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.
Bobby Yip / Reuters

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.
Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters
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 pattern continues, Pyongyang’s lethal threats will only grow. To break the cycle, Washington and Seoul must hit the Kim Jong Un regime where it hurts—its palace coffers and cult of personality.


The Pyongyang playbook might sound too clever by half. But it has a long history of success. Just days before invading South Korea in June 1950, North Korea reached out to the South for high-level talks on Korean unification, presenting a specific timetable for meetings and elections, to culminate in the launch of a united pan-Korean national assembly on August 15, the fifth anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule in the Korean peninsula. Six days later, before Seoul had time to bite, the North attacked, launching the Korean War. The attempt to deceive the South arguably worked, as Seoul, outmatched and unprepared, fell in just three days, and the leadership sought refuge further south. Had it not been for the U.S.-led UN intervention, North Korea’s communist revolution would have undoubtedly been completed that summer.

In October 1983, on the eve of detonating a bomb at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon, where South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was to visit, North Korea sought China’s help in conveying to the United States its wish for bilateral talks. Beijing gladly obliged, the United States was apparently intrigued, and the next day the bomb went off, killing 17 South Korean officials and four Burmese nationals. The previous year, Kim Il Sung had officially anointed his son, Jong Il, as heir. The untested heir apparent needed to prove his military mettle, and a surprise attack served this purpose. Pyongyang denied involvement, and the South Korean General-turned-President Chun Doo-hwan, despite the death of several of his top aides in the blatant terrorist attack, sought no retribution from the North, hence reinforcing Pyongyang’s assumption that it could get away with murder.

Kim Jong Un smiles during his visit to the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station near completion in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, September 14, 2015.
Kim Jong Un smiles during his visit to the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station near completion in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, September 14, 2015.
In early March of 2010, the two Koreas held military talks at the North’s suggestion. On March 26, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. Despite the multi-national investigation group’s conclusion that the North was behind the attack (which Pyongyang denied), the South called for another round of military talks in September and, in late October, coordinated with the North to hold family reunion meetings. On November 11 the same year, Pyongyang called for talks on restarting a tourism project that brought South Koreans to a scenic site in the North. On November 23, it shelled an inhabited South Korean island, killing four South Korean nationals. This was Kim Jong Un’s crucial coming-out party, the culmination of which was having him stand next to his father during a military parade on October 10, the Korean Workers’ Party Founding Day. Compelled to bolster the young inheritor’s credentials, Pyongyang believed that its attacks would be more effective if they followed an apparent warming of ties.

Kim Jong Un used the same tactical smokescreen before his long-range missile test on December 12, 2012. On December 8, the North publicly extended its timeline for launching what it called a satellite to late December. Some speculated that the Kim regime was having second thoughts in the face of Chinese pressure. When, on December 10, the North stated that it was having “technical difficulties,” many assumed that it was abandoning the planned launch altogether. In this way, the North caught many in Washington off-guard when it went ahead with the launch on the morning of December 12, exactly one week before the South Korean presidential election—a perfect window of opportunity to make itself a political factor without being forgotten. Facing no real penalty, North Korea got yet more evidence that it could act with impunity.


Seoul and Washington must recognize that, for Pyongyang, a gesture of peace is often a prelude to a provocation. This October 10 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. Kim has to celebrate the momentous occasion with fanfare, just as, in 2012, he marked the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth with two long-range missile tests. Kim followed through with a nuclear test on February 12, 2013, at a time of leadership transition in all the capitals of his neighborhood. From Pyongyang’s standpoint, these were rational moves that elevated Kim’s standing in spite of the opprobrium from abroad.

Pyongyang’s next provocation is likely to come in the form of an intercontinental ballistic missile test in the days leading up to October 10. When that happens, Seoul and Washington must break the old mold of damage-control diplomacy and come up with a playbook of their own—one that includes credible, non-military deterrence. The two allies must realize that Pyongyang’s next missile or nuclear test is not another blip in the long and undistinguished history of managing the status quo in the Korean peninsula. The technology it unveils will likely be capable or nearly capable of hitting the United States. If the United States and South Korea don’t respond, their deterrence against the North’s future provocations will continue to erode.

North Korean soldiers walk in front of bronze statues of North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong Il as they visit at Mansudae in Pyongyang, September 9, 2015.
North Korean soldiers walk in front of bronze statues of North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong Il as they visit at Mansudae in Pyongyang, September 9, 2015.
Reuters / Kyodo
The Kim regime deftly plays up its supposed international prowess to win concessions and suppress the population. So Seoul and Washington should employ anti-North Korea propaganda in the North as a main tool of deterrence—via radio broadcasts, leaflets, loudspeakers, cell phones, and signal relays that North Koreans could use—to be lifted only in the case of a real concession by Pyongyang. Pyongyang may overplay its fear of the South’s cross-border propaganda, which has a limited range, but it rightfully fears the precedent of sustained and effective information warfare from the immeasurably richer and freer Korea.

Further, Washington should enact and enforce the “North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015,” introduced in the House by Representatives Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and in the Senate by Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). This legislation aims to strengthen U.S. sanctions on North Korea, thus closing the gap between perception—the idea that U.S. sanctions against North Korea are comparable to those that brought Iran back to the negotiating table—and reality—that they are weaker than U.S. sanctions against Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela.

In 2005, a brief, limited, and highly effective campaign of financial sanctions and diplomacy threatened to strand billions of dollars in Pyongyang’s offshore assets in Europe and China. Today, a comprehensive campaign to isolate Kim Jong Un from the hard currency that sustains his regime, combined with a broader campaign of information operations to delegitimize his rule, would force the regime to choose between negotiated, gradual, and verifiable change, and extinction.

The United States and South Korea must not fall for illusory concessions and end tough measures with the next inter-Korean or U.S.-North Korean meeting. The true test of Pyongyang’s sincerity will be transparency—in permitting aid workers to freely survey and attend to North Koreans’ humanitarian needs, allowing the Red Cross to feed and treat the inmates in its horrific political prison camps, reintegrating its political prisoners into its society, and allowing UN inspectors to monitor and dismantle its WMD programs.

If South Korea and the United States fully understand the game Pyongyang is playing, they will be better positioned to write a playbook of their own and address the root cause of the security and humanitarian crises in North Korea. The alternative is to fall headlong, yet again, into Pyongyang’s whirlpool of provocation, negotiation, and extortion.

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  • SUNG-YOON LEE is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
  • JOSHUA STANTON, a lawyer in Washington, DC.
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