No Illusions for North Korea
What Recent Provocations Tell Us about Kim Jong-un

by Nicholas Hamisevicz
February 12, 2013

Nicholas Hamisevicz of the Korea Economic Institute of America examines the motivations behind Pyongyang’s provocative behavior and argues that Kim Jong-un is far more similar to his father than many observers had hoped.

Since coming to power in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated a distinct willingness to violate previous agreements, provoke the international community, and crack down harshly at home to preserve his own power. In other words, despite those who hoped for a new approach, Kim’s behavior has not been radically different from that of his father. The time has come to abandon any lingering illusions about the nature of Pyongyang’s leadership and prepare for a period of tension and provocation.

On February 29, 2012, Pyongyang and Washington signed an agreement in which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) foreswore future nuclear or missile tests in exchange for food aid. Unfortunately, Kim quickly reneged on the agreement just two months later by conducting a missile test thinly disguised as the test of a space launch capability. Then to make up for the failed launch in April, Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership went ahead with another rocket launch in December. This time, the test successfully put a satellite into space. In January the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2087, which condemned North Korea’s use of ballistic missile technology in the rocket launch as a violation of two previous resolutions. The UN resolution imposed travel bans and froze assets on companies and North Korean individuals associated with the launch.

Predictably, North Korea responded angrily to the resolution. A statement from the country’s National Defense Commission promised more satellites, missile launches, and nuclear tests as part of a strategy that targets the United States. [1] North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea also issued a statement threatening war against South Korea if it participates in the sanctions process connected with the UN resolution. [2]

Now, North Korea has conducted a third nuclear test using what the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called a “miniaturized device.” [3] If true, the combination of a capable long-range ballistic missile and a capable miniaturized warhead represents a serious threat to the security of the United States, South Korea, and Japan that could destabilize all Northeast Asia. A UNSC response is likely to produce more international sanctions. The familiarity of these dynamics strongly suggests that, at least in terms of foreign and national security policy, the new leader in Pyongyang is committed to following his father’s path. Pyongyang’s behavior also illustrates the primary motivations and strategy behind the regime’s efforts to deal with the new leadership dynamics in Northeast Asia.

First, North Korea wants to demonstrate its legitimacy. By sending a satellite into space, Kim Jong-un fulfilled a final act of Kim Jong-il’s policy. Despite the initial failure in April 2012, the successful rocket test and satellite launch on December 12, 2012, gave Kim Jong-un a big success at the end of his first year as leader. The North Korean government tried to show that it is a normal country by notifying the organizations responsible for coordinating international airspace, flight patterns, and space launches; however, the UN resolution demonstrates that the international community saw the action as a violation of previous resolutions. The regime’s response to the UNSC’s condemnation was yet another attempt to create the appearance that North Korea is a normal country by illustrating the UN’s hypocrisy in allowing South Korea and other states to conduct peaceful satellite tests while punishing North Korea. Conducting a third nuclear test also continues, and in some ways fulfills, Pyongyang’s long-held ambition to gain legitimacy through obtaining a viable nuclear deterrent. In fact, the nuclear program was started under Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. Thus, by successfully conducting a test of a reportedly miniaturized nuclear weapon, Kim Jong-un is fulfilling a decades-long goal and connecting himself with his grandfather.

Second, the response from North Korea attempts to split the United States and South Korea, which is always a goal for Pyongyang. The recent nuclear test, in particular, will challenge the coordination capabilities of Washington and Seoul. The cautious approach to engaging North Korea described by Park Geun-hye during her campaign makes it more politically palatable for the U.S. leadership to support the engagement strategies of the incoming South Korean president. However, North Korea’s escalation of tensions around the Korean Peninsula through bellicose statements and threatening actions causes uncertainty and potential differences in solutions offered by the United States and South Korea to deal with North Korean provocations. Here is where the space for divergence between partners develops. As the North Korean leadership feels it gains more negotiating power and incentives when South Korea and the United States are not closely coordinating their policies, Pyongyang will continue to try to separate the two sides through threatening statements and actions, such as the recent nuclear test.

