By Jennifer Lee
The new, young regime in North Korea surprised more than a few observers when it agreed last week to a moratorium on its nuclear activities in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid so soon after Kim Jong Un assumed leadership. Instead of the legitimacy-building provocations expected from the young Kim (who is in his late 20s), the world got a measured concession from a totalitarian regime that demonstrated a degree of consensus and decision-making ability. In some ways, it was the story of the young son continuing his father Kim Jong Il's efforts to improve relations with the U.S. prior to his death.
There is general optimism surrounding the agreement, which stalls North Korea's uranium enrichment program, and nuclear and long-range missile tests, and allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Last week's step forward, however, does not necessarily presage a more substantive shift in North Korea's posture. The agreement allows North Korea to possibly address its immediate concerns (economic sanctions) and affect domestic politics in South Korea, without ceding its ability to provoke or flip the switch (again) on its nuclear program.
While it is easy to think that the U.S. food aid "carrot" must have been the main reason behind North Korea agreeing to this deal, it is unlikely the case. North Korea is not known for being particularly concerned about the hunger of its people (allegedly more than one million people died during the famine in the 90s, and food security has been dismal for the past few decades); and the totalitarian nature of the regime means that its leaders are not very concerned about their approval ratings.
North Korea is more concerned about the economic condition of the state and the long-term implications of sanctions (North Korea's version of the statement mentions that it would want to discuss the lifting of sanctions and provision of light water reactors if the Six Party Talks resume). The current move is probably a gambit to see if it can resume the Six Party Talks and have sanctions lifted without giving up the nuclear program. The deal is also likely an effort by Pyongyang to slight the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, which it views with hostility, in the hope of increasing the chances of the liberal parties in South Korea's presidential election in December.
The U.S. and South Korea both have presidential elections this year. The agreement is likely North Korea's way of buying time for a year or so until the South Korean administration changes, while trying to extract concessions from an Obama administration that does not want any more conflicts on its hands during an election year. This is also a moratorium that is to last only while "productive dialogue continues." Everything North Korea has promised is reversible if it decides to back out. And it certainly has set a precedent for doing so. Furthermore, this moratorium applies only to the Yongbyun nuclear facilities; it is widely believed that there are several other nuclear development sites throughout North Korea that will be out of reach under this agreement.
It should not be forgotten that North Korea's nuclear capability has been extolled within North Korea as Kim Jong Il's most important legacy. It is undoubtedly seen as the single most powerful card that North Korea has, and with the recent leadership transition to a young new leader, there is little chance that the country will completely forgo this leverage, especially after the NATO operation in Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi.
There is still a possibility that this could turn into something positive and lasting for U/S.-North Korea relations or North Korea's future behavior. Last week's agreement demonstrates that the totalitarian regime in North Korea was able to take a rational step for its self-interest. But it does not demonstrate that North Korea is contemplating giving up its nuclear weapons, or that it is on the verge of changing its behavior.
Jennifer Lee is an associate in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
Today, we turn to risk #5 in our series of posts on Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2012 and answer the most common questions we've gotten about it.
Here's a summary:
North Korea: Implosion or explosion? North Korea recently became the world's first nuclear-armed power without a clear leader, and competition and uncertainty within the ruling elite pose significant risks for East Asia in 2012. The secretive nature of the regime makes the likeliest threat -- belligerent military action or substantial domestic instability -- less predictable and much more worrisome.
Q- Is Kim Jong-Un really in charge in North Korea?
A- There's always been a clear limit on what outsiders know about how the North Korean elite makes decisions. That's still the case. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt that this political novice is fully in charge. He hasn't had much time to prepare for his new job. His grandfather Kim Il-sung brought his father, Kim Jong-Il, gradually into power over more than 20 years. Kim Jong-Il inherited the keys to the kingdom in 1994 at the age of 53. The preparation of 28-year-old Kim Jong-Un began only recently as it became apparent that Kim Jong-Il's health was failing.
For the moment, the regime appears stable. Kim Jong-Il's family and entourage -- the so-called guardians --look to have firm control of the ruling Korean Workers' Party and the Korean People's Army. The country's military continues to serve as guarantor of North Korea's baseline security. In the two years before his death, Kim Jong-Il positioned his brother-in-law and the regime's previous number two, Jang Sung-Taek, as regent for his son. Jang is believed to have strong personal ties with senior military officials, and he'll probably hold considerable power -- at least until Kim Jung-Un can earn the confidence of the country's ruling elite. If Kim can't consolidate power, the guardians may push for another leader to ensure the survival of the regime. But for the moment, it's probably some combination of Kim Jong-Un's status, Jang Sung-Taek's resourcefulness, and the military's authority that gives the regime whatever cohesion it now has.
