Foreign Policy Blogs

North Korea’s ICBM Test Jeopardizes Regional Balance of Power

North Korea has proven  its determination once again to fulfill its aspiration as a self-proclaimed Nuclear Power State with a new ballistic test on July 27th. These tests marked the 64th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice. According to the US Department of Defense, an intermediate-range missile Hwasong-14 traveled 620 miles from a Jagang base before landing into the Sea of Japan, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

This test represents a new challenge to Washington, after Pyongyang conducted its first successful ICBM test last July 1st, which proved that the regime has now reached a new and dreadful stage in the acquisition of preemptive first strike capabilities. Despite the initial predictions, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the quest for nuclear weapons has achieved significant breakthroughs. The regime has reached an unprecedented level of sophistication in a number of vital areas, including the development of solid-duel rocket engines and the expansion of mobile launch capabilities.

While Pyongyang has made important progress in the acceleration of its intercontinental range ballistic missile program, North Korea’s regime pushes towards the acquisition of the miniaturization technology considered critical to arm a nuclear warhead. The nation could plausibly achieve this milestone in early 2018 as reported by an anonymous CNN source.

Many observers consider this new test additional evidence about Pyongyang’s determination to deliver a “stern warning to Washington in response to any attempt to alter the peninsula status quo”. North Korea’s warmongering to annihilate the U.S. could now be more than an empty threat since it appears that Pyongyang has acquired the capabilities to hit major cities beyond the West Coast. There is the possibility that the range of the North Korean missile could potentially reach New York City and Washington DC, fostering concerns over Pyongyang’s aggressive intentions.

In the aftermath of the recent missile test, two B-1B Bomber Jets have been deployed to the Korean peninsula, joining Japanese and South Korean fighter jets for training exercise purposes. The United States have also tested the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Alaska by launching a mock ballistic missile in the Pacific Ocean to prove their ability to repel any incoming threat, and to inspire its allies over Washington’s adamant commitment to contrast any further expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.

The U.S. Pacific Air Forces Commander, Gen. O’Shaughnessy has warned North Korea that the U.S. may “respond with rapid, lethal and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing”, highlights that the defiant regime is getting close to Washington’s redline. Meanwhile, UN Ambassador Haley has stressed that the U.S. could pursue a different pact, including the deployment of “consistent military forces”, rather than relying on the UN Security Council to consider further actions. Washington has expressed its frustration several times for its inability to produce consistent results through conventional diplomatic tools to rein in Pyongyang, even acknowledging two decades of failed attempts to denuclearize North Korea.

Over the years, North Korea’s militaristic propaganda has several times made threats to Washington about serious military retaliations in response to any incoming threat to the survival of the Kim’s dynasty. Amid the growing tensions in the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang has further stressed and justified its path toward the acquisition of nuclear capabilities as a tool to achieve the natural vocation of the DPRK as a nuclear power nation as enshrined in its Constitution. The ultimate strategy is to further consolidate its position and eventually force Washington to normalize relations.

During the Obama Administration, Pyongyang offered a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War in return for Washington’s commitment to renounce the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a de facto recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear power status. Such a proposal was promptly rejected by Washington, urging for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as a prerequisite for restarting any new negotiation.

North Korea has become one of the most pressing priorities for the Trump Administration. Its resolution to tame the belligerent regime under the auspices of Beijing has so far produced little results. Trump’s Administration has also expressed its regrets for China’s limited efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, calling for a more radical engagement in restraining Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Since the Trump Administration took office, regular promises to“take care” of the North Korea issue have characterized the very last days of the previous “strategic patience” strategy.

Trump Administration’s initial entente with China and its attempts to convince Beijing to fully recalibrate its North Korean policy have not produced the expected results, raising tensions culminated in the recent threats of waging a trade war against China. Despite this, Beijing has expressed its frustration for not being able to regain control of the former communist ally, the Chinese leadership remains committed to preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime and the marked geo-strategic alteration that could emerge from the ashes of the hermit kingdom under the auspices of Washington.

