The Korean Peninsula is currently in a pattern of tit-for-tat provocation: short and long-range missile tests; combined training exercises; artillery live-fire exercises, and border area fighter jet sorties. The pattern in place will reach a new level if and when North Korea undertakes its seventh nuclear test. What will this mean in the context of policy? Here’s what to expect.
A nuclear test will force Seoul to act immediately. The Yoon Administration will need to demonstrate to the public that the situation is under control. On the lighter side, this will be visual. Images of Yoon Suk-yeol and his cabinet wearing either yellow jackets or in the extreme, military fatigues, will accompany every broadcast. On the more serious side, it will mean reactive policy.
Reactive policy measures are planned far in advance. They include actions, such as increased joint military maneuvers and/or training; implementation and/or stronger enforcement of economic sanctions, potentially including maritime interdiction; and an increased tempo of diplomatic sanction at the bilateral and multilateral level. Their sole aim is to demonstrate decisiveness to the domestic audience and to increase the cost of errant or escalatory behavior to the partner state.
However, all reactive policy is planned far ahead on the basis of predictions regarding partner behavior. This means two things. First, there is a limited number of policy rounds that can be planned for in advance. Second, because it’s planned in advance, there is little leeway to change policy space, logic, or tempo. Reflecting this, reactive policy in no way contributes to a resolution of the underlying issue, but rather fuels the pattern of escalation. This means that it is unlikely the seventh nuclear test will occur in isolation – it will most likely occur as one of a series of escalatory steps towards a crisis point.
The images of Yoon and his cabinet in yellow jackets or military fatigues will not be enough to satiate the rapidly growing global media demand. There will be an explosion of ‘North Korea watchers’ in the media – the sound of them clearing their throats after two years of neglect will echo across the globe. “What Kim Jong-un thinks” or “what Kim Jong-un wants” will be the most used phrase on hourly news reports for at least a day or two. But it pays to remember the record of some of these ‘experts’.
In April 2020, a three-month absence of Kim Jong-un in North Korean state media led experts to claim that Kim Jong-un either had heart surgery, was in a coma, and/or was near death. Soon after, some experts would go so far as to discuss succession, collapse, and world war. One month later, Kim Jong-un reappeared to (appropriately) open a fertilizer factory. North Korea watchers responded by noting recent photos indicated he’d had heart surgery, didn’t have surgery, or maybe had traditional medicine. Others speculated that he was so unhealthy, he’d soon die anyway, and we probably wouldn’t know about it until a few days after, so it’s something worth talking about.
The best bet for the casual observer would be to avoid the media, and if you’re somehow forced to watch or listen to North Korea experts, remember that nobody really knows what Kim Jong-un thinks or wants. Slowly but surely, the media hype will impose pressure on policy makers to address the issue.
At a certain indeterminable stage, perhaps after several further nuclear tests and/or minor skirmishes, the pattern of escalation will reach a crisis point. One or both states will decide that there are no further reactive policy measures, and further steps risk more serious miscalculation. From this point, we enter a state of crisis diplomacy.
Crisis diplomacy occurs when states meet to avert imminent systemic change or conflict. It necessarily requires high-level input and engagement, close political control, and clear signaling. Crisis diplomacy is a repetitive cycle on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea escalates, South Korea manages and de-escalates. North Korea secures limited gains and South Korea secures limited respite. However, crisis diplomacy never transforms the root causes of tension.
The sole aim in crisis diplomacy is the cessation of the risk of conflict. To avoid conflict, at least one of the parties must be willing to accept options that were previously considered outside the range of acceptable choices, such as economic inducements or acceptance of a new status quo.
The last round of North-South tension serves as an example. Increasing tension led to a crisis point. Direct negotiation between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea then became an acceptable option (despite widespread objection). As the threat of conflict decreased, a new status quo was established – direct engagement between U.S. and North Korean leaders. The establishment of greater legitimacy of North Korea as a nuclear state.
A New Policy Status Quo
What will be the new policy status quo after the seventh (perhaps eighth and ninth) nuclear test? The new policy status quo will conceivably reflect two already widely accepted facts: (1) North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons capacity; and (2) South Korea has justification to pursue its own nuclear weapons capacity. The policy space supporting these two facts has been steadily forming over time as options and policy efforts have become increasingly recognized as futile. Crisis allows the new policy space to be normalized.
However, for the first time in many years, the new policy status quo may not be in North Korea’s favor. Over the last thirty years, a rough balance has been established between South Korea’s vastly superior conventional capacity (and its alliance with the U.S.) and North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons capacity. When South Korea pursues its own independent nuclear weapons capacity, this balance ceases to exist. A seventh nuclear test presents a risk to North Korea. If North Korea does undertake a seventh nuclear test, in policy terms, it will be the largest yet.
Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.