Q- Why can't this arrangement last indefinitely?
A- The steady deterioration of North Korea's economy and infrastructure over several decades, particularly outside the capital, ensures that this new generation of leaders will have less political capital and a less sure popular mandate than their predecessors. Conflicts are likely to develop within the elite as rivals and factions compete behind the scenes for power and personal survival. There is evidence that, once he knew he was ill, Kim Jong-Il tried to sideline as many as possible of his son's potential rivals. In fact, there were a suspicious number of fatal automobile accidents involving senior officials over the past two years -- all the more striking given how little traffic there is in the country. Some officials still in power probably wonder how long they can remain in favor and could move to protect themselves. It's also unclear what role Kim Kyung-Hee, Kim Jong-Il's sister and Jang Sung-Taek's wife, might play in coming months.
Q- It seems clear that there's a threat of aggressive action from North Korea, since they've stirred up trouble many times before. There's also always the risk that the government will collapse. That could create a refugee crisis and a scramble for control of the country's nuclear weapons that draws in outside powers. But beyond 2012, what's the long-term risk for North Korea and its neighbors?
A- The DPRK has defied predictions of collapse for decades, mainly because China and South Korea have always been willing to bail the country out to avoid another war on the peninsula and to prevent North Koreans from starving. Yes, there is the risk that North Korea might use its nuclear capability. Even if it doesn't, its conventional arms are powerful enough to launch a horrendous attack on the South. This is also the scenario most likely to put U.S. and Chinese forces at odds with another and in the same arena.
But the longer-term problem is that, despite the efforts of outsiders to keep things going, North Korea will one day buckle beneath the weight of its contradictions, and an international debate will begin about who will pay to clean up the mess. Studies conducted over the years suggest that the reunification of North and South Korea will prove more complicated and far more expensive than the reunion of East and West Germany. Who will pay for it? Imagine the stresses on South Korea and its economy as 20 million North Koreans come in from the cold. Today this is hypothetical, but one day it will be a very real problem.
One of the most important lessons of last year's Arab world turmoil is that brittle authoritarian regimes can remain in place for a very long time with changes ongoing beneath the ice that outsiders don't see until cracks emerge. Anyone could have predicted that the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria were vulnerable, but no one could have seen that the desperate act of one Tunisian vegetable vendor broadcast across the Arab world would trigger a wave of revolutions.
Given North Korea's isolation and the regime's secrecy, the fall of North Korea might come even more abruptly.
By Ian Bremmer
With all the upheaval in the energy-rich Middle East, it's easy to forget that North Korea remains the world's single biggest security threat. And as he's proven many times over the years, Kim Jong-Il doesn't like to be ignored.
After a quiet couple of months, North Korea appears to be preparing for the next round of trouble. Recent talks with the South broke down almost immediately. A row over refugees has begun, with North Korea demanding the return of 31 people who crossed into South Korean waters in a fishing boat and South Korea insisting that four of them have asked for asylum.
In addition, published reports suggest North Korea could be preparing a third nuclear test.
Pyongyang is threatening missile strikes against the South Korean mainland if balloons carrying propaganda leaflets continue to cross the border. There's nothing new about threats
from the north, but the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette and the
shelling of a South Korean island last year provide an unusually hostile
North Korea has plenty to feel vulnerable about. The toughest winter in decades has damaged this year's rice crop, and North Korean officials are reportedly asking for food aid even as they threaten to drown South Korea in a lake of fire. And the hastily-coordinated transition to Kim Jong Il's all-but-unknown 27-year-old third son continues.
Don't forget the North Koreans. They have a way of reminding us they're still there.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon
Following the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010, more North Korean provocations are almost certain in 2011. The likeliest steps include a third nuclear test, a long-range missile test, conventional attacks, or terrorism. With the United States and China often at cross purposes on this problem, this low-likelihood, high-impact risk in definitely one to keep an eye on.
