Why Does North Korea Ritualistically Provoke South Korea?


In the last few weeks, North Korea once again threw out a wild, unpredicted military tantrum. Now it has decided to start shelling the weakly agreed-upon sea border, the Northern Line Limit, in the Yellow Sea. For the details, try here or read my radio transcript below.

Less interesting than the details of the latest provocation – these things are terribly formulaic, to the point of ritual – is the IR theory question why. As I note in the transcript below, these gimmicks never work. In fact they usually backfire. Instead of frightening the SK citizenry or elites, these incidents usually stiffen the spine, because they look like bullying, and fairly crude at that. Further, NK truculence always serves to re-gel any possible rifts between SK, the US and Japan. In the same way that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reenergized NATO after the ‘alliance politics’ of the 70s, NK provocations routinely evince thicker and more explicit commitments by the US to defend SK.

Assuming the North Koreans aren’t stupid, the obvious question is why? I can think of two reasons, with a hat-tip on number 2 to Bryan Myers of Dongseo University in Busan, with whom I have discussed this at length. As always, this is a good IR master’s thesis-in-waiting.

1. Kim Jong Il is not fully in control of the NK military (the KPA) anymore.

This would not be a great surprise to anyone. Dictatorships are almost always heavily reliant on the military, and North Korea more than most. Indeed, it is hard to think of many truly civilian dictatorships. Most communist dictatorships slide into militarism, and even the Islamic semi-dictatorships of the Middle East usually have deep roots in the military. In the case of NK, this is even more extreme. When Kim the elder passed, so did communist party/civilian rule. Kim the younger immediately began placating the military as a means to neutralize the greatest threat to his shaky authority. In the mid-90s, NK declared a ‘military-first’ policy, whereby the military would have first claim on national resources. In the current NK constitution, Kim Jong Il rules as the chairman of the National Defense Committee, not as the civilian president. So extreme has this militarization become, that Bryan calls the DPRK a ‘national defense state,’ not a stalinist one.

So in such an environment, it is not hard to imagine the KPA high brass insisting on regular displays of their cool toys as means of justifying their insanely large budget, and otherwise trying to impress everyone, Kim Jong Il included, of the KPA’s inordinate influence over peninsular affairs.


2. NK faces a permanent legitimacy crisis which must be regularly ‘abated’ through external confrontation.

Clandestine traffic from China over the Yalu river has introduced far greater awareness of the wider world to North Koreans over the last 15 years. It was the non-response of the regime to the late 90s famine that drove the  Chinese connection originally, and now cell phones and VHS have illicitly gotten in. Indeed, the regime has lost so much of its information control, that is longer tries to claim that it is wealthier than SK. So if East Germany collapsed, if it gave up after 45 years of trying (and failing), why does NK hang on? How does NK legitimize itself when a prosperous, happier Korean national analogue is right next door?

By claiming that SK is an American colony and/or subject to ongoing Japanese control. Hence Myer’s description of NK as a ‘national defense state.’ It is defending the nation, where SK has sold out. To maintain this narrative however, regular tensions with the South, the US and Japan are necessary. Hence outbursts like last November’s North-South naval clash in the Yellow Sea, and now this artillery barrage.

The most gloomy part of this logic is that it predicts that NK will never surrender its nukes, and that it will continue to regularly, indeed, ritualistically, provoke SK.





February 8, 2010

Professor Kelly comes to us each Monday to talk about big issues in Korean foreign affairs. And this week we are going to discuss North Korea’s recent artillery firing into the East Sea. Hi, Dr. Kelly.


Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me


Thanks for being with us again today.


It’s my pleasure.


So in the last few weeks, the North Korean military fired artillery shells into the East Sea. Why? What purpose does this serve?


Well, as usual, the North Korea government gave us no clear reasoning about this. The stated purpose was practice firing, but no one believes that. More likely, is saber rattling in the current North-South negotiations over pay at the Kaesong industrial park. If the artillery fire scares the South somewhat, perhaps it will make a better deal with the North over the salaries at Kaesong.


That seems like a fairly crude negotiating stratagem.


Yes, it is. This sort of military posturing is a commonplace from North Korea. Far more interesting is that it does not really work, yet the North keeps doing it.


Why doesn’t it work?


Well, the South Korean government and citizenry are simply inured to this now. For decades the North has acted like this to extract better deals from the South, but the South has never really given in to this. Southerners are just use to this by now, and they ignore it. Indeed, one can read the North’s nuclear program the same way. It is an elaborate and expensive tool for North Korea to club South Korea, the US and Japan into giving more aid.


