North Korea has been acting up lately. Starting with the disappearance of Kim Jong-il from his inaccessibly remote power stage, the country's actions have been even more bizarre than usual. The surfacing of badly photoshopped images of Kim supposedly posing in front of military personnel and welcoming dignitaries who have no shadows (could they be vampires), the ramping up of bombastic rhetoric from the North's propaganda machine, and now North Korea's preparation for launching another missile could be seen as a very confusing set of actions.
Pyongyang warned that failure to accede to the Oct. 4, 2007 and June 15, 2000 declarations would leave border security responsibilities impossible for the North to fulfill, and put the Mount Kumgang tourism project and the Kaesong joint economic zone at risk. After a series of intensifying warnings, operations first at Kumgang and then at Kaesong were significantly cut when Pyongyang closed off the border. When that failed to get the desired response, Pyongyang began warning that other inter-Korean accords were up in the air, and that South Korea was pushing the two halves of the peninsula closer to war. This, in turn, led to the most recent warning: the effective nullification of inter-Korean agreements on security and borders, with a not-sosubtle reference to the dispute over the boundary lines in the West Sea, the so-called Northern Limit Line.
It never ceases to be strange that the number one producer of semiconductors in the world, the Miracle on the Han River, the country with one of the most wired populations that has developed an Internet culture different from all the rest in the world, is still technically at war. And that the seat of South Korea's power, with its WiBro network and its 20 million people packed into one very densely populated technological testbed, is within artillery firing range of their 50-year-old enemies.
Their enemy is no simple regional rival vying for shared resources - it is a split of their own country, and both sides consider the other to be misguided brothers in need of correction. It's an ideological war against people who share the same language, culture, customs, and even origin myth.
South Korean and Japanese media have reported that North Korea may be testing another Taepodong ballistic missile, according to various US intelligence sources and regional satellite imagery. Pyongyang is apparently preparing to launch the latest version of the Taepodong from its newest missile facility in the northwest Korean Peninsula to place a satellite in orbit in a repeat of its 1998 attempt. The latest move comes as Pyongyang has stepped up its rhetoric against Seoul, and warned Washington that the nuclear deterrent is more important to North Korea than normalized relations with the United States.
If North Korea is looking for attention, they have definitely accomplished that objective, and their timing couldn't be better. There will be a lot of discussions and speculation over impending North Korean missile launches in the next few weeks. A South Korean delegation is traveling to Washington to talk about it, a Japanese delegation is heading to South Korea to talk about it, and, with the North Korean leader's birthday coming up Feb. 16, the North may just celebrate early with some ballistic fireworks. This is all in the context of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the region, which starts February 15.
Combined with its latest rhetorical outbursts and withdrawal from the inter-Korean agreements on security and borders, Pyongyang is signaling once again that it is a dangerous, unpredictable nation that needs to be dealt with quickly - but it is doing so in a rather predictable manner.
In many ways, North Korea's behavior is not all that surprising. Pyongyang has long used threats and escalations to garner attention and concessions from its neighbors and the United States. It carefully makes threats and warnings of escalating actions long before it actually takes the warned-of action, in hopes that fear of the action will trigger counteroffers from its neighbors and Washington to prevent it from actually taking the step. The lead-up to the 2006 North Korean nuclear test followed this warn-warn-warn-act pattern, with stair-step escalations of everything from withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to the actual test itself, each action repeatedly telegraphed before it was carried out.
Once again, North Korea has followed this pattern. Its recent announcement on considering the inter-Korean agreements on security and border issues null is not a sudden or unexpected move, but th result of a series of prior warnings as Pyongyang slowly raised the stakes.
This time around, Pyongyang has in part been motivated by its initial problem with the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, which in some ways was similar to its initial problems with the Bush administration when it first too office. Lee refused fully to acknowledge agreements between the previous South Korean president and North Korea, instead calling the south's entire North Korean policy into review. In particular, Pyongyang complained that Lee failed to follow through with economic agreements promised by then-outgoing South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in an October 2007 summit, or to build on the June 2000 summit agreements between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
North Korea sees the accords signed with previous South Korean or US governments as much more binding than Seoul or Washington perhaps see them. While presidents, political parties and policy initiatives change regularly in democracies, in North Korea, these accords were reached only with the direct involvement of Kim, who despite his recent illness has not left power nor altered his fundamental stance in negotiations abroad. Pyongyang still struggles with the idea that locking in a policy with the outgoing president of a foreign country does not necessarily lock in the policy or agreements. To adjust for this, it reverts to its tried-and-true method of seeking to create a sense of crisis, forcing the other side back to the table and moving Pyongyang closer to its political, security and economic goals.
At the same time, Pyongyang is sending a parallel signal to Washington in a bid to force the new Obama administration to see the North Korea issue as a crisis on par with Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan - though much more easily defused with cooperation and concessions. Again, Pyongyang wants to force Washington into negotiations beneficial to North Korea at little cost to the North Korean state. Throwing a well-planned crisis is a way to do so, and Pyongyang's past behavior, the 2006 nuclear test, clearly demonstrates that it is not simply bluffing. Preparation for a missile launch, highly noticeable on the spy satellites that continuously monitor North Korea, is both a warning and an offer to Washington.
From the North Korean perspective, a missile test, most likely once more in the form of an attempted satellite launch, could create a new set of crises for Washington. Not only would it continue to stir debate over North Korea policy on the domestic front, it also could tear at the relations between Washington and its regional allies, which will question why the United States did not intervene to prevent the launch.
Not coincidentally, North Korea is setting up the very real potential of both a missile test and a clash in the West Sea at around the same time, between April and June, in order to create a real sense of regional crisis. As before, North Korea clearly signals its course of action several times, always offering a way out for the target of its extortion. But it also generally follows through when it wants to make a point. If there's one thing that North Korea knows how to do, it is to get attention from countries more powerful than itself. And right now, that is the thing it most wants.