The North's belligerence and its willingness to inflict casualties to make its point is almost certainly the result of a faster-than-expected leadership transition in Pyongyang. That's the only variable that could explain the sudden dramatic change in behavior of the past several months. The aggressiveness could be coming from external concerns -- that Kim Jong-Il's third son, Kim Jong-un, will be vulnerable to international "testing" if Pyongyang doesn't first prove his mettle. Or it could be internal -- if Kim Jong-Il fears the military isn't sold on his son's accession, especially in the event that the father dies suddenly. The latter scenario is much more troubling in terms of North Korea's willingness to provoke military conflict on the peninsula, but there's no way of knowing which of the two is the more likely. Beijing's view is that it's unwise to take any steps that would roil the North Koreans while a change of regime is in the offing. And change inside North Korea certainly appears to be underway.
Meanwhile, the South Korean political landscape is among the most polarized in Asia, and the hard liners are -- at least for the coming year --pulling the strings. President Lee Myung-bak has no desire to provoke war, but he's also politically disposed to take measures that Pyongyang will view as overtly hostile, steps like creation of a reunification tax that plans for an eventual North Korean collapse and more military exercises inside what North Korea considers to be contested territory. And some within the South Korean military may want to prove that their country is not the North's punching bag.
A response to North Korean escalation will likely be designed to avoid any appearance of escalation, unless Pyongyang directly targets peninsular South Korea or U.S. forces. The North threatened both in a recent statement.
The biggest risk here will materialize only if the North Korean transition begins to fail and regime collapse looms imminent. In this case, the United States and China would find themselves with sharply different priorities, as the U.S. military looks to ensure security of the North's nuclear arsenal while the Chinese look to prevent a flood of sick and starving North Korean refugees into China. There's been no military-to-military discussion, let alone coordination, for scenario planning between the United States and Chinese leadership. That's not the best recipe for crisis management.
On Wednesday, we'll move toward a more macro theme: capital controls, which takes its place at no. 6 on our list of 2011's top risks.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group. David Gordon is the firm's head of research.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group's Asia practice
Next in our series of regional outlooks is Asia, where most economies not named Japan are enjoying quicker and stronger recoveries than in other regions. Asian states have also gained new weight within the G-20 and the Bretton Woods institutions. But traditional strategic rivalries persist, and China's growing economic clout and North Korean belligerence are likely to generate most of the headlines in 2011.
Across the region, Chinese demand is a central driver of other countries' economic growth, and for many Asian countries, China is the top trade partner. In the coming year, China will boost its role at the center of a growing web of economic and financial connections that are gradually, but inexorably, integrating East Asia. Beijing will also strengthen its economic ties across South Asia, notably in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even India, with a focus on investment in infrastructure. China-centric free trade agreements have proliferated. Beijing has also adopted its own standards in some areas of information and communications technology and will try to have them adopted internationally. China will continue to try to reshape the region's trade and investment architecture, largely on a pan-Asian basis and without the United States.
But Beijing's long-term strategic intentions inspire deep anxiety, and its foreign and defense policies have rattled its neighbors. Beijing will suffer consequences in 2011, as India, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, and others strengthen their defense ties to the United States. Joint exercises, drills at sea, and weapons sales will periodically raise tensions. So too will trade conflicts, as debates over China's industrial policies at home and investments abroad mix commercial worries with national security fears.
Traditional geopolitical risks in Asia, including China-Japan and India-Pakistan frictions, should be manageable in 2011, but North Korea remains a wildcard. Pyongyang continues to make succession arrangements for an ailing Kim Jong-il, and the regime has used military action in the past to bolster its domestic legitimacy.
Further North Korean provocations are highly likely. We could see a third nuclear test in 2011, but additional conventional attacks would rattle markets with greater force. Significant military escalation is unlikely, however, unless Pyongyang strikes U.S. assets -- like ships participating in joint exercises -- or launches conventional strikes at peninsular South Korea. The former would prompt U.S. retaliation. The latter could lead to counterstrikes on peninsular North Korea, though an innately conservative Seoul will try to modulate its response to avoid an escalation of violence.
This post was written by analysts in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
There appears to be an awful lot of turmoil inside North Korea at the moment. Rumors that Kim Jong Il is dying just won't die. The North Korean sinking of the South Korea naval vessel Cheonan has ratcheted up regional tensions to genuinely alarming heights. Botched backpedalling on economic reforms inside North Korea a few months ago forced a rare government apology to the North Korean people, and the country's Finance Minister was executed. A former Railway Minister was executed in March 2009 after workers stole and sold parts of locomotives. Just this week, according to South Korean reports, a former chief delegate to talks with South Korea was killed by firing squad.
