The media often uses the word "provocative" to describe North Korean behaviour but if so, what exactly is it that they're trying to provoke?

My thinking is that it's the opposite: North Korea don't want to provoke anything, they want status quo and intend to use their nuclear powers as a deterrence tool. To provoke US action is the last thing they want

So why does the media use the word "provocative"? What am I missing?


  • 1
    Rather than ask "why does the media use the word", which is opinion based, you could ask "what actions have nuclear and missile tests provoked?" As this can be answered without relying purely on opinion.
    – James K
    Sep 3, 2017 at 8:32
  • 2
    Uhh but that is not what I want to ask???
    – user16659
    Sep 3, 2017 at 15:19
  • Related question (though not exact duplicate): What is North Korea trying to achieve with its belligerence toward the US and others.
    – user11249
    Sep 4, 2017 at 13:33
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    Where is the evidence that NK just wants to maintain the status quo? A rational person might well conclude that the best way to do that would be to simply shut up and not try to antagonize the US (or anyone else). So either the NK leadership does not want to do that, or they are not rational - or both, of course.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 4, 2017 at 18:49
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    If you claim "I don't want to provoke anything," but engage in behavior, with belligerence, that escalates tensions and is more likely to provoke a confrontation than other behaviors, then the claim of "don't want to provoke anything" isn't really proven. Other options are available. While they don't want to get stomped, provoking a confrontation is a choice they deem preferable to other options. Sep 5, 2017 at 15:45

5 Answers 5


If I stand in front of you, and repeatedly slap your face while saying the words "I don't want to fight you," then the words don't match the actions.

North Korea repeatedly, through threats and actions, engages in behavior that greatly increases the chances of provoking a confrontation or incident.

That is, by definition, "provocative."

I think where your confusion comes in is that, clearly, anyone would love to get away with provocative behavior without negative consequences. However, that doesn't mean the behavior isn't provocative.

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    That would be accurate if somehow the exercises weren't actually conducted in international waters adjacent to countries actually participating in the exercises, so your description of it is selective and fundamentally dishonest. And please explain how one practices a decapitation strike without actually violating airspace or territorial integrity of that other nation, which does not happen in those exercises. Compare that to launching missiles over Japanese territory - you are making an apples to oranges comparison. Sep 11, 2017 at 13:54
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    "they announced it" - from your own linked article - "Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross later told Business Insider that the US military 'does not train for decapitation missions' of any kind." So, no they didn't. A South Korean newspaper engaged in speculative gossip based on the unit being part of the training exercise, and the linked article was engaging in speculative gossip based on other reports that Kim fears a "decapitation" mission. The government said nothing of the sort. Sep 11, 2017 at 18:06
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    @JohnWu - super-duper, but your claim was that the US was being provocative by openly announcing they were doing this. You can't claim they are being secretive and clandestine while being openly provocative. Again, to emphasize, you claim is that the USA openly declared they were doing this - hence, "provocative." Now that I've shown that isn't the case, you're changing the argument, after the fact, and it's pretty far removed from your original claim. Sep 11, 2017 at 19:13
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    Yep. And Saddam denied having WMD, contradicted by a thinly sourced anonymous torture victim known as Curveball. It is natural that you believe your own country, but hundreds of unmanned UAV strikes tell a different story. If you're North Korea (who incidentally obtained portions of the plan via hacking), who do you believe?
    – John Wu
    Sep 11, 2017 at 20:29
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    What does Saddam have to do with this? You are venturing farther and farther away from your disproved claims with every response. Again, and I emphasize, again - you claimed "they announced it, which is provocative even if they don't do it." They never announced it. Your statement if false. Period. And now you're talking about the phony case for war against Saddam..... why? As evidence that one believes their own country, without question? Because I never believed that case for war, ever, so that point is lost in a discussion with me. Sep 11, 2017 at 20:38

I think your question is interesting and that you are seeing something of the underlying truth, somewhat.

There is no question that North Korea is being provocative, but not towards all-out war with South Korea. The explanation is their intended goal which is unification of the Korean Peninsula (Wikipedia Reunification Article). Another important goal is just staying alive an preventing another famine from excessive isolation (Famine and shortages because of sanctions)

With those goals in mind, the provocation does not seem to be having a war to prevent invasion nor is it to laugh maniacally on TV while the world explodes. The Point of view of the North Korean dictator is to test the new American Administration and do something to ease the sanctions. Look at this timeline and you can see that nuclear issues magically coincide with US Presidential elections (i.e. 2002, 2009-2010, 2013-2014, 2016-2017)North Korea timeline BBC

Another interesting part of the question is whether the US is being provocative. This is true but again, not for invasion or taking out the head of Government. It is true that bases in the Korean peninsula are of strategic importance to keep a check on Russian and Chinese moves. Therefore I agree that most US presidents will do saber-rattling to maintain the "threat" excuse. With that in mind do not misunderstand the actions of Trump.

