Do not fear North Korea’s provocations. They are a standard expression of leader Kim Jong Un’s three-pronged strategy, which is built on political warfare, blackmail diplomacy, and advanced warfighting preparation.
The regime conducted seven missiles launches of various types over a two-week period ending on Oct. 11. Pyongyang is likely to continue such provocations, and it may even conduct its seventh nuclear test in the coming months. Rather than fear these provocations, North Korea’s adversaries should view them as another opportunity to show Kim his strategy will not work.
North Korea’s Strategy
There are several possible reasons for this flurry of tests. One assessment is that North Korea is using the recent firings, which have emanated from multiple locations, to try to create a targeting dilemma for the U.S. and South Korea. They may be trying to undermine the ROK’s Kill Chain concept, showing that they can conduct a strike at a time and place of their choosing, and the alliance will not be able to know when or from where it will come.
However, the indications and warnings for a missile test will be much different than the indications and warnings for a launch if Kim decides to go to war. A missile strike into the South (or targeting Japanese or U.S. bases in the Pacific) would be the first salvo in a war, and the regime would have to prepare for a decisive kinetic response from U.S. allies if they carried one out. Fortunately, there have been no indications that such preparations are occurring, according to open source reporting. This means the regime is probably testing in hopes of advancing its capabilities; testing to send an external message (in other words, using blackmail diplomacy); and testing for domestic messaging purposes, aiming to keep tensions high so the regime can justify the enormous sacrifices and suffering his people must make.
Considering everything that has happened over the past few weeks, some important assessments can be made.
Kim is continuing to execute his three pronged political warfare strategy. He aims to subvert South Korea and the ROK/U.S. alliance, and to use blackmail diplomacy to wring concessions from the ROK, the U.S., and the international community. And his advanced warfighting strategy focuses on developing the capabilities needed to dominate the peninsula under regime rule some day in the future. These are not separate and distinct strategies — they are mutually supporting and reinforcing.
In addition, Kim is likely under enormous internal stress. He is facing a failed economy, a poor COVID response, natural disasters, and a poor upcoming harvest. As noted, he needs an external threat to justify the suffering of the Korean people.
Understanding Kim’s Motivations
Kim may feel the need to carry out the missile tests because the U.S. is distracted with Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran. Kim needs the U.S. to keep some focus on North Korea and make statements that the regime can exploit to support its domestic propaganda. Every time the U.S. addresses North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Pyongyang’s Propaganda and Agitation Department can use Washington’s words to show that the U.S. fears these programs.
Kim may also believe he is free to grow his military capabilities because the U.S. is distracted and wants to avoid any significant response on the Korean peninsula. Kim also might believe that the U.S. would make concessions in order to keep the peninsula stable.
Kim might also seek to support Russia and China by causing problems for the U.S. as it seeks to deal with the situations in Ukraine and Taiwan. The North has been supportive of Putin in recognizing the annexed territories and providing “diplomatic” support to Russia. It will be interesting to see if the regime provides workers or soldiers to Russia as has reportedly been discussed.
While the ROK/U.S. alliance cannot stop North Korea’s provocations and tests, it has successfully deterred a resumption of hostilities for the past 69 years, and that must always be the priority.
Given North Korea’s actions, the alliance needs to recognize Kim’s strategy, understand it, expose it, and attack it with information and a superior political warfare strategy. The alliance must not overreact to Pyongyang’s actions, and it must not show fear. Every time the alliance discusses the regime’s nuclear and missile programs, it boosts Kim’s domestic legitimacy. The alliance therefore needs to keep its focus on human rights, even when political leaders discuss nukes and missiles. They must state the fact that Kim is responsible for the suffering of North Koreans – he prioritizes nuclear weapons and missiles over their welfare. Nuclear weapons and human rights must be linked in all statements. Human rights are not only a moral imperative, but also a national security issue, as Kim must curtail rights in order to remain in power.
Responding to Kim
Traditionally the alliance has tried to pressure the regime through military shows of force ranging from military exercises to the deployment of strategic assets, and combined with UN and U.S. sanctions regimes. Sanctions enforcement, and therefore pressure on Kim, has been weak. China and Russia continue to block any additional UN sanctions pressure using their Security Council vetoes. Indeed, the alliance needs to do much better on sanctions. However, to really pressure Kim, the alliance must focus on human rights and influence activities and the pursuit of a free and unified Korea. It needs to do things it has never done before.
Most importantly, the alliance must never make concessions, especially in the form of sanctions relief. Any concession will convince Kim his political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies are successful, which will cause him to double down.
That said, the number one priority is for the alliance to demonstrate strength and resolve in the face of provocations, and it has done this well by taking some sound military actions. The ROK and U.S. must never again cancel exercises, as that shows weakness and emboldens Kim. The alliance must view provocations as opportunities to demonstrate to Kim that his strategies are failing and will fail. Seoul and Washington must do that through a comprehensive political warfare campaign that makes effective use of information and influence while building on the rock-solid foundation of a strong ROK/U.S. military alliance.
There is growing recognition of the importance of information and influence, and proposals are being put forth that would take advantage, for example, of the massive influx of K-pop and South Korean entertainment. However, an influence and information activities campaign must be developed in even greater depth. K-pop alone will not pressure the regime. The alliance needs to focus on human rights and on separating the second-tier military leaders from the elite. It must give those leaders options when faced with decisions from the regime. An information campaign must develop cracks in the regime by exploiting differences and weakness within the party political structure. The alliance must begin the long educational process of preparing the population for unification.
Naysayers will laugh off K-pop and all the derogatory anti-Kim propaganda that is sent into the North, and indeed the alliance needs to develop a sophisticated and comprehensive information and influence activities campaign. K-pop is useful to open the door, but it does not constitute a real influence campaign.
Ultimately such a campaign must pursue three broad possible effects. The first intent is to pressure Kim directly to change his behavior, although this is the least likely outcome. The second is to pressure the elite and the military to change Kim’s behavior. The third is to encourage North Koreans to change the regime.
The alliance must devise and execute a superior political warfare strategy that is based on an influence campaign and an approach that prioritizes human rights, with the long term objective of achieving a free and unified Korea. It must rest on the strongest possible foundation of deterrence and defense. Finally, the alliance must recognize and accept there will be no end to the nuclear threat and the human rights abuses in the North until there is a United Republic of Korea. Therefore, it must pursue this objective.
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 20 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.