Whenever there's an unusual amount of upheaval inside North Korea, the question arises again: Does Kim Jong Il really call all the shots in the DPRK -- including on decisions of war and peace? Even within a regime built atop an extreme form of cult of personality, can one man really be fully in charge?
In Kim's case, no one outside the North Korean elite knows for sure. But I can say from firsthand experience that sometimes there really is just one man behind the curtain.
In 1998, as Eurasia Group organized an event with the Turkmen delegation to the UN General Assembly, I found myself in the middle of a diplomatic dust-up involving then-President Bill Clinton and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, the "Father of All Turkmen."
This is a man who ordered construction in the center of Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan's capital, of a triumphal, three-pronged arch, combined with a 220-foot victory column, that served as pedestal for a massive, pure-gold statue of himself, rotating a full 360 degrees every 24 hours. This is the author of Ruhnama, "the answer to all questions," a text meant to replace the Koran as his people's principal source of wisdom and spiritual sustenance. This is the guy who renamed days of the week and months of the year after himself and his family.
Kim has his wacky side,
but he's got nothing on the father of All Turkmen.
Just before Niyazov was to hold talks with Clinton for the first (and only) time, his government announced the arrest of an exiled former foreign minister. The former ally-turned critic saw the meeting with Clinton as an opportunity to return to his country and stir up trouble as the world was watching. Turkmenbashi was having none of it. Frightened that the arrest would scuttle the talks before they had begun, I watched as cabinet officials, military brass and even family members took turns trying to convince Niyazov to play it cool. Some even managed to broach the subject. Niyazov was unmoved.
The impasse was finally resolved, but not until Turkmenbashi had proven beyond all doubt that only he made high-level decisions in Turkmenistan. His control, exerted through a combination of patronage and terror, was astonishing. The president for life died in December 2006, and his statue is about to be retired, but his legacy in Turkmenistan will prove harder to dismantle.
That's why we should give credence to stories from Russian diplomats that no one in Iraq ever gave Saddam Hussein bad news. And that's why it's not impossible that war and peace on the Korean peninsula might one day depend on a decision made by Kim Jong Il. Within an extreme authoritarian regime, very, very few officials have access to the information that might inform key decisions. That's part of why these brittle regimes eventually fall with a bang. See Ceausescu, Nicolae.
But North Korea is not Turkmenistan, Iraq, or Romania. It is home to one of the world's largest militaries. It has nuclear weapons. It can export significant numbers of sick and starving refugees, and its implosion would pose a reunification challenge that dwarfs the costs faced in Germany.
That's why North Korea is a problem we can never afford to ignore.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
Korean Central Television/Yonhap via Getty Images
By Abraham Kim
How do you respond when your enemy sinks one of your ships and drowns dozens of your sailors? If you believe your better-armed enemy wants a fight, can you afford to do nothing? In a democracy? In an election year? As voters mourn the dead and look to you for leadership?
On 27 March, an explosion sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Preliminary reports from an international team of investigators led by South Korea suggest a possible torpedo attack, but the evidence is still inconclusive. Publicly, North Korea is denying any responsibility, but privately, Pyongyang could be sending a signal to South Korea and its allies that it is losing patience with the lack of humanitarian and energy assistance coming from the international community. Also, North Korea could be trying to stir up another crisis to help consolidate domestic support behind the regime as economic troubles worsen. Aiming to comfort a mourning population, the South Korean leadership has vowed that the government's response will be "strong and resolute" once the cause is identified and those responsible are found -- a veiled threat against Pyongyang. Despite the tough rhetoric, punitive action will ultimately be muted once Pyongyang is implicated. South Korea and the international community have very little leverage over North Korea, especially without Beijing's cooperation. At the same time, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak must stabilize the situation before events begin to disrupt the economy and other national affairs.
