The endless rounds of “chicken” North Korea delights in playing with its regional rivals and the United States bafle most observers. Surely, Pyongyang can’t win, right? There are five possible reasons North Korea never seems to reap the punishment as a result of the evil policies it sows.
- Neighbors, like China, fear its collapse: Beijing and Seoul might warn about this sort of crisis in public statements, but it’s a bit disingenuous. If North Korea collapses, either China or South Korea are poised to enter the territory, an eventuality the other rival across the river would never accept. North Korea isn’t a balloon that will deflate; it’s a vacuum that will invite invaders. I have no doubt dodging refugees is a concern, but the real fear is, that the political map of the peninsula will change to no one’s liking.
- Unpredictable nukes and questionable conventional forces: It’s debatable after so many failed missile launches, whether North Korea is a threat to its neighbors, or just a menace to any North Korean within range of a sputtering weapon. Engineers also have to be a dying breed. In the same way, being a North Korean soldier/sailor might be more like being target practice for better-trained South Koreans. Compared to leaner, more sophisticated forces, taking on North Korea is difficult more for the chaos generated than because of the quality of its forces.
- South Korean public opinion: Robert E. Kelly has a jarring exploration of this topic.
So it is SK ultimately (not the US or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And SK doesn’t want to, because 1) South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression, and 2) South Koreans just don’t care that much about NK anymore.
- The strategic argument: I responded here, before writing this longer response.
Finally, I recall, that, before his demise, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi’s dream was to be accepted by European elites. In its own tortured national image, built on colonial oppression and ideological excess, North Korea wants respect.