North Korea Will Never Play Nice

While it is cowardly and foolish not to resist an act of aggression, the best way to deal with a provocation is to ignore it — or so we are taught. By refusing to be provoked, one frustrates and therefore “beats” the provoker; generations of bullied children have been consoled with this logic. And so it is that the South Korean and American governments usually refer to North Korea’s acts of aggression as “provocations.”

The North’s artillery attack on a populated South Korean island is now getting the same treatment, with the South’s president, Lee Myung-bak, vowing that Pyongyang will be “held responsible” and that “additional provocative acts” will be punished “several times over.”

There is no reason that North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-il, should take those words seriously. Mr. Lee made similar noises in March, when the North was accused of killing 46 South Korean sailors by torpedoing a naval vessel, the Cheonan, and what was the result? A pacifist South Korean electorate punished Mr. Lee’s party in regional elections, and the attack faded from the headlines.

The North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island has been more shocking to South Koreans, but not much more. At my local train station the morning after the attack, a grinning crowd watched coverage of the Asian Games in China on a giant TV screen. The same ethno-nationalism that makes South Koreans such avid followers of international sports also dilutes their indignation at their Northern brethren. South Korea’s left-wing press, which tends to shape young opinion, is describing the shelling of the island as the inevitable product of “misunderstandings” resulting from a lack of dialogue.

Sadly, South Korea’s subdued response to such incidents makes them more likely to happen again. This poses a serious problem for the United States; we have already been drawn into one war on the peninsula because our ally seemed unlikely to defend itself.

Unfortunately, Washington shares to a certain degree the South Korean tendency to play down North Korean “provocations.” In our usage, the word reflects the America-centric perception that everything Kim Jong-il does is aimed at eliciting a reaction from Washington. His actions are trivialized accordingly, to the extent that our top policymakers have publicly compared him to a squalling, attention-hungry child.

Not surprisingly, then, the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong is seen by many Americans as an effort to force us to make concessions, to reopen negotiations, and so on. Thus we can pretend that simply by leaving sanctions in place, we are really hanging tough, even pursuing a “hard-line” policy.

The provocation view of North Korea’s actions also prevents us from seeing them in context. Since a first naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea near Yeonpyeong in 1999, there has been a steady escalation in North Korea’s efforts to destabilize the peninsula. In 2002, another naval skirmish killed at least four South Korean sailors; in 2006 the North conducted an underground nuclear test; in 2009 it launched missiles over the Sea of Japan, had another nuclear test and declared the Korean War armistice invalid; and in March the Cheonan was sunk.

This behavior is fully in keeping with the ultramilitaristic ideology of a regime that remains publicly committed to uniting the peninsula by force: “Reunification is at the ends of our bayonets,” as the omnipresent slogan in the North goes.

North Korea cannot hope to win an all-out war, but it may well believe that by incrementally escalating its aggression it can bully the South into giving up — or at least sharing power in a confederation.

The provocation view of North Korean behavior also distorts our understanding of the domestic situation. Analysts tend to focus too much on the succession issue; they interpret the attack on the island as an effort to bolster the reputation of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and anointed successor. Their conclusion is that North Korea will play nice once the young man is firmly in power.

In fact, as both its adversaries and supporters should realize, the North can never play nice. Just as our own economy-first governments must ensure growth to stay in power, a military-first regime must deliver a steady stream of victories or lose all reason to exist.

There is no easy solution to the North Korea problem, but to begin to solve it, we must realize that its behavior is aggressive, not provocative, and that its aggression is ideologically built in. Pyongyang is thus virtually predestined to push Seoul and Washington too far, thereby bringing about its own ruin.

The Chinese should take note of this, since their rationalization for continuing to support North Korea derives from the vain hope that they can prop it up indefinitely. The military-first state is going to collapse at some stage; let’s do what we can to make that happen sooner rather than later.

B. R. Myers, director of the international studies department at Dongseo University and the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters.