The five stages of North Korean provocation

January 24, 2013

(EPA/KCNA)

North Korea announced late on Wednesday night, U.S. east coast time, that it may carry out a nuclear test in retaliation for new international sanctions. Those sanctions were themselves punishment for Pyongyang's December launch of a long-range rocket. The rocket launch was seen as new leader Kim Jong Eun's way of cementing his rule by flaunting the weapons program for which the world has so isolated his country, including by way of sanctions.

And that's how the cycle of provocation and isolation has gone for years now. As The Washington Post's Chico Harlan wrote of the latest threat, "North Korea has spent decades as East Asia’s chief provocateur — developing weapons, launching rockets, making and breaking denuclearization deals, threatening all-out war — and analysts admit that its rhetoric can often feel repetitive."

The pattern of North Korea's military and rhetorical provocations, as well as the world's responses, have gotten so familiar that, although predicting the future would be impossible, we can certainly map out how things have normally proceeded in the past. The astute Pyongyang-watchers at NK News actually mapped out a five-step process last March, when North Korea first threatened to launch a long-range missile. Their predictions largely came true. So, in the interest of helping to make sense of this latest threat, I've modified their model to combine it with the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the "five stages of grief." Call it the five stages of provocation.

1. Denial (that past experience shows sanctions and talks change little). Also known as "let's go to the United Nations Security Council," as NK News put it. It comes when the United States attempts to deter North Korea's latest provocation by threatening or imposing international sanctions (that China will oppose), by holding bilateral talks with North Korea or by holding talks with regional powers. There might also be talk of giving food aid as a reward for good behavior. If the United States is already giving food aid, it will consider cutting it as punishment.

2. Anger (against the American imperialist dogs). This is the part where North Korean leaders get to defy the evil Americans and their South Korean "lackeys," reiterating both their harsh and unfair treatment by the United Startes and their right -- nay, their duty – to proceed with the nuclear and/or missile program that is the personification of Kim's greatness.

3. Bargaining (to see who can escalate tensions faster). Maybe it starts with United Nations sanctions or U.S.-cut food aid, maybe North Korea withdraws from the latest regional negotiations, maybe the North Korean army does something crazy like shell a South Korean island town or maybe someone holds some "military exercises" near the Sea of Japan. But, either way, the result is escalation, with both sides seeking to pressure the other to bend. Neither side succeeds, although it's probable that Pyongyang only tries for domestic political purposes.

4. Depression (because no one sees any way out of this cycle). At this point, North Korea has done so much provoking and the U.S.-led international community has done so much isolating that, not only is the latest provocation proceeding apace, but things might actually be worse than before the process began. Maybe tension between North and South Korea is getting dangerously high, maybe Pyongyang has actually ramped up its provocation to greater extremes, but it's not going well.

5. Acceptance (that the process has failed, again). The launch or nuclear test goes forward. So do the sanctions. North Korea ends up just as isolated, or even more so, than it was before, meaning that the world also has less leverage. Meanwhile, Koreans in both countries still face the risk of open conflict. And no one has really seen their incentive structure change such that things might be expected to proceed differently next time. It's the terrifying status quo.

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Max Fisher · January 24, 2013