South Korea and the international community have few palatable options. A military response from South Korea could set off a tit-for-tat exchange with a nuclear-armed North Korean military that would have its long-range guns and missiles locked on Seoul. Closing the Kaesong special economic zone -- the only North-South Korea joint venture currently in operation -- wouldn't impose much additional hardship on Kim Jong-Il's regime. The likeliest option, an appeal to the U.N. Security Council for punitive action, might not amount to much, since China and Russia would probably block any bid to impose additional sanctions on an already isolated Pyongyang. In Shanghai last week, Lee failed to win a commitment from Chinese President Hu Jintao to support a joint international response if North Korea was found responsible for the Cheonan incident. With Kim Jong-Il currently in Beijing to seek more aid, it's unlikely that China will join in punishing the regime. In the end, the international community's response will probably amount to empty public condemnation with a few toothless sanctions.
This isn't all bad for South Korea, because the Lee administration has a clear interest in keeping a lid on further turmoil on the Korean peninsula. The government fears that new tension could take the steam from South Korea's struggle to recover from the global financial crisis and unnerve foreign investors that recently have taken greater interest in the market. Last month, Moody's upgraded South Korea's credit rating from A2 to A1, highlighting the growing momentum that the government wants to maintain. In addition, Seoul will host the G20 summit in November, and the Lee government wants to avoid any trouble that would make heads of state and business leaders think twice about attending. The president sees the summit as a tremendous opportunity for South Korea to demonstrate that it's the newest developed country on the global scene and an economic leader during a time of considerable economic anxiety.
That said, Lee's government will have to say something more substantive about the Cheonan sinking to avoid the appearance of shrugging off what amounts to a North Korean act of war. This is not to signal that authorities are ready to take any substantive punitive action, but more to manage domestic politics. Lee has learned the hard way during his two years in power that the government sometimes has to allow for the expression of public outrage before a page can safely be turned. Otherwise, as in the 2008 anti-U.S. beef protest and the aftermath of former president Roh Moo-hyun's suicide, shifting winds can direct public fury toward the government itself.
The political stakes are particularly high in light of upcoming local elections, widely considered a referendum on Lee's presidency. Political observers suggest that a poor showing for Lee's Grand National Party on June 2 could leave President Lee a lame duck president for the next two and a half years. So far, Lee has managed the crisis with political sensitivity and dexterity. He may even benefit from rising anger at North Korea if outrage over the Cheonan incident rallies voters to Lee and his party.
If South Korea retaliates against North Korea, Lee will have done Kim Jong-Il a favor. If Seoul swallows hard and moves on, it may be Kim who has done Lee a favor.
Abraham Kim is an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.
KIM JAE-MYEONG/AFP/Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer
The international conflict over North Korea's nuclear program has been locked in stalemate for years. The United States and Japan fear that Pyongyang will sell nuclear weapons and material to rogue regimes and/or terrorist groups or stumble its way into a shooting war. China and South Korea worry that North Korea will collapse, flooding Chinese border regions with sick and starving refugees and leaving South Korea with a reunification project that will cost a fortune and last a generation. This problem has allowed Kim Jong Il to periodically saber-rattle his way into fresh supplies of cash, food, and fuel. It's all been entirely predictable.
But the Dear Leader's illness has changed the game. His government has been unusually belligerent lately, even by North Korean standards. Following the latest missile tests, they haven't made new demands for talks or aid and insist they will not return to six-party talks until others at the table accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Its government has since sentenced two US journalists to 12 years of hard labor for "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry." Especially provocative have been a series of cyber-attacks on US and South Korean government websites, which officials in both countries believe originated from North Korea. This more reckless North Korean behavior suggests that senior civilian and military officials, increasingly unsure how the coming power transition will go, are trying to secure some extra room for maneuver.
For the moment, North Korean actions are aimed at an internal, not an international, audience. That makes their actions less predictable -- and increases the risk of accidental confrontation.
The Obama administration, aware that bad things happen when all sides are in escalation mode at the same time, has stepped back from the tougher rhetoric of weeks past. There's been little mention of sanctions. For the imprisoned journalists, Secretary of State Clinton is now asking for mercy rather than demanding justice.
But if North Korea really is moving into political succession mode as Kim Jong Il's health heads downhill, those who will be left behind are making a much-faster-than-planned move to shore up support for his recently designated successor, third son Kim Jong Un. It will be easier for them to maintain national unity at a time when the country stands on the brink of war.
Until the North Korean leadership feels confident enough to return to the established patterns of negotiation and extortion, its actions will remain much more difficult to predict. That problem, in turns, elevates the risk of miscalculation -- and a confrontation that no one wants.