Due to the increasing level of North Korea’s nuclear assertiveness, the discussion over a military intervention in the Korean Peninsula has become a recurring topic. The consequence of a military action would certainly expose Washington and its close allies to major retaliation, not to mention the disruption of the fragile balance of the regional security architecture.

Kim Jong-un’s decision to pursue nuclear development along with economic expansion has characterized his personal agenda (byungjin policy) leaves no doubts that the international sanctions and diplomatic pressure from China would not alter the direction taken by the North Korean leadership. North Korean leadership considers itself constantly exposed to foreign attack or internal coup that could destitute Kim’s family sharing the fate of other authoritarian regimes such as Ghaddafi’s Libya in the wake of his decision to abandon the nuclear program in return of expected economic aids under  Washington’s pressure.

North Korea’s regime is now one of the most immediate threats to US national security and also an additional challenge for the Trump Administration, constantly engaged in redefining the contours of American strategic architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. Albeit, Washington remains adamant in instilling faith in its closer allies towards its strategic commitment in the region while confronting the growing threat represented by the North Korean regime, the risk of igniting a conflict in the region, whose catastrophic effects could far outweigh the removal of Kim’s dynastic rule, must be avoided.

  • Scotty Carpenter

    What Sun Tsu and Others might say about North Korea

    By Scotty Carpenter

    Since the armistice in 1953, a Cold War has existed between the two Koreas and prominently features the United States. In these almost 65 years, this struggle has ranged from both the forefront of the American psyche to simply being an after-thought. It’s clear that the former is the current mode.

    Much seems to be new and newsworthy in this moment. A new American President & White House team, new weapons capabilities being flaunted by the North Koreans and plenty of new rhetoric to go around.

    And as the rhetoric is heating up quite rapidly, let’s pause to ask some questions before the time for asking questions is over. Why? Because once either side of a fight has thrown a punch, there is a certain predictability to the counterpunch and the destruction usually goes on for quite awhile. Regardless of whether North Korea could even sustain combat operations for 3 hours, 3 days, or 3 months—-the consequences are likely devastating and could even feature nuclear weapons in use in Asia and beyond.

    And it may be that this cold war must turn hot again. But it may also be that a war can be averted.

    Sun Tzu challenged the warrior to “know your enemy” and to “know yourself”.

    So let’s take a page from the strategists book and ask a simple question: “What do the North Koreans want and what drives their decisions?”

    Some possible answers:
    – Posturing: Kim is enhancing weaponry as a show for internal audiences because all politics really is local (his equivalent of tweeting . . . )
    – Defense: Nuclear missiles are the ultimate “don’t mess with me” card.
    – Offense: They actually seek to project power and strike targets around the world.

    And many other plausible answers could be forwarded. Consider that we have a template for managing the first of the two rationales above.

    But consider the third scenario and ask: Why would the North Koreans want to start a war now after 65 years? What calculation can they have done where this makes sense? There is no neighboring country that they can sustainably invade and occupy by land and they certainly cannot launch an amphibious nor air-powered invasion of anywhere else. There is simply no upside to ANY version of military conflict with ANY other country.

    But—-there is every upside to their possessing strong nuclear capabilities—-deterrence.

    If the North Korean decision-making apparatus (whatever that is) is rational, then we have a pattern to follow:
    – Several countries have proven that gaining nuclear weapons is the ultimate in ‘don’t mess with me’ technology. That’s a lonely path to walk but it’s rational if you want the deterrence.
    – None of them have ever deployed them because of the core tenets of Mutually Assured Destruction

    If the North Korean decision-making apparatus is not rational then we face an entirely different problem: Knowing your enemy (much less predicting them) is nearly impossible when they are irrational.

    North Korea has spent the last 6 decades building and testing weapons and issuing hot rhetoric. They’ve issued virtually every threat possible but have always stopped short of kicking off this war again. It fits a pattern of defense-motivated action and it has been, however blustery, rational.

