The Pyongyang Playbook

One persistent misperception about North Korea is that its provocative international behavior is unpredictable. In the last two years alone, North Korea has held four U.S. citizens hostage; fired a long-range missile over Japan; conducted further nuclear testing; and, most recently, torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors on board.

In fact, Pyongyang's methods have been remarkably consistent since the early 1960s, when Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founding dictator and its current leader’s father, purged all potential rivals and consolidated power. Its strategy has been to lash out at its enemies when it perceives them to be weak or distracted, up the ante in the face of international condemnation (while blaming external scapegoats), and then negotiate for concessions in return for an illusory promise of peace. Incapable of competing with economically flourishing South Korea, the North can rely only on military and political brinkmanship to make up ground. This has been a stunningly successful game plan for the isolated, impoverished nation that sits amidst the world’s most powerful status quo states, including China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

North Korea's policy toward the Obama administration has closely followed this time-tested strategy. The United States has a long and undistinguished history of playing into the North’s game plan. However, the Obama administration has deviated from this pattern and adopted a policy that U.S. officials have dubbed “strategic patience.” The White House has attempted to remain calm in the face of North Korean provocations and has resisted making deals with Pyongyang merely for the sake of defusing tension. In view of the North Korean regime’s strategic outlook, it is the right approach.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis