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A Familiar Crisis: Assessing North Korea's Threats

Commentary, 8 April 2013
In the Korean peninsula, the risk of war remains much lower than is suggested by the atmosphere of crisis, but a great deal will depend on what level of escalation Pyongyang deems necessary for political and deterrent purposes.

In the Korean peninsula, the risk of war remains much lower than is suggested by the atmosphere of crisis, but a great deal will depend on what level of escalation Pyongyang deems necessary for political and deterrent purposes.

North Korea Nuclear Weapons

The Two North Koreas

There are two schools of thought on what is, even by North Korea's 'standards, increasingly belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang.

The optimists contend that the latest threats - calls to 'break the waists of the crazy enemies [and] totally cut their windpipes' - are no worse than the decades-old ritualistic promises to turn South Korea into a 'sea of fire'. In this view, we are witness no more than an inexperienced leader (Kim Jong-un is either in his late twenties, or scarcely 30) shoring up his weak power base at home, testing the resolve of a newly-elected South Korean president, and lashing out at the latest round of US sanctions and joint US-South Korean military exercises.

The pessimists warn that this time is different: North Korea has just tested a nuclear device for the third time, formally repudiated its armistice with the South, cut a military hotline, and re-started the plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor. It has also stopped access to the joint North-South Kaesong industrial zone and, on 8 April, withdrawn its workers. Moreover, although we have little understanding of how the relationship between the leader and his generals has changed since the opaque transition from Kim Jong-il and his son, the latter might be under particular pressure to demonstrate his resolve to the armed forces.

What Can North Korea Do, and What Does it Want?

The first priority is to distinguish between fantasy and fiction. Prime Minister David Cameron chose his words in the Daily Telegraph carefully when he described North Korea as 'a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat' but one that was not yet 'a reality'. But his subsequent assertion, that 'North Korea does now have missile technology that is able to reach, as they put it, the whole of the United States [...] They can reach us too' was alarmist and misleading.

North Korea cannot mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and then deliver it to the US mainland. When Kim Jong-un posed last week with missile strike plans against American cities displayed in the background, those images were aspirational and illusory. Pyongyang might be able to strike Japan, South Korea, or some nearby US military bases. However, the plethora of land-based and ship-borne missile defence platforms that the United States has deployed to the region and to more distant bases in the past days and years would be able to cope with North Korea's highly limited capabilities.

Second, amongst the many potential drivers of North Korea's behaviour, two are likely to be the most significant. One is a desire to resume diplomatic talks on advantageous (i.e., lucrative) terms - which will be discussed later. The other is a genuine fear, rooted in the regime's vulnerability, and the desire to deter any action that might directly or indirectly heighten that vulnerability. In particular, Pyongyang may be sincerely afraid of the on-going US-South Korean military exercises, and may even view them as a precursor to an attack. 

As RUSI Research Fellow Andrea Berger has suggested, Pyongyang might be mirror imaging in this respect: in 1950, North Korea used military manoeuvres as a front for its own invasion of the South. Their baroque, frequently absurd threats are therefore more likely intended as conscious efforts at deterrence rather than indicators of imminent war. This dynamic is especially important for a young, untested leader whose standing with the army is open to question, and for whom any sign of weakness might be politically fatal. In this sense, there is method in North Korea's madness.

The argument this far bolsters the optimists' case that this is indeed the North Korea of old. But continuity is not grounds for complacency. One reason for this is that the line between defensive and offensive behaviour is often slender, and wars frequently begin even where neither side is eager to avoid one. North Korea will not launch missiles at Washington, or even Seoul or Tokyo. But in the past years we have seen a rage of disturbing possibilities below that threshold, any one of which might have spiralled out of control. 

Limited War, Diplomacy, and Alliance Management

In March 2010, a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo at a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 seamen. The delay between the attack and its attribution allowed North Korea literally to get away with murder. April 2013 is the third anniversary of that attack, and it serves as a salutary reminder of North Korea's preference for semi-deniable and lower-level acts of aggression. Later that same year, North Korea fired 170 artillery shells and rockets at South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island. This was probably the peninsula's gravest crisis since the Korean War, but South Korea was once more constrained in how it could hit back.

There is a policy dilemma here. It is tempting to exhort diplomacy, but the solution is not necessarily to give in to the blackmail. Communication between the two Koreas and between Pyongyang and Washington is patently desirable during times of crisis. But it would be unwise to lavish aid and diplomatic attention on a regime that has developed a Pavlovian association between nuclear brinksmanship and concessions at the negotiating table. North Korea wants attention, and it should not be allowed to have it on these terms.

North Korea's nuclear weapons are likely to be a permanent feature of the Asian landscape, much the same way that Pakistani and Indian weapons have been accommodated, albeit to differing and limited degrees, by US policy and the non-proliferation regime. Therefore a multilateral diplomatic track, like the moribund Six Party talks, will have to be resumed at some point in the future. But those calling for an imminent resumption of such a process have largely failed to address the question of why such efforts should succeed at the present when they failed as recently as last year, when North Korea violated the so-called Leap day deal by testing a rocket.

Additionally, North Korea should not be allowed to lash out, as it did three years ago, without material consequences. If we focus only on deterring a nuclear attack, we risk giving the impression that smaller acts of state terror are permissible.

At the same time, Washington must remember, as Europeans surely do, that writing blank cheques to allies is a dependable path to inadvertent escalation. Any retaliation should be, within the narrowest of boundaries, and paired with clear signals to the North of what we all know: invasion is off the cards. US officials have indicated that the agreed US-South Korean strategy of 'counterprovocation' adheres to these principles, insofar as it calls for 'an immediate but proportional response in kind'.

But, in other respects, South Korea has moved in the opposite direction. Last month, it said it would strike not just attacking North Korean units, but also their 'commanding post', something that might be interpreted in the North as the first step in a bigger offensive. Then, the South Korea president told her military that they were to 'respond strongly at the first contact with them without any political consideration'. It should be obvious that entrusting local units with the authority to kick off a second Korean War is less than sensible. Although senior US administration officials told the New York Times that their agreement with South Korea  'defines action down to the tactical level', they also acknowledged that 'overreaction by South Korea is a real risk'.

The United States should also be able to temper the on-going joint exercises, perhaps quietly shelving the most provocative parts, without diminishing its commitment to South Korea in the slightest. The US decision to postpone a test of the Minuteman 3 ballistic missile is a welcome development. Humiliating North Korea is not conducive to deterring it - in fact it makes that task harder.

Beijing and Pyongyang

This is also an important opportunity to apply pressure on China into showing better faith in restraining North Korean behaviour. If Beijing does not show a greater willingness to use its leverage, it will have only itself to blame for upgraded US theatre and national missile defences, an enlarged US military presence in the region, and the mounting perception within Asia that China is failing to wield its growing power with the requisite responsibility. In this respect, China's failure to craft an effective policy towards North Korea is likely to have long-term implications for the so-called US pivot to Asia and exacerbate tensions between Washington and Beijing. The long-term forward-deployment of US nuclear-capable platforms, intended to reassure Seoul, might become an especially important issue.

Privately, Chinese officials worry that pressuring North Korea might lead to regime collapse, a mass influx of refugees into China, and a unified Korea that would leave US troops sitting on China's doorstep. These are not unreasonable concerns, but China's hitherto risk-averse approach is making Pyongyang more and not less reckless, and therefore increasing the risk of a catastrophic outcome for China itself.

China is yet to clamp down on the transfer of military and dual-use goods such as transport and launch vehicles for ballistic missiles. Nor has it used its economic leverage. China supplies 90 per cent of North Korea's energy, 80 per cent of its consumer goods, and just under half of its food. Beijing has condemned the nuclear tests and, this week, issued the usual platitudes urging restraint. But these are negligible gestures.

The Course of the Crisis

Once the joint US-South Korean exercises conclude at the end of this month, there are two possibilities. We might witness another missile test, perhaps even as early the 15 April birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's venerated first leader and the incumbent's grandfather. That would re-start or renew the crisis, probably forcing Washington to keep its forces on the Korean peninsula for much longer, and North Korea to find new and inventive ways of eking out the brinksmanship, perhaps including a nuclear test.

Alternatively, tensions might subside if Kim feels he has satisfied his domestic constituencies. The priority will then be to restore the thicket of agreements and institutions that North Korea has shredded in these past weeks, such as the armistice. The risk of war remains much lower than is suggested by the atmosphere of crisis, but a great deal will depend on what level of escalation Pyongyang deems necessary for political and deterrent purpose. If it goes no further than a symbolic missile test, that is probably the best-case scenario for the peninsula.


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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