Pyongyang’s firing off of two more short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, and the seizure of the Wise Honest vessel, beg a strategic question.
How do North Korean and US strategies compete against one another?
Overall, North Korea continues to practice “sadaejuui” (사대주의)—“obliging the main power”) as both Koreas have had to do given their history of enduring many invasions. This geo-strategic imperative means balancing, even fomenting, relations with the US and China. Pyongyang’s combination of desired effects seeks to persuade, compel and induce US relations. In the not so distant past, North Korea tried coercion which did not work.
Strategies compete against one another. From this perspective, missile firings are intended to compel the Trump administration into a deeper relationship with North Korea by influencing the terms of interactions, such as this seizure. Just about everything seems contested.
Thus, North Korea’s aggressive dependence strategy is a longer-term game than the use of missiles to compel the US to reduce sanctions. Pyongyang is shaping relations that are aggressive in at least two respects: (a) showing strength for internal consumption; and (b) demonstrating destabilizing capability for external audiences. Other than the US, the primary external audience is China, the only potential counterweight to US influence.
US strategy has centered on military deterrence and credible defense with our South Korean ally, but also includes economic compellence (including enforcement of sanctions) while promising economic inducements. If we proceed to deepen relations with North Korea, US strategy needs to should shape bilateral and regional relations over the long term.
Pyongyang is likely to insist on high tech conventional missile capability in exchange for any reduction or elimination of its nuclear weapons, so as to preserve the capability for an aggressive dependent relationship.
Maximum pressure can be smart pressure. Application requires a coordinated effort of diplomatic persuasion, economic compellence and promise of inducements, around a solid core of military defense and deterrence. Sustaining this effort is key to out-performing and transforming North Korea’s aggressive dependency strategy.