Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, North Korea has used a strategy of “ferocious, weak, and crazy” to stay in power. Up until recently the strategy has worked brilliantly for the Kims. But the situation is changing under the leadership of twenty-something Kim Jung Un. Because of his actions and rhetoric China has to reconsider its stance of protecting the North Korean regime. Additionally, the current U.S. response toward North Korea is forcing other changes in the region.
The information and insight for this column come from two Stratfor articles: George Friedman’s “Ferocious, Weak, and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy” and Rodger Baker’s “China and North Korea: A Tangled Partnership.”
Let’s get the historical context for the current situation: Communist North Korea lost a valuable ally with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. North Korea is a weak, vulnerable nation historically caught in the middle between great powers: currently, China, the U.S. and Japan.
For the nation to maintain its survival the Kim governments created a foreign policy based upon three concepts: ferocity—the ability to portray their nation on the verge of attacking South Korea; weakness—a country that is constantly on the verge of famine that must repress its people to maintain power; and craziness—leadership that is nutty and therefore unpredictable and dangerous, and better left alone.
Ferocity: For the last 20 years or so, North Korea has been on the verge of becoming both a nuclear power with intercontinental missile capacity, but not quite. Before it had nuclear weapons North Korea used its ferocity to threaten nearby Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with its artillery. By acting like it might attack the South at any time, North Korea has protected itself from invasion since the 1950s.
Weakness: Its thousands of starving, impoverished people make North Korea appear to be on the verge of political overthrow. Because of this, no one has bothered to topple the regime, waiting instead for its natural collapse.
Craziness: North Korea has acted crazy in many ways: recently one of its submarines sank a South Korean naval ship for no apparent reason, killing 46 South Korean naval personnel. Then North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing four people. In the last few weeks it has threatened South Korea by setting up mobile missile launchers close to the border of South Korea and also has threatened to launch a nuclear missile attack against the United States.
The strategy of “ferocious, weak, and crazy” has in the past gotten the North Korean regime food aid and increased trade, keeping the government in power. But the strategy that worked in the past is not working now. Additionally, the leadership in North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan are all new, creating a new dynamic in the region.
With this in mind, the current U.S. administration has taken a play from a previous 20th century president, Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” President Obama has set up anti-missile batteries in South Korea, Japan and Alaska. He has sent B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea, flying from mid-America. He also ordered B-52 bombers on practice bombing runs in South Korea—something that brings back horrifying memories for North Koreans of American carpet-bombing of their country during the Korean War.
China as well has painful memories of major powers controlling the Korean Peninsula: a unified Korean Korguryo Kingdom (37 B.C. to 668 A.D.) conquered and controlled part of China. China was again invaded when the Japanese took control of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945 and then invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria from 1931 until the end of World War II in 1945.
Most recently, the U.S. invasion of North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s caused China to respond by sending at least a million soldiers into North Korea to push the American/United Nations force back to South Korea. This war created a stalemate along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea that has been present since the 1953 armistice. A state of war still exists between the North and South.
The U.S. is not going to play its old strategy of asking China to intervene and then giving aid to North Korea in return for promises of nuclear disarmament—promises that are eventually broken as the cycle starts again. Obama’s strategy has forced China to take a different stance as the patron of the North Korean regime.
China’s fear is that Kim Jong Un’s threats of war may cause Japan and South Korea to break free of U.S. protection guarantees and become nuclear military powers in their own right, starting a nuclear arms race in the region. China does not want this to occur.
The Chinese government does not care what kind of government exists in North Korea as long as it acts as a buffer to any major nation controlling the peninsula. The Kim government does not have to survive as long as a weak and neutral nation separates China from South Korea and the U.S.
It appears that Obama’s new form of big stick diplomacy, combined with a fierce, newly-elected South Korean president, is putting pressure on China to act.
North Korea’s strategy of “ferocious, weak, and crazy” seems to be ending in the region because of a smarter U.S. foreign policy. Kim Jung Un must either tone down his rhetoric and bellicose behavior or risk the end of his regime. Again, geography will affect history as Korea is again caught in a vice between major powers.