North Korea’s old ruse falters

North Korea’s latest violent provocation of South Korea ended with an agreement that appears to break an old pattern. The South may have learned how to deal with the North’s attempts to intimidate.

South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-jin (R) shakes hands with Hwang Pyong-so, the top military aide to the North's leader Kim Jong Un, after the inter-Korean high-level talks at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas Aug 25. North and South Korea reached agreement early to end a standoff involving an exchange of artillery fire that had pushed the divided peninsula into a state of heightened military tension.

Of all the world’s trouble spots, North Korea has been the one with the most predictable pattern. For decades, it has regularly provoked a crisis with South Korea or the United States and then demanded concessions in order to restore an uneasy truce. In early August, the pattern seemed to be repeating itself with a land mine blast that injured two South Koreans. The final outcome, however, did not quite fit the pattern, suggesting the North’s old ruse might be losing the ability to evoke fear.

The three-week confrontation was the first major one for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. While peace was indeed restored Aug. 25 after three days of negotiations, Mr. Kim came away with no material concessions as in the past, such as food aid or oil supplies. South Korea’s strong and principled stance, which included a return of artillery fire across the demilitarized zone and perhaps some added pressure on Pyongyang by China, eventually forced North Korea to issue a rare statement of “regret” for the initial attack. The two sides also agreed to allow families divided since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War to once again visit each other.

Kim’s ability to intimidate also appeared to be weakened for another reason. The main compromise by South Korea was to temporarily cease using loudspeakers to blast statements from North Korean defectors across the DMZ. The broadcasts were undermining Kim’s legitimacy by revealing truths about the regime that it didn’t want its border guards to hear.

For Kim, exposing the truth about his dictatorial misrule in a closed country turned out to be a weapon more powerful than his nuclear bombs.

Has the cycle of provoke-and-demand-a-reward finally been broken? It may be too soon to tell. The two sides did agree to continue talks, which is a hopeful sign. And South Korea offered to possibly lift some economic sanctions on the North if it apologized for the 2010 sinking of a Navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

The people of South Korea have wised up to the North’s pattern of behavior. In winning this latest round, President Park Geun-hye saw her popularity go up. South Korea may have at last found the right balance of strength and magnanimity in how it responds to North Korea’s playbook of pointless ploys.

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