Third, recent provocations improve North Korea’s bargaining position with the incoming Park Geun-hye administration. President-elect Park described several ideas for improving inter-Korean relations during her campaign, but North Korea specifically attacked South Korea in one of Pyongyang’s statements responding to the UNSC resolution. This nuclear test could force Park Geun-hye to ignore these provocations in order to engage North Korea or cause her team to offer more incentives to prevent future provocations. By testing a nuclear device before her inauguration, North Korea increases the pressure on the Park administration. Such a strategy leaves room for blaming the provocation on outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s “failed” North Korea policy and possibly allows Park Geun-hye to start clean in dealing with South Korea’s northern neighbor. However, if Park immediately engages North Korea after the nuclear test, this could be seen as undermining her pledge to present a credible deterrence and seek commensurate actions from North Korea on denuclearization. [4]

Last, North Korea’s response demonstrates its continuation of “military first politics” (songun jeongchi). The UN resolution provided the North Korean leadership with a excuse to conduct a nuclear test even though satellite imagery and reports from late December suggest that preparatory work for such a test was already taking place. This helps North Korea strengthen its deterrence against the United States. Moreover, this strategy emphasizes the importance of the military even while the leadership tries to create the appearance of a government structure controlled by the Workers’ Party of Korea. Reports suggest a heightened state of military mobilization in North Korea following Pyongyang’s recent statements. [5] Moreover, the statements by the National Defense Commission and other North Korean institutions suggest that the leadership understands it has a range of military options available to provoke the United States and its allies.

What Does North Korea’s Behavior Tell Us about Kim Jong-un?

Since he assumed power in late December 2011, there have been some actions inside North Korea, along with a few lines from speeches, statements, and appearances by Kim Jong-un, that could be interpreted as attempts at positive change. For example, construction in Pyongyang has reportedly boomed, and the regime has possibly allowed some increased market activity in order to spur economic growth. However, the more significant steps taken by the regime—including its nuclear tests, rocket launches, and responses to the recent UNSC resolution—suggest that the North Korean leadership is emphasizing the wrong areas for change, is unwilling to undertake major movements toward reform, and is continuing dangerous interactions with its neighbors and the United States.

Although there will be ongoing discussions about how many decisions Kim Jong-un is actually making, North Korean propaganda is trying to demonstrate his active leadership. Many of the statements and pictures in North Korean media suggest that he is at least participating in decisions with other key leaders. A January 26 report by KCNA showed Kim Jong-un meeting with top North Korean leaders to discuss state security and foreign affairs; this group most likely discussed the possibility of a third nuclear test. [6]

The recent nuclear test, his New Year’s Day speech, and his statements responding to the UN resolution suggest that Kim Jong-un is still in favor of pushing technology and science to solve problems, including perceived aggression from the United States. For example, he emphasizes that science and technology enabled North Korea to launch a satellite into space. However, pursuing science and technology does not mean North Korea is pursuing reform to meet the needs of the North Korean people.

North Korea’s response to the UNSC also gives little hope for significant economic reforms in the country. In April 2012, during the celebrations for the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth, Kim Jong-un gave a speech stating that the North Korean people should not have to “tighten their belts again and [should] enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like.” [7] Statements like these from a new, young leader partially educated in Switzerland suggested that changes might be possible. In addition, rumors of agricultural policy reforms allowing farmers to keep more of their yield, changes to state-owned organizations connected to the “June 28 directive,” and trips by North Korean leaders to Southeast Asian nations in the middle of 2012 fueled speculation that North Korea might actually be doing something positive. Yet there is uncertainty among analysts over whether any of those changes have actually occurred, especially given that North Korea has backtracked on reforms before. [8]

Casting further doubt on Kim Jung-un’s desire for reform are statements in North Korean media specifically asserting that the regime will not undertake necessary changes. Last year, even before the buildup to the December 2012 rocket launch, a KCNA report presented a statement from a spokesperson from North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea arguing that “to expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform and opening’ from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.” [9] More recently, a KCNA report about Kim Jong-un meeting with security and foreign affairs officials stated that the hostility from the United States and its allies has “thrown a grave obstacle to the efforts to be focused by the DPRK on economic construction so that the people may not tighten their belts any longer.” [10] This statement, which references a Kim Jong-un phrase often used by South Korean and Western analysts to support the position that the regime wants to reform, suggests that North Korea could hold back on reforms until it deals with the perceived threat from the United States and its allies. [11]

