The genius behind NK’s provocations


So why is North Korea constantly firing missiles, constantly violating agreements? It merely seems to give an image of a petulant child wanting attention. But if you carefully study its actions, you’ll find that this “child” is not just any child, but a child prodigy masked by its distractive tantrums.

If anything, North Korea is intentionally stirring tension in the region. It is a classic North Korean tactic to escalate tension first and demand concession from its counterparts in exchange for easing the tension. The brinkmanship strategy that North Korea is utilizing in its dealings with the U.S. and South Korea involves projecting an image of North Korea as ‘irrational’, by convincing its opponents that it is an entity impossible to be controlled, and one to be reckoned with. In doing so, it is able to leverage on the fear and uncertainty generated through its unpredictable actions, getting the key players play right into its hands.

The principles of brinkmanship are simple. Two actors make demands and escalate the crisis in stages. The person who first ‘blinks’ will ‘lose’ and forfeit the prize. One side can act ‘irrational’, by convincing the other side that he has more to lose than to gain if he continues to play the game. As such, the opponent might get intimidated enough to forfeit the prize in order to minimize its losses.


North Korea is skilled at playing the brinkmanship game; It has to be skilled in order to survive. Behind all the showy military parades and nuclear missile testings, the truth is that it is actually very weak, both in numbers and capabilities, in comparison to the U.S. and its regional neighbors.

South Korea has more than twice the population of its northern neighbors and better military capabilities. Moreover, North Korea’s ties with its former allies may cease to be no more, with the collapse of the USSR and China turning to capitalism.

With such a weak economy, North Korea is in no way to negotiate for anything. No one in the international community would take North Korea seriously if it were to actively participate in the World Bank and other international institutions. With nothing to barter in exchange for concessions, North Korea can only get the world’s attention by playing on the extreme. First, by successfully getting their attention by acting rogue. Second, to make known and impose its (unreasonable) demands on the rest.

In brief, North Korea’s strategy of brinkmanship and being all ‘irrational’ is actually part of a rational strategy serving a rational goal: to maintain the sovereignty and independence of North Korea and achieve reunification of the Korean Peninsula under its terms.

So far, the North’s strategy has worked.

“Pyongyang is skillfully taking advantage of South Korea’s weaknesses of being a democracy and a market economy. Being a democracy, people can exert influence on policy makers to change policies they consider unsatisfactory. On the top of the South Korean people’s priority list is neither the reunification of the Koreas nor the protection of North Koreans’ human rights but the stable growth of their economy.

The economic growth, however, requires a stable and peaceful international environment. If foreign investors were led to wrongly believe that the Korean peninsula is a dangerous area because of North Korean provocation, the South Korean economy would become vulnerable, especially foreign investment and international trade, upon which the nation’s economy heavily depends. Based on such calculation, Pyongyang hopes that South Koreans would pressure their government to make more concession to the North.

(See: The Reason North Korea is Making Fuss – Andrei Lankov, Professor of History, Kookmin University.

Right now it appears that North Korea is the master puppeteer, literally with the key world players in its strings or at least, it has the key world players riveted at its show.

But at the end of it all, “what needs to be realized is that despite its outrageous claims, North Korea is fundamentally a rational actor in that it will use all its resources to ensure its survival. Instead of defaulting to the position that North Korea is “mad” and therefore all negotiations with the state is useless, it is important to treat North Korea as a rational, ruthless, and amoral state that will do anything for its survival. Therefore, a policy of diplomatic engagement is necessary if Northeast Asia is to remain peaceful. The Cold War has shown that it was detente, not confrontation, that has the best chance of avoiding disaster. The U.S. should learn that it was engagement and the steady infiltration of Western ideas, not hardline demands, that allowed Eastern Europe to peacefully enter the 21st century.” (See:





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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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