While the latest confrontation between North and South Korea appears to be ending peacefully, the clash allows us a window into understanding future North Korean provocations. Of course, it is impossible to know with certainty the thinking of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but we can perhaps glean his potential motives by looking at the latest crisis through the lens of history.
The big revelation of this confrontation has been that the South Korean propaganda broadcasts were a more powerful weapon against the North than firing back with substantial artillery. Kim Jong Un was so sensitive to broadcasts that could affect his internal politics that he threatened to go to war to stop the transmissions. Yes, he threatened to go to war over words.
The tension started when North Korea planted land mines in the South, perhaps as a minor provocation that could divert attention from his many failings and from his decision not to go to Beijing next month for the Chinese celebration of the end of World War II. His behavior is not without precedent: When Kim decided in May to skip Moscow celebrations marking the end of the same war, he apparently sought to deflect the attention of his elite class by firing a missile and executing his defense minister in a barbaric manner.
Kim likely realized that the South's reaction to the 2010 North Korean provocations — the sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong — was especially serious because of the 50 South Koreans killed and not the number injured. Kim probably wanted to handle his internal political issues without further complications. He may have tried to minimize the South Korean response by using landmines that would injure, but not kill, South Korean soldiers. Two South Korean soldiers were seriously wounded in the Aug. 4 mine explosions. South Korea had no appropriate military response that would punish the North without risking serious escalation.
When South Korea responded by airing the propaganda broadcasts on the border between the two countries, it effectively ended its 11-year suspension of such broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone. The transmissions seemed to surprise Kim, who initially responded by blaring his own propaganda broadcasts. He has been hypersensitive about information from the outside world getting into the North because of its ability to undermine the North's own propaganda efforts and threaten his support base.
The South Korean broadcasts describing the abundant life enjoyed in South Korea were heard mainly by North Korean soldiers deployed near the Demilitarized Zone, many of whom probably hail from privileged North Korean families, whose basic needs, nevertheless, are likely not being met. With the spread of cellphones in North Korea, this infusion of poisonous (at least to Kim) information from the South likely spread quickly across the North Korean elite class — and caused Kim to become determined to stop the broadcasts. Eventually, the North fired artillery into South Korea, although Kim was again careful and apparently did not target the propaganda speakers, as he had threatened. The South countered with an escalated artillery barrage.
Seemingly desperate to stop the propaganda, Kim put his military on a war footing. He mobilized soldiers and shut down economic production in an escalated effort to coerce South Korea to stop the broadcasts. Yet he did not seem to want war, taking only token actions threatening further attacks; he just seemed to want to maximize his coercion of the South.
Recognizing Kim's desperation, and that the South had gained the upper hand, South Korea insisted on a North Korean apology. Making such an apology would have further hurt Kim, who is put forth as a strong, infallible leader.
Eventually, the North and South reached a compromise. The South stopped its propaganda broadcasts contingent on good behavior by North Korea. The North terminated its war footing and expressed regrets for the mine explosions. While this was short of an apology, even the expression of regret surprised some experts, since many senior North Korean elites would understand this to be a quasiapology.
The major takeaway is the North's apparent fear of the damage that can be done by South Korean propaganda, in large part because of the North Korean regime's ongoing failures and its reign of terror — its brutal purging of many senior government and military personnel who have not satisfied Kim. Words as weapons can work when they are aimed at North Korea's internal politics — and backed up by a strong South Korean response supported by the United States. Indeed, words may help deter future North Korean military provocations, since the North may conclude that it has more to lose than gain from such actions.
Bruce Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on August 28, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.