    What was both the US and Soviets main rationale for building thousands of warheads—because the other one was doing it. Could it be that North Korea is simply continuing to expand offensive capability in order to upgrade their essentially defensive posture? Could it be that the presence of the American forces at their doorstep provides every proof they need of the need for deterrence? Could it be that the advancement of offensive capabilities—ICBM’s—is simply a replay of the Soviets rapid missile technology decades ago?

    Consider that the US and Soviet Union have pointed thousands of nuclear weapons at each other since roughly the same time as the Korean War. And that simultaneous to this reality—we connected Apollo and Soyuz in space in the 70’s, that we peacefully supported their transition from autocracy and that they are hauling our astronauts into space now.

    We need to buy into a very real idea: For North Korea, the Cold War hasn’t stopped. The rest of the world moved on. A whole generation in the US hasn’t even thought in these terms and the North Koreans never stopped. Who would have thought that the headlines a quarter century after the USSR’s demise would feature ICBMs?

    Also consider: When it was last hot, this war featured Soviet and Chinese aided North Korea fighting an American and UN aided South Korea. Do the North Koreans really believe that the Russians and/or Chinese would help them invade South Korea today? And forget the fact that if we drop the few bridges connecting the two Koreas—they literally can’t invade in any direction.

    Further consider: Their capabilities are essentially striking power. Not sustaining, not invading and not remotely durable in the face of an Air/Land/Sea onslaught by the US. They aren’t the only ones who’ve practiced for this war for 60 years—and they know it.

    The point: For the rational actor—there is no possible upside to a conflict. To the contrary, there is the absolute certainty of the demise of the North Korean nation and it won’t take long. Their behavior since 1953 respects this fact and that is a data point in the argument for rationality.

    The only serious unknown in this equation is how much damage can they do in a very short period of time if it ever did start.

    Now to Shinseki and Scowcroft. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, these two Generals found themselves on the opposite side of a certain refrain coming from the White House. Iraq was envisioned by its architects as relatively brief and requiring a light footprint. Shenseki as Chief of Staff of the Army told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would likely take in the ‘hundreds of thousands’ of ground troops to achieve the mission. He was treated with disdain by his bosses and his perspective found little place in that war’s planning process.

    Scowcroft’s contribution was to take the pen and write an open letter “Don’t Attack Saddam”. He argued that it would distract from the war on terrorism and that none of the hard questions about what happens after you topple the government had been answered.

    And in the end, the Iraq War required far more troops, cost far more dollars, and lasted far longer than its planners ever allowed themselves to concede.

    My point is NOT to draw tactical or operational analogies between Iraq and North Korea. Again, it is NOT about those wars as an operational analogy.

    It is meant to strike at the heart of a deeper issue. In times of crisis, it is normal for White Houses to search for a grand solution, for the “real fix”, or to solve the problem in clean bold strokes. After all, Senators and Representatives can talk, petition and investigate, but they’re rarely put in the hot seat as is the President. It is seductive to believe that you can be the one to “not lose Vietnam” or “eliminate evil”. And the American people have expectations for action.

    But from that Oval Office hot seat in the past we’ve heard arguments about how we “must act?”, “can’t wait”, “no other options”, etc.

    And so, in response to North Korean capabilities like ICBM’s that can reach the US or its allies, we’ve heard a new rhetoric begin: “The era of strategic patience is over”.

    What does that mean? Is this the era of “strategic impatience”?

    And before we throw the dirt on a supposed failed approach, let’s remember that six decades of not fighting in the Koreas is a pretty good track record. After all, were we weak because we never fought WWIII with the Soviets? Isn’t there some basic nobility in avoiding bloodshed?

    The North Koreans are hell-bent on developing long-range missile technology that can range the US. This, some argue, represents prima facie an unacceptable threat and it must be eliminated—essentially the case for a preventive war.

    But before we pull out a red crayon to draw a line not easily erased, let’s ask why North Korea has waited to use a nuclear device until they can do it with a missile? If it’s what they really want to do, why not smuggle one out and use a cargo ship or even a passenger plane? Why leave any fingerprints?