Even during the middle of 2012 when those hints of change were occurring, North Korea apparently revised the beginning of its constitution to declare itself “a nuclear-armed state and an indomitable military power.” [12] The appearance of this phrase in the constitution—and specifically in the section describing the contributions of Kim Jong-il—will likely make negotiations to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program even more difficult. The slim possibility of political and military changes in North Korea has also been overshadowed by larger threats and concerns. There were reports in summer 2012 that Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership were trying to take away the military’s right to export goods or resources. [13] The belief was that the government was attempting to assert greater control over mineral exports and reduce the military’s involvement. While difficult to confirm, this could be seen as a positive sign. More recently, however, mobile missile launchers were discovered stationed around North Korea. [14] Their maneuverability increases the possible locations from which North Korea could launch an attack and enhances its ability to hide weapons. Combined with the successful long-range rocket launch, mobile missile launchers expand the DPRK’s capabilities to threaten the United States and its allies.

In addition to the threats posed by North Korea itself, it appears that Pyongyang is still trying to proliferate illegal weapons or materials. In May 2012, North Korea reportedly attempted to ship missile parts to Syria, with 445 graphite cylinders being found on a Chinese-registered ship that was searched in the port of Busan, South Korea. [15] Then, in September 2012 Iraq denied a North Korean airplane permission to use Iraqi airspace because it was believed to be carrying weapons to Syria. [16] One month prior, Japan had seized metal pipes and “high-specification aluminum alloy bars,” including some that offered “the high strength needed in centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program, “from a shipment that likely originated in North Korea. [17] These developments underscore the likelihood that North Korea will continue to ship illegal weapons and materials for money and cultivate relationships with other rogue states.

There have also been a number of purges and demotions of senior military leaders in North Korea. Notably, all four of the military officials next to Kim Jong-il’s hearse have been removed or demoted. [18] The most high-profile of these actions was the purge of Vice Marshall Ri Yong-ho. As the chief of general staff of the army, as well as a member of the Politburo and the Central Military Commission, Ri was thought to be a key part of the transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. [19] His replacement, Choe Ryong-hae, is seen as more of a party figure, although he does hold a vice marshal rank and controls military personnel. [20] Outside analysts hope this move is part of a shift of power from the military to the party and that it will lead to a reduction in provocations from North Korea. [21]

Yet while North Korea may be shifting power back to the party in some respects, other moves indicate that security policies are not diminishing. Kim Jong-gak was dismissed in 2012 from his position as the minister of the People’s Armed Forces. Reports suggest that General Kim Kyok-sik, a former chief of the general staff and commander of the Fourth Corps, has replaced him. This development could endanger relations on the Korean Peninsula, given that General Kim was reportedly involved in either planning or leading both the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010. [22] Another concerning aspect of the personnel changes inside North Korea is the rise in importance of internal security groups. These groups monitor the ideological loyalty of North Korean citizens, crack down on defections and border crossings, and suppress social unrest and domestic rebellions. [23] Thus, while there may be some consolidation within the North Korean military leadership, the people put in place are still recommending hard-line policies and strategies that make it difficult to believe that North Korea is changing and ready for real engagement with the United States and its allies.

Last, stories from the North Korean media suggest that Kim Jong-un and the leadership around him are unwilling to wait for engagement. The political landscape in 2013 had been looking favorable for engagement with North Korea: South Korean presidential candidates had been talking about re-engaging with the DPRK, North Korea and Japan had resumed government-to-government talks, and President Barack Obama had been re-elected in the United States. Moreover, shortly after being re-elected, President Obama traveled to Burma. During his remarks at the University of Yangon on November 19, 2012, almost a month before North Korea’s rocket launch, President Obama specifically spoke to the North Korean leadership, urging it to “let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America.” [24]

However, North Korea’s rocket launch in December closed the window for talks with Japan, and the environment for engaging North Korea became more difficult for South Korea and the United States. Even Xi Jinping in China has had to focus some of his initial leadership energy on dealing with North Korea. If Kim Jong-un did in fact want engagement, he clearly lost out to those pushing for rocket launches and a confrontational response to the UNSC resolution. Yet his prominence in North Korean media stories and emphasis on the successful satellite launch suggest that Kim and the rest of the North Korean leadership believe that the immediate internal benefits far outweigh any potential gains that may have materialized in 2013 without a rocket launch or nuclear test. Taken together, the actions described in this section make it extremely difficult for countries such as the United States, South Korea, and Japan to engage North Korea and begin moving toward a more positive environment. The recent nuclear test exacerbates these tensions even further and makes a return to positive dialogue increasingly unlikely.

