is trying to show it has something to trade away as it seeks economic incentives to return to the status quo.
But beyond continuing the pattern of a brinksmanship that is showing diminishing returns, Pyongyang has another reason for calling attention to the armistice. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The Koreans, not by coincidence, threatened to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty ahead of the 40th anniversary, and indeed they left that treaty on the 50th anniversary. Symbolism matters, but so does the replacement of the armistice with a formal peace accord.
By threatening to end the armistice, Pyongyang is hoping to force the United States back to the negotiating table, this time not to discuss North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, but to address the underlying structure of U.S.-North Korean confrontation. For North Korea's new leader, there are few options aside from the path of his father if the basic structure of relations cannot be altered. There can be no experiments in economic opening, not even minor adjustments in social policies, so long as the technical state of war remains.
A replacement of the Armistice Agreement would not suddenly change North Korea into an open society with a free-market economy, but Pyongyang does see an opportunity to retain power and reduce its excessive dependence on neighboring China. The circuitous route of North Korean diplomacy, and its pattern of issuing threats to seek rewards, may also help explain why North Korea's new leader has chosen Dennis Rodman to transmit his eagerness for talks with the United States. So long as North Korea remains quirky and unpredictable, and so long as Kim Jong Un remains somewhat unreadable, Pyongyang may be able to keep the West guessing — and perhaps even awaken interest in what Kim could do if North Korea were no longer a pariah.