Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy – Stratfor

Ferocious,  Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy | Stratfor

By George Friedman Founder  and Chairman, Stratfor

North Korea’s state-run media reported Sunday that North  Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country’s top security officials  to take “substantial and high-profile important state measures,” which has been  widely interpreted to mean that North  Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were  retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang  following North Korea’s missile test in October. A few days before Kim’s  statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United  States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington’s  tool, South Korea.

North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as  weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface,  threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test  fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without  actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a  weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don’t succeed in  actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make  more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something  solid to threaten enemies with.

North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it  successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn’t. On  the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is  estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same  as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where  the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat  down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build  weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade  it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its  nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to  test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed  at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.

There is brilliance in North Korea’s strategy. When the Soviet Union  collapsed, North Korea was left in dire economic straits. There were reasonable  expectations that its government would soon collapse, leading to the unification  of the Korean Peninsula. Naturally, the goal of the North Korean government was  regime survival, so it was terrified that outside powers would invade or support  an uprising against it. It needed a strategy that would dissuade anyone from  trying that. Being weak in every sense, this wasn’t going to be easy, but the  North Koreans developed a strategy that we  described more than 10 years ago as ferocious, weak and crazy. North Korea  has pursued this course since the 1990s, and the latest manifestation of this  strategy was on display last week. The strategy has worked marvelously and is  still working.

A Three-Part Strategy

First, the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to  have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power. Second, they  positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are,  there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse  anyway. And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them  would be dangerous since they were liable to engage in the greatest risks  imaginable at the slightest provocation.

In the beginning, Pyongyang’s ability to appear ferocious was limited to the North Korean army’s  power to shell Seoul. It had massed artillery along the border and could  theoretically devastate the southern capital, assuming the North had enough  ammunition, its artillery worked and air power didn’t lay waste to its massed  artillery. The point was not that it was going to level Seoul but that it had  the ability to do so. There were benefits to outsiders in destabilizing the  northern regime, but Pyongyang’s ferocity — uncertain though its capabilities  were — was enough to dissuade South Korea and its allies from trying to  undermine the regime. Its later move to develop missiles and nuclear weapons  followed from the strategy of ferocity — since nothing was worth a nuclear war,  enraging the regime by trying to undermine it wasn’t worth the risk.

Many nations have tried to play the ferocity game, but the North Koreans  added a brilliant and subtle twist to it: being weak. The  North Koreans advertised the weakness of their economy, particularly its  food insecurity, by various means. This was not done overtly, but by allowing  glimpses of its weakness. Given the weakness of its economy and the difficulty  of life in North Korea, there was no need to risk trying to undermine the North.  It would collapse from its own defects.

This was a double inoculation. The North Koreans’ ferocity with weapons whose  effectiveness might be questionable, but still pose an unquantifiable threat,  caused its enemies to tread carefully. Why risk unleashing its ferocity when its  weakness would bring it down? Indeed, a constant debate among Western analysts  over the North’s power versus its weakness combines to paralyze  policymakers.

The North Koreans added a third layer to perfect all of this. They portrayed  themselves as crazy, working to appear unpredictable, given to extravagant  threats and seeming to welcome a war. Sometimes, they reaffirmed they were crazy  via steps like sinking South Korean ships for no apparent reason. As in poker,  so with the North: You can play against many sorts of players, from those who  truly understand the odds to those who are just playing for fun, but never, ever  play poker against a nut. He  is totally unpredictable, can’t be gamed, and if you play with his head you  don’t know what will happen.

So long as the North Koreans remained ferocious, weak and crazy, the best  thing to do was not irritate them too much and not to worry what kind of  government they had. But being weak and crazy was the easy part for the North;  maintaining its appearance of ferocity was more challenging. Not only did the  North Koreans have to keep increasing their ferocity, they had to avoid  increasing it so much that it overpowered the deterrent effect of their weakness  and craziness.

A Cautious Nuclear Program

Hence, we have North Korea’s eternal nuclear program. It never quite produces  a weapon, but no one can be sure whether a weapon might be produced. Due to  widespread perceptions that the North Koreans are crazy, it is widely believed  they might rush to complete their weapon and go to war at the slightest  provocation. The result is the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South  Korea holding meetings with North Korea to try to persuade it not to do  something crazy.

Interestingly, North Korea never does anything significant and dangerous, or  at least not dangerous enough to break the pattern. Since the Korean War, North  Korea has carefully calculated its actions, timing them to avoid any move that  could force a major reaction. We see this caution built into its nuclear  program. After more than a decade of very public ferocity, the North Koreans  have not come close to a deliverable weapon. But since if you upset them, they  just might, the best bet has been to tread lightly and see if you can gently  persuade them not to do something insane.

The North’s positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend  credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats  maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great  powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to  risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.

The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil

There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the  years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to  intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This  diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the  actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial  disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would  or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is  still worth noting.

The Chinese and  the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent  weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North  Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would  inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask  the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige.  This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device,  the North isn’t interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be  drawing on the test’s proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling  in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese — terribly  afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next — will be  grateful to China for defusing the “crisis.” And who could be so churlish as to  raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force  North Korea to step down?

It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no  overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we  do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea.  For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises — and their  subsequent Chinese interventions — at quite useful times for Beijing.

It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious,  weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has  convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly  and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is  also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing  economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can  play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear — Iran just  doesn’t have the famines North Korea has.

Additionally, Iran’s rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy:  Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even  if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed  to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless  predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have  proved false.

I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the “ferocious, weak and crazy”  strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield  demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major  international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be  pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the  solace your opponents find in your weakness.

Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to  war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without  going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war  in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It  is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least,  it has worked.

Read more:  Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy | Stratfor

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