What Does North Korea’s Behavior Mean for the United States?

The United States and South Korea must coordinate their policies and responses to North Korea in order to prevent the alliance from being weakened and enable other players in the region to encourage better conduct by Pyongyang. The recent nuclear test represents another reminder that North Korea is getting even closer to directly threatening U.S. territory rather than just U.S. interests and personnel in Asia. Two years ago, then U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates said that North Korea would be able to hit the continental United States within five years with an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea is trying its best to prove him right.

Washington will also have to decide whether Pyongyang’s rhetoric and actions, including the nuclear test, call for strategic patience or strategic action. Throughout the first Obama administration, the United States waited and did not forcefully push for meetings with North Korea. Although the two sides reached an agreement on February 29, 2012, it was quickly scuttled by the rocket launch in April 2012. The Obama administration might again want to bide its time and wait for a more advantageous opportunity to engage North Korea; however, the steady advancement of the North’s capabilities and the threat it poses to the region might force Washington to more actively pursue policies that directly shape relations with Pyongyang.

Policy Implications

The United States should take steps to enhance coordination with its allies and other countries in East Asia as well as prepare to deal with a potentially more combative North Korea. By undertaking these actions, Washington can not only position itself to deter a North Korean threat but also develop an avenue for future dialogue with Pyongyang.

Maintain coordination with the incoming Park Geun-hye administration. Kurt Campbell, until last week the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, met with Park Geun-hye’s transition team in Seoul and likely discussed Park’s plans for engaging North Korea. The Obama administration and the incoming Park administration must now determine if those plans change with this nuclear test. This new test may force the United States to push for a firm response from its South Korean ally. If the Park administration insists on trying to reach out to North Korea early in 2013, there could be a split between the two allies, or at least a perceived one, on how to deal with North Korean provocations. Both Washington and Seoul must work to prevent this from happening, as it would have an impact on other diplomatic strategies and tools.

Use North Korea’s actions as an opportunity to develop trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Newly elected Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe sent an envoy to meet with Park Geun-hye’s transition team, a good sign for the possibility of improving relations between the two countries. The United States should use North Korea’s actions to help bring South Korea and Japan closer together and hope that the momentum can be used to improve bilateral relations outside the North Korean security context.

Strengthen deterrence and monitoring efforts. The United States should continue following ships it suspects of carrying illegal products from North Korea and requesting that port cities inspect suspicious ships. There have been a couple of examples of ships returning to North Korea because of these efforts. The United States also needs to strengthen its ballistic missile defense capabilities in the region and build up trilateral missile defense cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

Maintain international opposition to North Korea. North Korea wants to be seen as a legitimate country. The United States must maintain international support for censuring North Korea’s violation of international norms and UN resolutions. Washington cannot allow Pyongyang to convince others that its actions have been provoked by the United States and South Korea. Thus, even though its efforts may seem futile at times, the United States must continue to use the UN as a way to demonstrate the international community’s admonishment of North Korean actions.

Emphasize the problems North Korea causes for China. It will be difficult to convince the Chinese leadership to change its policy of economically supporting North Korea and protecting the country in the international arena. The United States needs to appeal to China’s distrust of North Korea by illustrating how North Korea is causing problems for China rather than helping it. Beijing’s support for Pyongyang is crucial. The United States needs to continually highlight the areas where China is preventing progress on punishing North Korea for violating international rules and resolutions. At the same time, however, Washington should encourage Beijing to push the North Korean leadership to cease provocations and re-engage in dialogue with neighboring countries and the United States. This will be difficult, but it is necessary to demonstrate to Pyongyang that all countries, including China, would like North Korea to interact differently with the rest of the region.

