Kim Jong-un waves to the people during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, July 27, 2013.
Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters

U.S.–North Korea relations recently enjoyed 16 optimistic days: between February 29, when Pyongyang signed the “Leap Day” arms control agreement with the United States, and March 16, when it announced plans to conduct the very kind of rocket launch that it had just forsworn. Reacting to the announcement of the satellite launch, which is intended to commemorate the centenary of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth, U.S. President Barack Obama warned North Korea about the consequences of provocation and called on China to stop “turning a blind eye” to the North Korean nuclear program. The denunciations Obama and others have been making sound like a familiar refrain. “Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something,” Obama said in his now-famous Prague speech, in which he condemned North Korea’s April 2009 rocket launch. But the rules aren’t binding, North Korea’s violations aren’t meaningfully punished, words are mostly just words, and China does little.

North Korea’s saber rattling today represents only the most recent episode in a long history of unpunished provocation. In 1968, North Korean forces seized a U.S. Navy ship and its crew, and in 1976, they killed with an axe two U.S. servicemen who were trying to trim an overhanging tree in the demilitarized zone. (The Americans responded to the latter incident by dispatching the most heavily armed landscaping operation in world history, with tree-trimmers in the DMZ accompanied by jets flying overhead.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the regime repeatedly attempted to assassinate the South Korean president; in 1974, South Korea’s first lady was killed when a suspected agent from the North tried to shoot President Park Chung Hee. In another presidential assassination attempt, in 1983, North Korean operatives planted a bomb in Rangoon that killed several South Korean cabinet members and other government officials. Four years later, agents bombed a civilian airplane, killing all 115 aboard. More recently, the North Korean military torpedoed the South Korean frigate Cheonan and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In every instance, the joint U.S.-South Korean command, Combined Forces Command (CFC), has let North Korea get away with its misbehavior. One sanctions regime after another has not deterred aggression. 

Restraint in the face of such provocation is unusual, in particular for the United States, which has not been shy about using military force when it or its allies are attacked. For example, Manuel Noriega’s military forces harassed Americans in Panama and killed a U.S. marine; the United States invaded and deposed Noriega. In 1986, Libya bombed a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen; the U.S. military launched air strikes in Libya, killing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s daughter.

North Korea escapes such punishment thanks to a powerful deterrent. The first leg of Pyongyang’s strategic triad is its “madman” image: the idea that the country might react to retaliation by plunging the peninsula into general war. North Korean officials are not irrational, as so often depicted in the media. Rather, they are following in the tradition of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who spoke of feigning irrationality in order to intimidate his adversaries. Through its wild rhetoric and behavior at home and abroad, Pyongyang has told the world that in the international game of chicken, it will not swerve -- that it is so ready to fight that it will starve its people and devote a quarter of its economy to defense, hack up enemy soldiers with an axe, and even try to assassinate presidents. This reputation has helped convince CFC’s leaders that they cannot rely upon the normal rules of deterrence, that with such an opponent, tit-for-tat retaliation is too risky and too likely to lead to all-out war.

Make no mistake: no one thinks that North Korea would actually win that war. The country is dwarfed economically by South Korea, and the military balance long ago shifted against the North. In the late 1990s, military analysts concluded that CFC would prevail should a war ever be fought, and the ensuing two decades of famine and energy shortages have only weakened North Korea’s position. But even though Pyongyang would lose this war, no one wants to fight it, either. North Korea can still inflict terrible pain on South Korea (and possibly, with its ballistic missiles, on nearby Japan). The city of Seoul, home to more than ten million people, lies well within range of North Korean artillery. North Korea’s leaders know that a second Korean war would be an existential war -- that neither the regime nor they themselves would survive a defeat -- and so they would have an incentive to use every weapon in their arsenal, including weapons of mass destruction. Is North Korea so crazy that if CFC carried out an act of limited retaliation, the country would start a war that would end in its own certain destruction? No one wants to find out.

The second leg of the North Korean triad is the specter of its own collapse. Because of its economic weakness and uncertainty about its political leadership since the recent power transition, the country looks like a house of cards that a nudge will send crashing down. Neighbors fear that the regime’s collapse would upend the country’s food distribution network, ushering in a humanitarian crisis and sending refugees (and perhaps some loose nukes) streaming across borders. CFC and China may each intervene to find the missing nuclear weapons or to stabilize a chaotic North Korea, which could escalate the crisis.

Thus Seoul hesitates to hit North Korea hard: not only because it worries about this kind of instability in the short term but also because it dreads the longer-term problem of having to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling, and its unhealthy population is ill equipped to function in a modern state. Cleaning up North Korea’s mess would consume the time and treasure of a generation of South Koreans. From China’s perspective, the potential nightmares of collapse playing out on its border (and in the longer term, the thought of a unified Korea aligned with the United States) explain why Beijing has been unwilling to discipline Pyongyang.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons constitute the third leg of its deterrence strategy. For many years, CFC refrained from retaliating because it feared another costly conventional war. Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has made the thought of a second Korean war even more horrific. But Washington can’t acknowledge that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is working: after all, the Obama administration’s campaign for a world free of nuclear weapons is founded on the assertion that they are useless. Still, even though the United States will never admit that it is being deterred by a weak adversary with a handful of malfunctioning nuclear devices, North Korea knows it -- and so do Iran and other nuclear aspirants that fear regime change.

Thanks to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other countries deplore North Korean belligerence but confine their retaliation to a barrage of rhetoric. Countries tend to be extraordinarily cautious when dealing with nuclear-armed adversaries. India, for example, has been forced to tolerate Pakistani terrorism, most prominently after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. In the wake of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 (reportedly carried out by groups harbored in Pakistan), the Indian cabinet resolved, “We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors wherever they are, whoever they are.” But it never did so, because that would have involved military actions that could have led to nuclear war. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, like North Korea’s, give it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It is tempting to presume that there is some limit to the world's tolerance of North Korean aggression -- some point at which South Korea and the United States, despite fears of a war and collapse, would conclude that North Korea is too dangerous a country to live with and that regime change is the less terrible option. But that presumption could be wrong. As intolerable as it is to absorb North Korea’s assassination attempts and other provocations, it is also hard to imagine what could possibly prompt Seoul and Washington to gamble on regime change in a wrecked, nuclear-armed disaster of a country.

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  • Jennifer Lind is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. She is on Twitter at @profLind.
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