By Zach Glass, Policy Intern
On June 16, North Korea blew up the Kaesong Liaison Office, which was built in September 2018 to foster inter-Korean dialogue. This quite literal deterioration of Korean relations occurred one week after Pyongyang announced that it had severed all lines of communication with South Korea, which North Korean state media claimed was the result of the South’s “treacherous and cunning behavior.”
Pyongyang’s behavior is the most recent instigation in a well-established cycle. North Korea manufactures a political or military tension to entice the United States and its allies back to the negotiation table, whereupon the promise to make peace can be leveraged as a bargaining chip. For example, in July 2017 Pyongyang put the region on high alert by testing missiles in the Sea of Japan. That August, they aggravated regional anxieties by launching several Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that flew directly over Hokkaido before crashing into the Pacific. Observing the changing politics of the region, Pyongyang then reversed its diplomatic stance in the following months, with Kim Jong-un expressing willingness to negotiate with South Korean and American leaders. He eventually met once with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April 2018, and then three times with President Trump in May 2018, February 2019, and June 2019.
In light of this, the most recent stunt could signal the beginning of the next decline in inter-Korean relations. This is worrying, because Kim is likely willing to escalate tensions if he perceives that his demands are not met. Conventional military skirmishes at sea or along the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries have occurred in the past, but recent history suggests that some demonstration of North Korea’s nuclear prowess is more likely. Indeed, satellite imagery of the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant captured in March indicates that yellowcake uranium is currently being manufactured.
Given that recent negotiations failed to produce any concrete nonproliferation measures, we can only assume that North Korea’s nuclear program will continue to strengthen, thus increasing regional instability over time. Inaction will further entrench North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. Difficult as it may be, diplomacy is still the only feasible option for breaking the North Korean cycle of escalating and de-escalating tensions. In the past, Washington and Seoul have offered incentives like energy assistance, security assurances, and the conditional easing of economic sanctions, but Pyongyang has always either walked away from the table or violated agreements soon after they were created. However, Washington has also derailed progress. For example, in August 2008, the Bush Administration missed a deadline set by the previous round of negotiations to remove North Korea from the United States’ list of states that sponsor terrorism, prompting North Korea to restore its Yongbyon nuclear facility and expelling international inspectors. Likewise, President Trump likely doomed the February 2019 summit by demanding that North Korea transfer its entire nuclear arsenal to the United States.
Breaking the current dangerous cycle will require flexibility, patience and discipline on all sides. Until then, alarming events like those over the past several weeks, backdropped by a looming nuclear crisis, will remain the Korean Peninsula’s status quo.