Determine a potential starting point for future talks with North Korea. Recent statements show that North Korea feels it is no longer bound to the September 19, 2005, joint statement from the six-party talks and the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Many experts thought that the September 2005 joint statement was a good starting point for addressing concerns. The United States and South Korea must decide if there is a specific previous statement or agreement that they would like to use as a new starting point for talks and that they feel North Korea would return to as a basis for further discussion about its nuclear program.


The United States, South Korea, and the other countries in Northeast Asia have dealt with North Korean rhetoric before and experienced a cycle of rocket launch, UN resolution, and nuclear test. Yet the circumstances have changed this time, particularly given the dynamics of the leadership transitions in all the countries in the region. Although there are some differences in North Korea’s behavior, the larger trends, statements, actions, and provocations outweigh the small possibilities for change and indicate that interactions with North Korea will remain difficult. Close coordination between the United States and South Korea will be vital to start a process through which all countries in the region can develop the right combination of engagement and deterrence. Pyongyang’s current actions and path suggest that contentious times are ahead.


[1] “DPRK NDC Issues Statement Refuting UNSC Resolution,”Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), January 24, 2013,

[2] “S. Korean Authorities Accused of Fabricating UN ‘Resolution’ with Foreign Forces,” KCNA, January 25, 2013,

[3] “North Korea Confirms ‘Successful’ Nuclear Test: KCNA,” Reuters, February 12, 2013.

[4] Nicholas Hamisevicz, “Could a Third North Korean Nuclear Test Strain U.S.–South Korea Coordination?” Korea Economic Institute (KEI), The Peninsula, web log, January 25, 2013.

[5] Kim Kwang Jin, “Military Combat Readiness Level Raised,” DailyNK, January 30, 2013,

[6] “Kim Jong Un Attends Meeting of Foreign Affairs and National Security Meeting (Updated and Revised),” North Korea Leadership Watch, web log, January 27, 2013,

[7] “English Transcript of Kim Jong Un’s Speech,”, web log, April 18, 2012,; and Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korean Leader Stresses Need for Strong Military,” New York Times, April 15, 2012,

[8] Lee Sang Yong, “6.28 Agriculture Policy on the Back Foot,” DailyNK, October 12, 2012,

[9] “To Expect ‘Change’ from the DPRK Is Foolish Ambition: Spokesman for CPRK,” KCNA, July 29, 2012,

[10] “Kim Jong Un Guides Consultative Meeting of Officials in Fields of State Security and Foreign Affairs,” KCNA, January 26, 2013, at

[11] Stephan Haggard, “Reaction to the Reaction,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, North Korea: Witness to Transformation, web log, January 30, 2013,

[12] “N.K. Calls Itself ‘Nuclear-armed State’ in Revised Constitution,” Yonhap News, May 30, 2012, The section in the preamble of the North Korean constitution that mentions North Korea as a “nuclear-armed state” is available in Korean at

[13] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Said to Remove Military’s Lucrative Export Privilege,” New York Times, July 20, 2012,

[14] Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, “Movement of Missiles by North Korea Worries U.S.,” New York Times, January 17, 2013,

[15] N. Korea Shipped Missile Parts to Syria: Media,” Agence France-Presse, November 13, 2012.

[16] Suadad al-Salhy, “Iraq Blocks Syria-bound North Korean Plane, Suspects Weapons Cargo,” Reuters, September 21, 2012,

[17] Yoshihiro Makino, “Japan Intercepts N. Korea Weapons-Grade Material Bound for Myanmar,” Asahi Shimbun, November 24, 2012,

[18] Ken E. Gause, “Kim Jong Un Tightens His Grip,” CNN, Global Public Square, web blog, December 6, 2012,

[19] Nicholas Hamisevicz, “Ri Yong Ho Out: North Korean Leadership in Sickness or in Health?” KEI, The Peninsula, web log, July 16, 2012,

[20] Gause, “Kim Jong Un Tightens His Grip.”

[21] Joseph R. DeTrani, “Prospects for Resolving the North Korea Issue,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Korea Chair Platform, January 30, 2013.

[22] Gause, “Kim Jong Un Tightens His Grip.”

[23] Gause, “Kim Jong Un Tightens His Grip.”

[24] “Remarks by President Obama at the University of Yangon,” White House, Press Release, November 19, 2012,

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed are those of the author.