AUM JUNG-SEOK/AFP/Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer
The George W. Bush administration learned the limits of a policy approach to America's antagonists (like Iran and North Korea) that relies almost exclusively on political pressure and economic coercion. Even as Washington issued warning after warning, Iran made enormous progress toward a nuclear capability, and North Korea amassed a small nuclear arsenal.
But the Obama administration is now learning the limits of constructive engagement. Iran is ignoring U.S. calls for an end to a crackdown on Iranian demonstrators, and North Korea is threatening the United States with a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation." What do we learn from this? That, as time passes, U.S. policymakers have less and less ability to influence events within isolated countries and the choices made by their leaders.
In fact, events inside Iran over the past two weeks represent something close to a worst-case scenario for Washington. Since Obama became president, his tactical approach to Iran has been governed by a simple principle: Don't do or say anything that will help Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad use Washington to rally support. That was a wise choice, but one that came to nothing because, as Joseph Stalin once observed, "It's not he who votes that counts but he who counts the votes."
Obama responded to the stolen election and the protests that followed with characteristic caution, using vivid language of condemnation only after the level of violence in Tehran demanded it. But it will be harder now to make the deal he wants over Iran's nuclear program, because whatever he offers Iran will open him to charges of "appeasement," and because Iran's weakened government will likely respond to U.S. warnings with renewed belligerence.
On North Korea, whatever the president's approach, uncertainty within that country is generating a level of anti-American vitriol that's unusual even by North Korean standards. Kim Jong-Il has apparently tapped his 26 year-old son, Kim Jung Un, to succeed him. Whether this latest of the Kims will actually rule or the North Korean military will wield new power within a kind of dictatorship by committee, we can only guess. But it's clear that, for the moment, U.S. officials can plan for various contingencies and respond to events, but can't do much to influence what comes next.
The Obama approach to these problems is to try to keep as many options open as possible. That might help to protect him against the charges of hubris that rained down on Bush-era neocons, but it also allows others who don't play by the same rulebook to outmaneuver him. Political decision-makers inside Iran and North Korea are now defining the terms of their engagement with the United States.
By Ian Bremmer
North Korea could become Obama's first true foreign-policy crisis. The country's second nuclear test has drawn international condemnation --including some unusually tough language from China -- and we'll surely see a UN Security Council resolution expressing more of the same. But there's just not much policy flexibility here, and therefore not many ways of cooling things off.
The six party talks were already broken down, and the North Koreans had been steadily upping the ante over the past two months -- with increasingly belligerent rhetoric, the arrest of two American journalists, and new satellite and missile test launches. None of these actions has brought the North Koreans much satisfaction, and they've contributed to a harder-line Obama administration response than was otherwise likely -- including the push through of yet another UN Security Council resolution and the establishment of preconditions for new talks.
It's hard to know how much of North Korea's aggressiveness flows from economic necessity and how much suggests a shift toward a more overtly hostile policy. But it's perfectly clear that Pyongyang is responding to a geopolitical squeeze that it has found increasingly uncomfortable.
This is not simply "belligerent business as usual," and the second nuclear test is a big deal for the North Koreans. First, they know they're crossing a "red line" for their friends in Beijing. (Apparently, North Korea took the unusual step of giving the United States a one-hour heads-up before the test, while saying nothing to Beijing.) Second, they only have enough nuclear fuel for a very small arsenal (perhaps 6-8 devices in total). In other words, they knew in advance they better make this test count.
Tensions will likely subside for a few weeks. The Obama administration has responded with the diplomatic equivalent of outrage but will ultimately need to back off preconditions and recognize the need to return to the bargaining table -- particularly since this will be the price for China to continue to focus its frustration on Pyongyang. The next question will be at what point the United States and China turn the economic aid back on. There's no hard-line domestic faction pushing the Obama administration for tougher sanctions (as there is on Iran). But the Japanese government will look extremely unfavorably on rewarding North Korean provocations, and the White House will weigh that reality with care.
If officials in the U.S. and North Korean governments decide to push the current conflict further, we'll see an active restart of the nuclear program and provocative border incidents -- disruption of neighboring shipping and potentially a limited incursion into the demilitarized zone (DMZ). We could even begin to see some market impact in South Korea.
For now, North Korea appears determined to push the envelope. The United States can't give Pyongyang what it wants. All that's left is for the two sides to negotiate their way back to the negotiating table. That may take time, and the problem is growing that, in the interim, neither side has total control of where the conflict might go next.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.