While North Korea initially enjoyed a period of economic growth and development after hostilities with the South ended in 1953, it has been left far behind in the explosion of prosperity that has defined Northeast Asia over the past two decades. Ironically, this liability, in the eyes of the leadership, has been turned into a strategic asset: North Korea has nothing to lose by acting as a regional spoiler. Pyongyang's first assessment is that the larger neighborhood prefers that there be no disruption to the flow of commerce -- and this is a club that can be wielded not only against South Korea and Japan but against China and Russia as well. A North Korea that plunges the region into war would release flows of refugees crossing into China and Russia for sanctuary; it would jeopardize China's own economy, starting with the massive disruptions that any conflict would create; it would imperil Russian President Vladimir Putin's announced plans for a new "eastern vector" for the Russian economy, including the development of new pipelines and energy assets in the Far East. The DPRK's assessment is that it has consistently been cheaper for the surrounding countries to pay Pyongyang off -- and to restrain the United States from trying to take action -- than to risk the damage that a more sustained military conflict would bring.
The second assessment, reflected in some of the recent North Korean propaganda videos showing a United States struggling with an economic crisis, is that Washington has neither the stomach nor the funds to sustain a prolonged campaign against the North. Under this scenario, Pyongyang can deliver threats and raise America's blood pressure without risking any real backlash -- perhaps even creating conditions for a new round of negotiations and concessions.
This, of course, is where the regime is taking a major risk. There is a very real movement of American military personnel and equipment into the region to prepare to cope with any exigency. North Korea's assessment of the U.S. willingness to fight eerily resembles that of the Japanese militarists prior to Dec. 7, 1941, who argued that America had no backbone to prevent Japan from exercising hegemony over the Western Pacific.
But this taps into the third assessment. As much as Pyongyang may annoy its big brother in Beijing, China will, if push comes to shove, do almost anything to prevent what the end result of any new Korean War would bring: the prospect of a unified Korea allied with the U.S. and with American forces, in theory, stationed a stone's throw across the Yalu River. (Russia, in the process of accelerating the development of its Far East and revitalizing its own Pacific Fleet at Vladivostok, would also not be happy to have American forces that much closer to its borders.) On a separate note, China has much to be irritated with in the DPRK’s recent provocations. Two months ago, the "pivot to Asia" seemed to be dying on the vine as Washington’s attention refocused on the Middle East. Now, North Korea's threats have produced a new urgency in repositioning U.S. military assets into the Asia-Pacific theater. Kim’s posturing has called into question a key part of China's -- and Russia's -- strategy, which has been based on the conclusion that the United States would be unable to extricate itself from the Middle East for the foreseeable future.