    One of two things is true: They either have a death wish or they are simply determined to have the ultimate deterrence. If it were the former, it doesn’t take having an ICBM—they could have tripped off this war years ago. Or today. Or right now—but they haven’t.

    If one country cannot accept what another country has demonstrated the unbending will to do, then war becomes pre-determined. It is the political science equivalent to the physics paradox of the immovable object and the unstoppable force.

    However else they can be described, the North Koreans have been rational to the extent of not allowing themselves to enter a war with the United Status thus far. Let’s consider cooling the rhetoric just enough to develop some better and different options towards this problem.
    Let’s remember something: Dictatorships are built on a lie. The lie is the idea that you can indefinitely control a society. It was from 1918 to 1991 that it took the Soviets to run their course in Russia. By that standard, North Korea has about nine years left.

    So what then are the options? It seems that a few hawkish folks have forgotten who won the Cold War and how they did it. News flash—they didn’t launch a preventive war and they didn’t make threats. They preserved and reserved their strength and they stood tall for freedom. They exported their students, music, movies, free market ideas and abundance of goodwill (and having a McDonald’s in Moscow was pretty convincing). And they were patient. When the gates opened at Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin—no one had to talk tough and no one had to shoot anything.

    The issue isn’t whether or not we become best friends. We’re not best friends with Russia. The point is that we don’t have to be mortal enemies and to mutually commit our young people to slaughter each other—or anyone else caught in the trajectory of a bullet, artillery round, bomb or missile.

    And let’s remember something else: We have other arsenals besides our military. So let’s consider playing some three-dimensional chess instead of old-fashioned bar fight that goes too far.

    Here’s how we would deploy that arsenal:
    – Make a clear statement that the US will not start this war but can finish it within days if the North Koreans ever do.
    – Accept the notion that the presence of the American threat at the door is a near permanent distraction within the country that their ruling elite is corrupt. It gives them a continuing rationale to exist and to be legitimate—even partially legitimate.
    – Design a strategy around the complete opening of the North Koreans to goods and ideas from across Asia, Europe and the Americas. Examples:
    o Exchanges of people: Business groups, Chambers of Commerce, Students—-everybody
    o Technology and communication: Push every form of modern convenience and communications platforms imaginable into the country. And then start beaming messaging from every platform that exists. The difference in today and the 1950’s is that we can literally show them what life is like around the world.
    o Food: Send boatloads of it and let the containers be full of treats and ‘goody baskets’ that show the North Koreans that they are not hated. Let their military and dictator explain why they are preventing good food from being unloaded or are scurrying around to try and capture benevolent parachuted care packages before anyone finds out what’s in it.
    o Exchanges of commerce: Hang on to your hat—–lift the sanctions. Bury them in cash. Make their ruling elite richer than ever and let the common man see that regime for what it is.
    o Send in Billy Joel—his concert in Moscow in ’87 made a difference in that fight. They need to hear some Honesty.

    Some closing thoughts . . .

    The fact that neither the US nor the USSR ever started WWIII doesn’t mean that neither of them would have. If pushed hard enough and convincingly enough—it would have started. In the Cuban Missile crisis, it almost did. Let’s be real careful that we don’t create the conditions for the rattlesnake to strike.

    Bottom line:
    – Fighting this war for North Korea is purely acting on a death wish—it goes nowhere and they know it.
    – They’ve never started it.
    – Let’s not mistake offensive capabilities with offensive motives—they want nukes and missiles as deterrence.
    – Let’s remove their primary justification for militant behavior—our threat to them.
    – Let’s engage our greatest and most enduring arsenals—our generosity and goodness.
    – Let’s shift the game from “US vs. North Korea” to “North Korea ruling elite vs. North Korean people”.
    – Let’s support a revolution from within North Korea.
    – Let’s hold onto the idea that dictators live on a lie and that North Korean and South Korean soldiers can one day shake hands just as East and West Germans did just a few years ago.