North Korea returns to an old strategy on Victory Day

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Story highlights

  • North Korean media announced Kim Jong Un had overseen a ballistic missile test on Saturday
  • He had originally planned to be in Moscow for Victory Day celebrations, but pulled out
  • North Korea has shown it's adept at manipulating international attention, writes Rodger Baker

Rodger Baker is the Vice President of Asia-Pacific Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Defying expectations, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not attend the Russian celebration commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. After Moscow confirmed Kim's attendance, it retracted it, stating that domestic issues would keep Kim at home.

Many had expected the Russian ceremony to serve as Kim's cotillion, his formal emergence onto the world stage as the fully consolidated leader of North Korea.
Instead, as world leaders gathered in Moscow, North Korean state media announced that Pyongyang had carried out a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Kim's orders, a clear indication that North Korea wants the world to consider it a developing nuclear power with second-strike capability.
    In some ways, this mimics Kim Jong Il's emergence onto the world stage with his attempt to place a satellite into orbit atop an Unha/Taepodong missile. The focus on its nuclear force and capabilities reflects the insecurities of the North Korean position, but Pyongyang doesn't only rely on nuclear force to deter aggression; it is also adept at manipulating international attention.
    Making Moscow the destination for his first visit abroad would have emphasized North Korea's changing political alignment, which has been favoring Russia amid fraying relations with China. Kim's cancellation has been construed as a sign of internal uncertainty regarding his leadership, with some questioning whether he fears a coup if he leaves. Others see it as a sign of doubt about his relationship with Russia (and perhaps a reflection of anger at Russia's failure to agree to sell high-end fighter jets and missile defense systems to the cash-strapped North Korea).

    Old strategy re-emerging?

    Given North Korea's careful control of its image abroad and of information related to its internal politics, the reason for Kim's apparent change in plans may never be known. Historically, however, the North Korean leadership has used both its own unpredictable behavior and the rivalry among its neighbors to preserve its nominal independence and to gain concessions and assistance. During the Cold War, Pyongyang was adept at playing Moscow and Beijing's differing interests against each other to gain advantage. In the post-Cold War period, Pyongyang has expanded its diplomatic scope to include the United States, Japan and South Korea. During the six-party talks, Pyongyang was able to easily manipulate the other players' differing interests and priorities.
    Kim's failure to appear in Moscow may be part of this much older strategy -- a way of telling Moscow that its promises of development and economic cooperation need to translate more quickly into concrete action or else Pyongyang will slide back under China's influence. Of course, North Korea remains heavily connected to China economically, but it has been less than happy with this relationship, which consists primarily of aid or trade -- particularly the extraction of North Korean natural resources -- without much investment in strengthening the North Korean economy.
    Russia may have promised less overall cash than China, but it has offered to focus on revitalizing North Korea's rail system and possibly improving North Korea's electricity distribution, transportation networks and ports. These sorts of investments could give a broader boost to North Korea's attempts to rebuild its economy and lessen its dependence on handouts and the exploitation of natural resources.
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    Uncertain security situation

    North Korea's national security situation is deteriorating, not only because of the country's continued disconnect from the global economic system, but also from changes in the regional dynamic. Beijing continues to pursue an assertive policy for maritime domination in the East and South China seas while courting South Korea economically, politically and in security matters. Japan is waking from a decades-long slumber, and though its economy may not be what it once was, the country is overtly moving beyond its post-war constitutional constraints to take a more active role in the region. Russia, facing increasing economic and security challenges from the West, is looking eastward for economic opportunities and ways to undermine or disrupt the U.S. security alliances, leaving the United States in search of an equilibrium between its rising security responsibilities in Eastern Europe and its Pacific reorientation.
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    Sitting in the middle is Korea. The South is concerned that U.S. ties and reliance on its security arrangements with Japan are undermining Seoul's long-term security. The North sees itself once again as a potential target for U.S. diplomatic and perhaps military focus as Washington eases relations with Iran and Cuba, leaving North Korea as one of the few remaining "bad guys" on the U.S. radar. For North Korea, the increased activity and focus on Northeast Asia provides both a risk and an opportunity. When the region is in flux and competition rises, Korea serves as both the bridge and the barrier among the powers -- the proverbial dagger at Japan's heart and the bridge of invasion into the Asian heartland.
    The Korean Peninsula, particularly North Korea, is where Russia and China meet and where Japan and the United States meet the mainland. By behaving unpredictably and playing hard to get, North Korea may be positioning itself as the country that nobody wants responsibility for, but also that nobody wants others to dominate. This gives Pyongyang options -- a way to once again manipulate the competing interests around it to its own advantage. It may be a small advantage, but so long as North Korea avoids the fate of Libya, Iraq or Syria, it will be a victory of sorts.