North Korean leadership believes that South Korea is the weakest link in the “maximum pressure” chain—and they plan to exploit it.
Consider the global chessboard from Pyongyang’s point of view. As the year 2018 began, the North Korean state was on a knife-edge: though it had just achieved momentous advances, it also faced potentially disastrous setbacks.
Over the course of 2017, Pyongyang celebrated not only another atomic test, but it also celebrated a thermonuclear test—the makings of a hydrogen bomb. It also successfully launched an ICBM that would put the entire U.S. homeland within range, according to Kim Jong-un.
Indeed, in his annual New Year speech earlier this year, Kim declared that the era of testing was largely complete, and that North Korea would be moving forward with mass production of missiles and nukes. Thus, a government commanding a GDP not nearly as large as (say) Baltimore’s would soon be able to threaten Washington, DC with nuclear annihilation. By the strategic calculus that animates the Kim family regime, that qualified as an imminent historic triumph.
But that prospective triumph remains in jeopardy—because North Korea’s drive for global nuclear reach has been met with an international pressure campaign that might undo these gains, and even threaten the stability of the North Korean state.
Each round of North Korean nuclear tests has elicited increasingly severe sanctions resolutions from the UN Security Council, and has seemingly expanded and solidified the international coalition intent on penalizing Pyongyang for its violations. Even Beijing—the Kim dynasty’s longtime financial backer and de facto international defense lawyer—appears to be wavering in its support. Since the extraordinarily distorted North Korean economy is uniquely vulnerable to international economic sanctions, a sustained “maximum pressure” campaign worthy of the name could eventually paralyze the DPRK economy as well as undercut the war efforts that eat up so much of North Korea’s material and financial resources.
To build upon its impressive 2017 breakthroughs, and simultaneously prevent its newly favorable strategic circumstances from being undermined, it is now imperative—from Pyongyang’s standpoint—that North Korea break apart the international-sanctions campaign that has risen to counter the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.
And this is exactly what North Korea’s diplomatic pageantry at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics these past few days was all about.