But this doesn’t work well…


No not really. The response of South Korea, and by extension Japan and the US, to these sorts of provocations is to stand firm and in fact to stand more closely together. In this way, it is rather foolish. Every time NK tries to bully South Korea and its allies, it backfires. It causes the opposite response. So Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, pledged last year, the most public commitment ever that the US will use nuclear force to protect South Korea, because last year, the North’s rhetoric and behavior was so aggressive.

Remember too, that when South Korea has reached out to North Korea, it has been because of internal change in South Korea; that is, South Koreans the voted for left-leaning Presidents Kim and Roh, and they tried the sunshine policy. If North Korea really wants South Korea to help, you would think they would want to facilitate the election of more such presidents. But events like last week’s artillery barrage serve the opposite. They justify the hawkish, conservative vision of North Korea of the current Lee administration.


So why do they do it then?


Good question. I have two educated guesses on this. First, the civilian government in North Korea can’t fully control the military. Second, these sorts of provocations of the South serve internal North Korean political purposes.


Can you explain that a little more?


Sure. In the last 15 years, the North Korean military has increasingly dominated the government as a whole. The declaration of the ‘military first’ song-gun policy was the end of communism or Stalinism in North Korea, and the most obvious marker that North Korea was evolving into a military dictatorship. Recall that Kim Jong-Il’s title in the North Korean constitution is the Chairman of the National Defense Committee, not president. Kim Il-Sung is the eternal president of North Korea. Kim the younger rules from a military post. So it seems possible that the military was free-lancing last week with these artillery tests. Making trouble like this in inter-Korean relations is a good way for the military to make known its authority over North Korea.


Ok. You also suggested there might be a domestic political purpose.


Yes. The regime suffers from a permanent legitimacy crisis. South Korea is wealthier, healthier, happier, etc. Most North Koreans have learned this in the last 20 years from information filtering in from China. The regime can no longer hide how far behind it is in the inter-Korean race. So an obvious question for any North Korean, is why North Korea still exists, long after the Soviet Union and East Germany are gone.

The regime’s answer to that problem is to manufacture a regular series of external crises. So long as the US, South Korea, and Japan are implacable foes intent on destroying North Korea, then the government can justify to its own people why it persists. This is why things like the artillery shelling last week or the naval skirmish last year in the same area, happen. The North cannot ‘win’ these sorts of stand-offs, but they do serve a domestic political need.


So what is it about the East Sea that creates these sorts of problems so much anyway?


Good question. The East Sea, or in its international title, the Yellow Sea, is a good place for such North Korean shows, because the border there is so imprecise. After the Korean war, there was no formal border commission, on either land or sea. Remember that the war didn’t really cease, it just stopped temporarily. As we all know, this temporary border on land hardened into the demilitarized zone. But on land that was easy insofar as one could easily see where the battle lines between North and South were.


But on the seas, no one really knew.


That’s right. It was just wide open. So the US and South Korea simply declared a de facto border that we call the Northern Limit Line. And in fact, it is drawn awfully close to North Korean islands. When we drew the line, it basically cut north immediately from land. It does, arguably, discriminate against North Korea. One can understand why the North rejects. But it also reflected the balance of seapower in the area in 1953. The US navy controlled the Yellow Sea, so the NLL also correctly reflects the geopolitical realities from the time. It is also worth mentioning that there is a annual crab harvest in the area. So every year, fishing boats from either side wander over the line. All in all, it is a messy, disputed area, so it is ideal for North Korean provocations whenever one is needed.


So we should expect more of these sorts of provocations and clashes?


Yes, I think so. The NLL area is ripe for miscommunication, especially given the fishing traffic. Serious naval clashes have happened there three times in the past. Last November was the most recent. North Korea claimed that last week’s shelling was an annual exercise, so we might expect it again next spring. But honestly, I cannot recall that something like this happened last year, so I am not sure how ‘annual’ it really is. As so often with North Korea, it is murky. But I think you are right that we can expect fairly regular low-level conflict there indefinitely.


Ok. Sounds gloomy. Thanks again for coming professor. We’ll see you again next week.

5 thoughts on “Why Does North Korea Ritualistically Provoke South Korea?

  1. The book promoted above (on 2/9/2010) did not sell very well and I decided to make it available at no cost. How is how I am promoting it now:

    Dear colleagues,

    1) As per our previous correspondence, I want you to know about my new book. Anyone can now read it ONLINE. And it is FREE.

    The URL is


    2) Please share this URL with all who might be interested. Thank you in advance.

    The title is: “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

    This 2010 book is my autobiography. It is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

    3) Comments, as always, will be appreciated. I expect my book to be readable by all browsers and under all operating systems. (Please send me a private message immediately if the content is not clearly displayed on your computer screen.)

    Ludwik Kowalski
    Professor Emeritus
    Montclair State University (USA)


  2. Pingback: The North Korean Shelling « Asian Security Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s