Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Korea’s Cycle of Escalating Tensions

David Sanger, writing in the New York Times, notes the familiar and deadly cycle of North Korean provocation:

USUALLY, there is a familiar cycle to Korea crises.

Like a street gang showing off its power to run amok in a well-heeled neighborhood, the North Koreans launch a missile over Japan or set off a nuclear test or stage an attack — as strong evidence indicates they did in March, when a South Korean warship was torpedoed. Expressions of outrage follow. So do vows that this time, the North Koreans will pay a steep price.

In time, though, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — remind one another that they have nothing to gain from a prolonged confrontation, much less a war. Gradually, sanctions get watered down. Negotiations reconvene. Soon the North hints it can be enticed or bribed into giving up a slice of its nuclear program. Eventually, the cycle repeats.

Is this time different?

The White House betting is that the latest crisis, stemming from the March attack, will also abate without much escalation. But there is more than a tinge of doubt. The big risk, as always, is what happens if the North Koreans make a major miscalculation. (It wouldn’t be their first. Sixty years ago, Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, thought the West wouldn’t fight when he invaded the South. The result was the Korean War.)

What’s more, the dynamic does feel different from recent crises. The South has a hardline government whose first instinct was to cut off aid to the North, not offer it new bribes. At the same time, the North is going through a murky, ill-understood succession crisis.

And President Obama has made it clear he intends to break the old cycle. “We’re out of the inducements game,” one senior administration official, who would not discuss internal policy discussions on the record, said last week. “For 15 years at least, the North Koreans have been in the extortion business, and the U.S. has largely played along. That’s over.”

The North Koreans have no incentives whatever to stop this cycle. If they get what they want, they’re motivated to do it again. If they don’t, they can always raise the stakes by sending more missiles over Japan, detonating another nuclear weapon (if what they have detonated so far have been nuclear weapons), sinking another ship. What will the future bring? Lobbing artillery shells into South Korean territory? Protected by its own substantial military power, the aegis of its Chinese patron, and uncertainty about what a collapse of the status quo on the Korean Peninsula might portend, the international and regional players are unlikely to do much other than call for additional more or less porous sanctions and hurl epithets. It’s far from clear to me that they should do more at this point.

In recent years I’ve become increasingly concerned about the possibility of a sort of distributed development of nuclear weapons. North Korea has close ties with some of the most despicable regimes in the world: Iran, Burma, Syria, and Zimbabwe not to mention China. It is believed to have sold nuclear technology to all of these countries save China.

That there is an intimate relationship between Iran’s military and North Korea is hardly to be denied. Iran’s indigenous missile production is largely based on North Korean variants of Chinese or Soviet originals. A relationship between Pakistan and North Korea has long been alleged with Pakistan to provide nuclear materials and know-how in exchange for North Korean missiles. That North Korea test-fires nuclear weapons while Iran enhances its ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade while both Iran and North Korea test long-range missiles should give us pause.

The Syrian nuclear plant built with North Korean help and destroyed by the Israelis back in 2007 may have been a part of this distributed development. It’s hardly surprising that the worst tyrants on the planet would eagerly pursue nuclear developments as a form of old age insurance. More concerning to me is the prospect of mass production of nuclear weapons by a consortium of these tyrants, not only as deterrents but to extend their influence and as a source of revenue, sold to anyone with cash.

What does Zimbabwe have to offer in such an arrangement? You can’t make exploding-bridgewire detonators, commonly used in nuclear weapons, in production quantities without dependable supplies of gold and platinum and Zimbabwe is one of the most important producers of gold and platinum.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Science & Technology, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Brett says:

    The problem is that we keep acting like they’ve got us by the balls, when they should be afraid of us, since they’ll lose any conflict that they’ll start.

    So we should act like this. One good start would be to search-and-stop every ship coming and going from North Korea, and confiscating any contraband and/or nuclear weapons material. They’ll bluster, but I guarantee that they’ll blink before they actually start a war.

  2. Franklin says:

    More concerning to me is the prospect of mass production of nuclear weapons by a consortium of these tyrants, not only as deterrents but to extend their influence and as a source of revenue, sold to anyone with cash.

    Highlighted for emphasis.