Historically, North Korea's carefully choreographed series of threats, signs of instability and weakness, and unpredictability have been, in part, designed to preserve the regime. But the North is now also seeking to alter its position. Indeed, regime survival is becoming increasingly difficult in lieu of either a significant economic shift, which would require changes to the political order in Pyongyang, or deeper subservience to neighboring China, a dynamic that would also erode the very political power the regime is seeking to protect.
Pyongyang has long sought to break free from the constraints of the Armistice Agreement, which has kept North Korea technically in a state of war and made it one of the few states not formally recognized by the United States. Pyongyang has used its resulting sense of embattlement as a tool for internal societal control, but the agreement has made North Korea essentially unable to attract much economic or technical assistance from any country other than China (despite some limited contributions from South Korea and Japan). But rather than make changes to its political and defense systems, the North has continued its policy — perhaps a counterintuitive one — of using threats to try to improve its diplomatic position.
North Korea believes that any move to "open" without a strong military deterrent and tight central domestic control will ultimately lead to exploitation or overthrow by the United States or other Western powers. To Pyongyang, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of regimes in Eastern European countries and, more recently, in Libya validate such fears. The North also feels that its previous offers to suspend missile and nuclear testing and to open the country to nuclear inspectors did not affect its status as an international pariah, mainly due to what it sees as hostile U.S. policies that have effectively dissuaded others from engaging economically or politically with North Korea.
From Relative Peace to Constant Friction
The most recent threats seek to break the structure that has been in place since the end of the Cold War. North Korea's greatest chance for a change in which its leadership could feel secure failed to materialize in 1994, when former leader Kim Il Sung died just before he was expected to host a historic summit involving the South Korean president. A nuclear deal called the Agreed Framework was signed anyway with the United States, but the newly enthroned Kim Jong Il did not have the political gravitas to keep the North Korean elite committed to the risky path of change.
Today, the North's economic situation continues to erode and its dependence on China continues to grow. So with the backing of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who has played a central role in North Korean politics and policy since Kim Jong Il's stroke in 2008, Kim Jong Un is seeking to pick up where Kim Il Sung left off. North Korea prefers to cultivate a sense of fear strong enough to make continued delays toward talks or responses designed to maintain the status quo no longer seem viable. The intent is to shift the perception of "normal" around the Korean Peninsula from a state of general peace to a state of constant military friction. By threatening to pull out of the Armistice Agreement and the non-aggression pact, the North Koreans are effectively declaring a return to a state of open hostilities.
Pyongyang may consider a short, sharp escalation to be an acceptable risk if it results in a rapid move toward a negotiated settlement that changes the status quo. But this does not necessarily mean war. In the past, the North has carefully assessed the likely responses to its actions to ensure that they would not directly incite a major retaliation. Still, its current threats do highlight the likelihood of provocations in the near future — ones designed to make it very clear that escalation to war is well within the realm of possibility. These may remain limited, but if they fail to bring about the desired political response, Pyongyang may be willing to incite a stronger response.
The North has a large arsenal of possible activities that would be strong enough to raise fears of conflict but limited enough to avoid escalation. The maritime realm is ideal for such provocations, since the sea would provide some physical separation from the large land-based force amassed along the Korean border. Maritime actions would be less likely to trigger an immediate land-based response, which could escalate quickly to war. Such activities may include aggressive naval patrols along the southern side of South Korean-controlled islands along the Northern Limit Line (the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea), frequent deployments of North Korean submarines off the South Korean coast or through the Cheju Strait, or incursions or artillery attacks against South Korean islands near the border. Pyongyang would expect a certain amount of losses from such confrontations, and they would further reinforce the sense that larger hostilities are likely.
On land, small-scale incursions across the border or by using submarines, as well as raids on South Korean forward military posts, are possible. Other options include small movements of artillery or armor units and air force flights toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone — ones that would possibly even violate South Korean airspace along the coast. Pyongyang is counting on Seoul's fears of how a full-scale war would impact the major economic and population centers along the Seoul-Incheon corridor to restrain its responses to the North's provocations. Still, the North may be willing to incite a sharper response.
In short, the North regularly conducted hostile activities in the Korean Peninsula in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is threatening to do so again today. Border conflicts where hostilities occur but remain mostly shy of major war are not unusual — Israel-Lebanon and Thailand-Cambodia are common examples. The Korean Peninsula was in that state until the turn of the 21st century. But for North Korea to return to that norm or to spark a more serious border conflict would seriously threaten the South Korean economy and undermine investor confidence in the country, as well as raise the stakes of regional conflagration and increase the likelihood of military confrontation with the United States.
Pyongyang is hoping that the global situation is such that neither South Korea nor the United States would really want that dynamic to return and will thus accept the idea of talks to possibly replace the Armistice Agreement with formal peace accords. If not, the North may accept a limited war to force negotiations. Either option entails significant risk, but in the longer term, so would inaction or capitulation. The 60th anniversary of the armistice is in July, and the North has a history of action around such symbolic dates, so the likelihood of a small-scale military escalation around the Korean Peninsula is especially high over the next few months.