Bobby Yip / Reuters A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, April 8, 2012.

North Korea's Next Dare

What Is Coming—and What to Do About It

For over 50 years, North Korea has relied on the same set of tactics in its international strategy. Why? Because they work.  

The “Pyongyang Playbook” goes as follows: Offer a fake overture of peace; raise the stakes for your foes with a provocation; act unstable and threaten to escalate even further; and finally, call for talks and act reasonable. Pyongyang seizes and maintains the initiative from beginning to end and leaves its adversaries anxious for negotiations in the face of provocations.

The latest example of this high drama came late last month. After an ultimatum and threat of war against South Korea over anti-North propaganda broadcast blaring across the border, a dramatic eleventh-hour meeting between the two sides yielded an agreement for both to stand down and work toward greater inter-Korean civilian exchanges. 

South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, July 22, 2015.

South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, July 22, 2015.

The agreement reduces perceptions of tension, at least for now. But it does nothing to deter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, its repression of its people, or its next attack against the South. Worse, it reinforces two strategic misconceptions: First, that Pyongyang can be a reasonable partner in a dialogue (despite the North’s post-agreement denial that its expression of “regret” over the land mine explosions that maimed two South Korean soldiers in early August was an apology) and second, that muting the South’s loudspeakers was Pyongyang’s primary goal in the talks (a serious underestimation of the Kim Jong Un regime).

Pyongyang surely detests anti-Kim propaganda, but it has bigger goals than silencing news and pop music within earshot of a small portion of its frontline soldiers and residents. One is to subtly equate non-violent speech with its own violent responses. Another is to enthrall its adversary with the notion that reconciliation through conventional negotiations at Seoul’s initiative—which will invariably come with concessions—is possible, even in the wake of the next North Korean provocation.

Already, South Korea has shut down its loudspeakers following the recent inter-Korean talks. But, as long as the usual

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