Is South Korea Handling North Korea All Wrong?

Every day, and especially of late, it seems we get new word of North Korea's latest provocation, but little is said about South Korea's role in this international standoff. Is is possible the neighboring nation (and United States) is deliberately pushing Kim Jong-un's buttons?

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Every day, and especially of late, it seems we get new word of North Korea's latest provocation, but little is said about South Korea's role in this international standoff. Is is possible the neighboring nation (and United States) is deliberately pushing Kim Jong-un's buttons? The North has consistently argued that everything it does militarily and politically—from building nuclear weapons to failed space launches—is simply a response to aggression from the Republic of Korea and their American allies. Most people take that for idle propaganda, but their opponents in this showdown haven't exactly backed off.

Put aside the North's belligerence and pursuit of nuclear weapons for a moment and consider how some recent actions by South Korea and the U.S. might appear in isolation. Every year, the South and their ally (which just happens to be the biggest military power in the world) run a massive, weeks-long training exercise in the waters surrounding your territory. They deliberately fly giant long-range bombers capable of laying waste to entire cities in the skies not far from your borders. They brag about being able to shoot precision missiles through their enemies windows. They rally international organizations to pass resolutions condemning you. Their generals condescendingly call your supreme leader a "young lad" and their media calls him a "fatmouth.

So imagine if it was Iran or Libya or Syria doing what South Korea does, but they were doing it to the U.S. or an American ally? Would we simply back off and give into their demands? Would any nation? Or would we give it as good as we got?

Again, we're not trying to excuse the North's dangerous behavior and flouting of international laws, but it's worth considering the possibility that some of South Korea's actions might be playing right into the North's hands. If you want to look tough, to convince your own people and the world community that you can't be bullied, doesn't it help to have useful bully to push back against? Why remind the "young lad" that he needs to prove himself and then give him the prefect opportunity to do so?

Some North Korea watchers seem to agree that some of the South's action have been less than helpful. One of the most prominent North Korea-obsessed news sites,, asked three experts for their thoughts on the matter and all seem to agree that it's not simply a matter of the North flying off the handle. Michael Madden, who writes the NK Leadership Watch blog, isn't defending North Korea, but he certainly isn't excited about the South's responses to them, either.

South Korea has engaged in military drills that are every bit as hostile and provocative to the North, as anything the Korean People’s Army has done. So this appears to be more tit-for-tat than anything.

So why would the U.S. and the South antagonize the North? For starters, there's an argument to be made that escalation of tensions, short of an actual shooting war, is good for the United States. It provides a convenient excuse to bolster its military presence in Asia, which mean a closer alliance with (or more cynically, control over) South Korea and Japan, while also pushing back against China. (This current show of force is as much for Beijing's benefit as it for Pyongyang.) It makes the argument that the U.S. needs troops on the ground overseas and fancy weapons systems from government contractors to arm them with. As another North Korea watcher, Leonid Petrov, puts it, "North Korea is a convenient enemy — intimidating but weak, irrational but predictable." In other words, North Korea allows the Americans to flex muscle without actually having to throw a punch. 

Even if the South's provocation is not intentional, some of their words and actions have driven the North to intensify the nasty rhetoric in return. Madden says the American bomber flights were a miscalculation that forced the North to respond in kind. And the more experienced leaders in Washington and Seoul probably should have anticipated that. These are two nations that been in a 60-year-military standoff that is littered with previous assaults and many actual deaths, even after the Korean War was supposed to have ended. Perhaps Southerns are so used to it that don't see the problem

One also shouldn't underestimate the personal animosity that exists between the North and South that is very real and not one-sided. A little-known fact (to Americans, anyway) about the South's new president Park Geun-hye, is that when she was 22 years old, her mother was murdered by a North Korea assassin who was trying to kill her father. (He was also later killed in a coup.) We imagine that's not something you forget or forgive easily. We wouldn't go so far as to suggest that she or anyone in the South actually wants a war, but that kind of distrust and hatred makes it a lot harder to back down from a fight. South Korea has tried that strategy before—for 60 years in fact—and it hasn't done them any good.

As we've said many times during this latest conflict, and as it was important to remember as the rhetoric and the war games escalated throughout the last week, when two feuding nations are well-armed and on edge, the slightest misunderstanding or misfired shot can ignite a major fire that quickly becomes impossible to contain. It's even possible that some of the misunderstandings have already taken place, and both sides to step back and re-think their approach to the conflict and to each other.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.