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How Might North Korea Respond to the New UN Sanctions?

By Troy Stangarone

With the passage of a new round of sanctions against North Korea, there is an expectation that Pyongyang will not go gracefully into negotiations over its weapons programs. While negotiating and passing a new resolution took the Obama Administration more than twice as long as any prior resolution in response to a North Korean nuclear or missile test, the result is far and away the strongest set of sanctions on North Korea to date. The new sanctions would require the inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea, place a full embargo on weapons trade with Pyongyang, limit or prohibit North Korea’s trade in minerals such as coal, and place financial sanctions on North Korean banks and assets. How might Pyongyang respond to the new sanctions?

Security Council Resolutions Updated

How North Korea Has Responded Before

To get a sense of how North Korea might respond we can look to prior behavior. For this it’s useful to separate out nuclear and missile tests conducted under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Some elements of the approach to testing under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un have been similar, but real differences arise in how each have handled the tests more broadly.

NK Provocations KJI v KJU Graphic 2

In both 2006 and 2009, Kim Jong-il began with a long-range missile test, both of which were unsuccessful. After the 2006 ballistic missile test, the United Nations quickly sanctioned North Korea and its first nuclear test followed three months later. While North Korea initially indicated that it would consider any additional sanctions an act of war and might retaliate, Pyongyang relatively quickly pivoted after the United Nations imposed additional sanctions by expressing regret to a Chinese delegation and indicating a willingness to return to the Six Party Talks.

The failed 2009 missile test did not result in additional UN sanctions, but was followed up with North Korea’s second nuclear test in May, which also included four days of short-range missile tests. The inclusion of the missile tests were most likely calibrated to gain international attention. While the United Nations placed additional sanctions on North Korea in response to the test, as the Six Party Talks were dormant at the time, the crisis largely dissipated without a return to talks.

While Kim Jong-un followed the pattern of conducting a long-range missile test prior to a nuclear test in late 2012, he broke the pattern this year by conducting the nuclear test prior to the missile test. In December of 2012 North Korea successfully placed its first satellite in orbit. After being sanctioned for the test by the United Nations in January of 2013 North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February of 2013.

Where the 2013 crisis differs from the prior two under Kim Jong-il is the extent to which Kim Jong-un increased the level of tensions on the Korean peninsula. In addition to conducting the nuclear and missile tests, North Korea announced that it would restart the reactor at Yongbyun, conducted cyberattacks on South Korea, and withdrew its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex for nearly half the year.

The Role of Rhetoric in Responding to UN Sanctions

Beyond the actions taken, each crisis has a rhetorical dimension. In 2006, North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear missile if the U.S. did not engage in talks and war if additional sanctions were put in place after its nuclear test. South Korea’s decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative after North Korea’s second nuclear test lead Pyongyang to declare that South Korea had sent the Korean peninsula to a “state of war” and threatened that it was no longer bound by the Korean War armistice.

While the events of 2013 contained elements of North Korea’s prior provocations, there was a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in the rhetorical intensity, and a longer duration than during previous crises. As in prior crises North Korea threatened South Korea, this time for South Korean cooperation with UN sanctions. It also went a step further by threatening South Korea’s final destruction during a UN disarmament conference, no less. The threat to withdrawal from the armistice was again issued. While North Korea had threatened nuclear strikes previously on the United States, this time it added Japan to its list. It also became more specific in its threats claiming to have targeted Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland, while also releasing a photo showing Washington, DC, San Diego, and Austin, TX as potential targets.

Under Kim Jong-un the rhetorical bar has been raised. This can be seen further in a 2013 study by KEI on North Korean rhetoric. In examining North Korean rhetoric on KCNA in 2012 prior to the crisis of 2013 in relation to prior crises, we found that:

references to “war” in KCNA were up 190 percent from 1998, when North Korea was sanctioned for a missile test, and 107 percent from North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. In 2012, references to war never fell below 217 in a month and were over 300 in all months but January and November. In 1998, they never exceeded 166 mentions in a single month, while in 2009 they only exceeded 200 when North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors in March and when it was sanctioned by the UN in June. In the case of 2009, mentions of war decreased by 50 percent in April and 28 percent in July after spikes in the prior months.

Use of terms “War” and “Peace” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 1

In the case of the usage of “nuclear” we found that:

nuclear in KCNA grew 164 percent from 1998 to 2009, and another 70 percent from 2009 to 2012. Overall, references to nuclear have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012 and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

What to Expect Going Forward

A few things stand out from the 2013 crisis compared to the two prior crises under Kim Jong-il. First, the 2013 crisis was longer in duration than the prior two. Second, Kim Jong-un was willing to expand beyond the use of rhetoric, missile, and nuclear tests to gain the attention of the international community. Lastly, both the usage and the specificity of North Korea’s rhetoric has grown.

While the limited number of prior crises make it difficult to predict how North Korea will react to the new round of sanctions, given the significant strengthening of sanctions on North Korea we should expect the current crisis to be longer in duration and there to be a significant increase in the usage of rhetoric by North Korea. Another factor here will be the clear shift by the international community from a mixed policy of engagement and sanctions to one more solidly focused on sanctions.

At the same time, Kim Jong-un has shown a willingness to think outside of the box when being provocative. With the Kaesong Industrial Complex now suspended that avenue has been closed to further provocations. However, South Korea’s intelligence agency has warned that North Korea could engage in cyberattacks, kidnappings, and the use of poison gas. While North Korea could choose to respond in a more traditional manner with additional nuclear or missile tests, in light of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to take new approaches there is a good probability that North Korea will look to unconventional means such as cyberattacks as part of their response to the new UN sanctions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Rolf Venema’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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