The escalating crisis with North Korea presents an excellent example of both nonverbal and verbal diplomatic messages. South Korea is playing an important role, but North Korean ruler Kim Jung-un seems fixated on the United States as his major enemy. Given his need to prove himself to North Korea’s generals and hard-liners, I suspect that he thinks he will gain more by humiliating the United States than South Korea.
Messages are vital in international communications. A country’s political and military elite’s perception of other countries plays an important role. Take North Korea’s perception of the United States and South. For years the United States was a “paper tiger” to Pyongyang.
As for Washington, we have tried “good cop” and “bad cop” approaches. We have offered considerable aid (primarily foodstuffs) over the years. Despite our generosity, North Korea sees no contradiction between taking aid from us (and anyone else, including the Chinese) and then doing the opposite of what it promised to do.
This is not an indictment of the Obama administration. We have looked feckless for at least the last three administrations. Under President Clinton, we advanced a program of aid in exchange for North Korea’s willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. North Koreans happily accepted the aid and went on working on nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang perceives Obama to be long on talk and short on action. North Korea looks at Obama’s policy on Iran as one example. He has repeatedly told Iran that “all options are on the table.” However, it has become increasingly clear that the military option will probably never be used. The message received: Obama threatens, but when push comes to shove, he does little or nothing.
According to a Korean friend, the problem in South Korea is twofold. First, Korea now has a female president, and North Korean leaders won’t take a female seriously. Second, North Korea has repeatedly provoked Seoul, and the latter has done little beyond shaking its fists and making threats. Why should this time be any different?
In practice, the North Koreans think they can do just about anything and get away with it.
Now, however, it appears that the Obama administration is taking them seriously. For example, Deputy Defense Secretary Aston Carter pledged in Seoul that every military resource the United States has, including nuclear weapons, will be available. “We remain steadfast to our commitment to extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella,” he said. To give this promise teeth, the United States is permitting South Korea to deploy missiles capable of reaching any part of North Korea.
The North Koreans have sent their own messages. They have been furious about U.N. sanctions after their latest test of a nuclear weapon. They cut several communications “hotlines,” including a key military one, with South Korea. The North also has renounced the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. The North’s message: We are ready to resume hostilities at any time. The North also put its Strategic Missile Forces on “full combat readiness” and threatened to use nuclear weapons against Hawaii, Guam and the U.S. West Coast. The message: We are ready to go to the brink with you.
Uncharacteristically, the U.S. has responded by sending two B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to fly over South Korea in addition to the B-52 bombers that participated in military exercises. While calling this “a normal part of our joint exercises with the South Koreans,” the unstated message was more direct: We can use nuclear weapons carried by aircraft you won’t even see. Pick a nuclear war with the United States and North Korea will cease to exist. Washington also announced that it is bolstering its Alaska-California based missile interceptor defense because of Pyongang’s RN-08 ballistic missile. The message was clear: Fire a missile at us and we’ll shoot it down.
Other countries also sent messages, indicating their were concerned about the situation getting out of control. Both China and Russia expressed serious concern over developments on the Korean peninsula. Given their tendency to stay as far as possible from events in that part of the world, this indicates that they are seriously worried about the situation and are making their concern very public. It is also worth noting that neither side supported North Korea.
While that is nice to be liked abroad, when it comes to this kind of messaging it is far more important for the United States to be feared and respected.
I hope the North Koreans got the message.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.