By Michael Jefferson
For those who follow North Korea the pronouncements of 30 March that it was entering a “state of
war” with South Korea followed by the 2 April declaration that it will restart its Yongbyon nuclear
complex were the latest in a set of provocative acts that the secretive regime has performed over the
past couple of decades. Looking at the media reaction you would think that it was a Cuban Missile
Crisis take two and we are on the brink of nuclear war. However, although they are undoubtedly
closer to an aggressive nuclear weapons capability, there is little evidence to suggest that North
Korea has the capacity to deliver any nuclear weapons beyond its own borders. In fact I contend
that these actions point to growing domestic instability in the country, which when combined
with the fledgling state of the Kim Jong-un’s regime are designed to cement and enhance power
structures in Pyongyang.
During the 90s and 00s North Korea used its nuclear programme, the ratcheting up and down of
its rhetoric and military actions such as missile tests, as a way to secure international concessions.
However, North Korea’s inability or more likely lack of willingness to meet commitments it has
made over the years means such offers are now unlikely. In recent times Pyongyang’s provocative
acts have been met firmly by economic sanctions from the international community while China
has quietly provided enough support to allow the regime to survive. I cannot imagine that even the
leadership in Pyongyang could have imagined that these recent moves would successfully secure
concessions such as food aid, or even North Korea’s stated aim to hold bilateral talks with the US.
All of these actions should serve to remind us that there has been very little outside contact, even
with China, since Kim Jong-un took power. It is still not clear whether he, his aunt and uncle (Kim
Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek) or a faction within the Armed forces are calling the shots. I think
this recent escalation is designed to elevate Kim Jong-un and secure his position among both the
Pyongyang elite and wider North Korean public, but the information mismatch makes it very hard
to ground analyses with certainty.
What is, however, certain is that North Korea is more porous with mobile phones now seemingly
available and some citizens able to access external radio and TV shows. In response to this, it
seems those in power have fallen back on their tried and tested way to demonstrate their value – the
protector against the capitalist threat. Here we need to remember that the ability of Pyongyang to
control information means that many North Koreans are genuinely petrified of capitalism and what
might happen without the Juche philosophy that they believe serves them so well.
The principal point of interest of this crisis is that it comes at a time with relatively new regimes in
China, South Korea and Japan and a new US Secretary of State. It was a new experience for them
and communications, protocol and expectations over North Korea have not yet been established
between them, I would hope that such communications are now being set up. The ultimate
achievement for Pyongyang would be securing bilateral talks with the US on their terms and,
although ruling out talks on North Korean terms, the seriousness of the situation was demonstrated
by US Secretary of State John Kerry even mentioning talks in a press conference -with numerous
In a strange way, this may actually benefit wider East Asian relations. An ever more unpredictable
North Korea means that South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and USA, the countries who primarily
need to manage Kim and North Korea, may build the lines of communication and relationship that
forms the basis of improved diplomatic relations. This can then be hopefully be leveraged for other
issues such as territorial disputes -and here the South China Sea looms large.
In the long run I think there is little doubt that North and South Korea will unify, however the
timeline and method of this unification is still very much up in the air. The key issues on this
prospect will be how to pay for it, and how to manage a population that is, as yet, unready to
join the consumer societies of East Asia. The population issue is one of particular interest as the
collapse of the current regime will undoubtedly unleash a wave of migration which will be hard
to manage in a ‘liberated’ country. South Korea will be most affected most by unification, but the
aforementioned regional powers and the international community will need to contribute to make
any integration plan viable.
Ultimately the timing of this collapse will probably come down to the time when China is either
ready to let the regime fall or Kim goes so far that it poses a danger to China itself. In the meantime
we can only expect more provocative actions from Pyongyang and an increased focus on the
military at the expense of the rest of the population as the economic and social situation further
destabilises the country.
Michael works in public affairs for an international bank. He has extensive experience in public policy and
international relations from his current role as well as from his time working for the UK Government on
international trade. He has an MA in Japanese from St Catherine’s College, Oxford specialising in Japanese
politics and international relations.