Experts are debating what precisely are the motives behind North Korea's recent spike in belligerent rhetoric and posturing, with answers ranging from the opinion that "war talk" is an attempt by the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to solidify his hold on power to the worry that the regime is losing its grip on reality. What is more certain, however, is the set of assumptions guiding Pyongyang's strategic calculus. Whether the North Korean leadership’s assessments are accurate or not -- and what steps the other powers in the region take to correct them -- may help determine how this crisis will end.
While North Korea initially enjoyed a period of economic growth and development after hostilities with the South ended in 1953, it has been left far behind in the explosion of prosperity that has defined Northeast Asia over the past two decades. Ironically, this liability, in the eyes of the leadership, has been turned into a strategic asset: North Korea has nothing to lose by acting as a regional spoiler. Pyongyang's first assessment is that the larger neighborhood prefers that there be no disruption to the flow of commerce -- and this is a club that can be wielded not only against South Korea and Japan but against China and Russia as well. A North Korea that plunges the region into war would release flows of refugees crossing into China and Russia for sanctuary; it would jeopardize China's own economy, starting with the massive disruptions that any conflict would create; it would imperil Russian President Vladimir Putin's announced plans for a new "eastern vector" for the Russian economy, including the development of new pipelines and energy assets in the Far East. The DPRK's assessment is that it has consistently been cheaper for the surrounding countries to pay Pyongyang off -- and to restrain the United States from trying to take action -- than to risk the damage that a more sustained military conflict would bring.
The second assessment, reflected in some of the recent North Korean propaganda videos showing a United States struggling with an economic crisis, is that Washington has neither the stomach nor the funds to sustain a prolonged campaign against the North. Under this scenario, Pyongyang can deliver threats and raise America's blood pressure without risking any real backlash -- perhaps even creating conditions for a new round of negotiations and concessions.