It is not an accident that when Dennis Rodman visited Jong-un recently he gave the dictator a copy of "Art of the Deal". The answer is inside those pages. Paraphrasing from the book: In any deal ask for 20 times what you want so that you end up with twice what the other party will give. From that point of view, Trumps promising Death and Destruction will eventually result in easing some sanctions without reducing military preparedness and even having some eyes on the Russian and Chinese government (THADD missiles) who are the real enemy.

The answer to the questions is: Provocative is the right word, and both sides are trying to change the status quo, but they won't.


I think it's reasonable to call it provocative. Even if the North Korean leadership is rational enough not to want nuclear war, they still want to provoke some kind of response (short of an attack) from United States in order to demonstrate to the North Korean people that they are standing up against the foreign bullies.

In other words, it's a calculated part of the long term propaganda campaign targeted at their own people.

  • And, it takes the people's minds off of their own wretched living conditions. Consider that S Korea is an economic powerhouse, while N Korea is one of the poorest nations on earth. Same people, same land, same resources, the only difference is the leadership. Just look at a night time sat photo of the Korean peninsula... the south is lit up, while the north is almost completely dark. Hard to justify that, without some sort of external threat to show their leader is 'protecting' them from the evils of prosperity, or even just a good meal.
    – tj1000
    Sep 4, 2017 at 17:03
  • @tj1000 Same people, same land, same resources, the only difference is South Korea has received a lot of money from the US, and plenty of worlwide credit to fund their debt, while North Korea has received a complete blockout of its assets, exports and global finances. If the US had had the kind of sanctions North Korea (or Cuba) has endured from all these years it wouldn't be richer than Angola.
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 6, 2017 at 7:32
  • Interesting you bring up Cuba... there is one other parallel. Both countries are inherited dictatorships, with leadership passing to family members, not elected based on merit. I'm sure that had nothing to do with the dismal economic conditions in both countries... they'd have an economy just like S Korea if it wasn't for the US... yeah, right...
    – tj1000
    Sep 6, 2017 at 19:06

Well, if provocative is defined as 'causing annoyance, anger, or another strong reaction, especially deliberately', then North Korea is certainly provocative.

They constantly threaten US allies and the US itself with nuclear strikes, and definitely threaten deliberately.

'Deterrence' is what the US, Russia, and UK do - say you have nuclear weapons, and say that you'll use them if someone else uses them against you. North Korea, on the other hand, threatens to use them against Guam for as little as hosting a US military base.


It is quite amazing how everyone is "answering" OP's question with the starting point being an assumption that North Korea is being provocative, prima facie. The lack of self-awareness is very striking. Rather interesting is this comment:

If you claim "I don't want to provoke anything," but engage in behavior, with belligerence, that escalates tensions and is more likely to provoke a confrontation than other behaviors, then the claim of "don't want to provoke anything" isn't really proven

The problem is that, if this rule is applied to the United States, apparently both sides are being provocative. After all, the United States is engaging in behavior, with belligerence, that escalates tensions and is more likely to provoke a confrontation, by sending two nuclear submarines with first-strike capability to the region, by performing massive military exercises just off of the shore, and by including in those exercises "decapitation strikes" specifically intended to kill Kim Jong Un. If Russia parked a nuclear fleet off of Delaware and practiced ways to kill Trump, how would we feel?

So maybe the question is "Why is North Korea described as provocative and the United States is not?"

Similarly striking is the absolute lack of knowledge about North Korea's stated foreign policy goals. I asked about this weeks ago and not a single user can come up with an answer. People are way too willing to eat up the highly filtered and biased information that is fed to them, as long as it is consistent with their nationalistic worldview. It doesn't even cross their minds that North Korea may be developing nuclear capability for defensive purposes, even though it is quite obvious that using them as an offensive option would result in their complete annihilation. The easier explanation for them to digest is that Kim Jong Un is simply crazy.

So, to answer the question, the apparent cause for this unequal treatment is that the media have a nationalistic or cultural bias in favor of their home country or in favor of the West of which they are part. An essential aspect of this is the notion of American Exceptionalism, whereby the United States can literally do no wrong, and can apply a different standard to other nations. Also part and parcel of this is the famous description of North Korea as the member of the Axis of Evil by Bush 43. And finally there is the intergenerational racism toward Asians found in the United States, due to bad blood from Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and of course the Korean war in which America participated but never concluded.

And the effect of this bias is readily apparent in the answers provided on this post-- many, many Americans are completely unable to think-- for even a moment of imagination-- of North Korea in any way other than the one that has been pushed upon them by the media.

  • North Korea themselves is claiming that their nuclear weapons are built for offensive purposes. What more evidence do you need? Sep 9, 2017 at 10:01
  • Citation please.
    – John Wu
    Sep 9, 2017 at 13:09

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