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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 46 (March 19, 2009)

All Headlines 10:37 March 19, 2009


South Korea and U.S. Must Confront North Korea's Coercive Diplomacy

By Moon Soon-bo (Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute, Songnam, South Korea)

From a security standpoint, diplomacy serves as an important tool to prevent war and maintain peace. For these purposes, states will sometimes use coercive diplomacy against other states. When looking at the history of US-ROK-DPRK relations, South Korea (ROK) and the U.S. have not been able to successfully apply coercive diplomacy to achieve their objectives. North Korea (DPRK), on the other hand, has effectively coerced these two allied nations. As North Korea's recent provocative military threats indicate, North Korea will continue to use coercive diplomacy as long as it finds its foundation in "songun," or military-first, politics. South Korea and the U.S. must come up with a different approach than they did in the past to deal with North Korea.

North Korea's seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the shoot-down of US aircraft EC-121 in 1969, and the shoot-down of a US helicopter in 1977 expose the limits of South Korea and the U.S. to take decisive action against North Korea's provocative military threats. These incidents not only damaged the U.S.'s prestige for having its military attacked by a country like North Korea, but they also created a fissure between the U.S. and its ally South Korea, which wanted to take a more hard-line stance toward North Korea. Whenever North Korea attacked the U.S. military, the U.S. showed just enough military force to settle the situation. However, the U.S. never took any visible or tangible disciplinary action against North Korea. In some instances, the U.S. even restrained itself from demonstrating any military force against North Korea. For example, in response to the July 1997 helicopter shoot-down incident, the U.S. showed a sign of weakness by apologizing to North Korea instead of retaliating against the attack.

The U.S.'s prudence in using military force has allowed North Korea to successfully carry out its risky behavior. The U.S. has tried coercing North Korea by conducting large-scale demonstrations of its power through such means as military exercises. American political scientist Alexander L. George defines coercive diplomacy as "the purposeful combination of threats and diplomacy aimed at persuading an opponent to stop or undo his effort to alter a status quo situation." For a country to successfully use coercive diplomacy, it must make the other state feel threatened by the possibility/risk of war or escalation without actually having the intent of waging a war. According to George, State A must make State B believe in the possibility of war or military escalation even if State A has no real intention of waging a war. Only when these conditions are met can State A achieve its objectives through coercive diplomacy.

Although the U.S. possesses far greater military capacities than North Korea, it has not yet been able to successfully coerce North Korea. North Korea has been conditioned not only to consider the U.S.'s intention to go to war as very weak, but also knows for certain that the U.S. is actively avoiding an all-out confrontation. As a result, no matter how much the U.S. demonstrates its military power by relocating and stationing troops in the South, it hasn't been able to translate this into an effective coercion strategy against North Korea.

These problems are not only issues of the past, but also apply to the current nuclear problem in North Korea. The U.S. most likely restrains its level of confrontation because it is weighing the risk of an all-out war with North Korea. In addition, it would be wrong to say that U.S. pressure on North Korea has not had any impact on the regime's behavior. However, this pressure has been only limited at best, and has had the unintended consequence of provoking further coercive aggression against South Korea and the U.S. The reason North Korea reacts in this manner is mainly because of the attitude of appeasement that followed South Korea's engagement policy during the two previous administrations.

Under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean government did not even consider using coercive tactics against North Korea. For the past 10 years, Seoul operated under the slogan "inter-Korean cooperation," in which the South provided assistance to the North and focused on managing the nuclear issue.

However, the past administrations not only failed to make North Korea take off its heavy coat through the "sunshine" policy, but it also instilled a wrong mentality in the leadership of North Korea. Pyongyang thought that by allowing inter-Korean economic cooperation through the symbolic Kaesong industrial complex, it would have the upper hand in North-South relations and that South Korea would gladly put up with any military action or tension caused by North Korea. However, the recent incident at the Kaesong industrial complex showed North Korea it was wrong and created a sense of crisis in the regime. Not only can North Korea no longer think South Korea "owes" it something, but it also realizes South Korea no longer tolerates the North's coercive tactics. In that case, closing off Kaesong would only be a huge loss to North Koreans themselves.

North Korea is currently raising its level of aggression toward South Korea and the U.S. by preparing to test-launch an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S., threatening not to respect the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, and even intimidating civil airlines. In this situation, South Korea and the U.S. must clearly understand the significance of North Korea's coercive behavior and prepare a contingency plan to deal firmly with the regime in case it follows through with its threats.

If North Korea uses coercive diplomacy, despite the fact it doesn't have any intention or ability to start a war, it is because it thinks it can achieve its objectives by threatening South Korea and the U.S. If South Korea and the U.S. fall into North Korea's trap and began reacting anxiously, North Korea will have achieved its goal. Of course, one must take into consideration very slim possibilities of inadvertent escalation when dealing with security issues. But reacting with fear and stirring domestic conflict within South Korea about how to deal with North Korea's aggressive behavior would be no different than bowing down to the North's objectives.

Therefore, South Korea and the U.S. must carefully observe North Korea and stand their ground more firmly than before. If North Korea decides to carry out its threats in any form or fashion, neither South Korea nor the U.S. should show North Korea they are limiting the use of military force. These two countries must clearly show North Korea that military provocations come with a tangible punishment. They must awaken North Korea from its sunshiny slumber and make it realize it needs to approach inter-Korean relations in a sound and sensible manner.

South Korea and the U.S. must not make the same mistakes as in the past when responding to North Korea's coercive behavior. Until we figure out a solution to North Korea's aggression, the public should refrain from publishing provocative opinions on the matter to prevent domestic conflict from getting out of hand. The U.S. and South Korea should also send a stern warning to North Korea to restrain its behavior. Finally, if North Korea decides to carry out its threats, the U.S. and South Korea need to show North Korea that their warning was not an empty threat.

Waiting out the storm is one way to deal with the security problem. However, not accomplishing anything while waiting is nothing more than a security failure.

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