Fletcher in the News

Is North Korea's Threat More Than Posturing This Time, Asks Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee


Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Is North Korea's Threat More than Posturing This Time?

Historical forgetfulness is, perhaps, one of the unintended symptoms of the new media age. Although we can find out anything from history's timeline at the click of a button, the need to weigh and interpret constantly moving events on an hour-by-hour basis too often removes context from our understanding.

Small events become magnified, obscuring what actually drives them. North Korea's present bellicose behaviour under its new leader, Kim Jong-un, is a case in point. While only a fool would assert that a real war is an absolute impossibility, the record of the Pyongyang regime's behaviour under the three leaders from the same totalitarian dynasty – as well as South Korea and the west's responses to it – suggests that it is unlikely.

It is true that North Korea has attacked South Korea, most infamously under the guise of military manoeuvres in the assault that launched the Korean war. However, in the decades-long history of tension between the two countries, that has been the exception rather than the rule.

Among the most insightful and prescient chroniclers of what he called the "Pyongyang playbook" in an essay three years ago for Foreign Affairs has been Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

A persistent misperception about North Korea, Lee argued then, "is that its provocative international behaviour is unpredictable". Instead, he insisted, Pyongyang's methods have been highly consistent since the early 1960s. "Its strategy has been to lash out at its enemies when it perceives them to be weak or distracted, up the ante in the face of international condemnation (while blaming external scapegoats) and then negotiate for concessions in return for an illusory promise of peace."

Read the full piece (Guardian

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