North Korea: Rethinking the threat, one week on

The situation is indeed serious, writes David Law, but don’t expect Kim Jong-un to go over the strategic edge.

By: /
16 August, 2017
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017.
By: David Law

Senior Associate, Security Governance Group

The American Defense Intelligence Agency has recently assessed that North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead. This would allow it to place a nuclear device on a ballistic missile, such as the two it tested successfully earlier this year. While North Korea probably does not yet have the capacity to attack targets in North America, it has accelerated its progress in this direction in recent months.

In the wake of the revelation about the miniaturization, the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang captured headlines throughout much of last week. And while U.S. media has understandably focused in recent days on the violence that erupted in Charlottesville over the weekend, let us not forget that U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a message only days ago that seemed to threaten an American nuclear strike on North Korea. 

When it comes to North Korea, the U.S. is looking seriously dysfunctional as it confronts a state with a fraction of its wealth, led by a president who seems incapable of reasoning strategically at the same time as he appears poised to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives in an effort to prove his macho credentials and distract attention from his inadequacies as a leader and a politician.

The situation is, indeed, serious. That said, the blurbs coming out of America and other countries have tended to be overly alarmist.

Breaking down misconceptions

First and foremost, a common misconception is that China, Russia and North Korea entertain fundamentally divergent interests vis-à-vis the United States. Their interests are not exactly aligned, but in one crucial respect they are at one. They all seek to counteract the American presence in the region and to discredit it more generally.

So, North Korea wants the American military presence in South Korea to disappear, so that its regime can take power over the entire peninsula. China is using the Korean crisis to portray American leadership in its region as ineffectual and/or dangerous in an effort to support its ambition to turn the East and South China Seas into a grand China lake. Russia seeks to weaken and compromise American power with a view to creating greater opportunities for its efforts to restore its power across former Soviet space: crisis in Asia provides it with greater room to manoeuvre in its post-Soviet neighbourhood.

Second, North Korea has no intention of launching a first strike nuclear attack against South Korea, Japan or the United States. Nor do China or Russia want this, certainly not at this juncture. The reason is clear: all the parties understand that a North Korean first strike would result in a devastating riposte that would mean the end of Kim the Third’s regime and result in the Westernization of the entire Korean peninsula, right up to China’s and Russia’s borders. The latter two countries would also have to deal with the issue of nuclear fallout from an American nuclear attack.

The much commented refugee threat to China is a red herring. The Koreas of 2017 are very different from the Germanies of 1989, but the German experience can nonetheless be instructive. During the five years following the collapse of the Wall, only some three percent of the East German population emigrated. And those that left went to democratic and capitalist Germany, not eastwards to the then decommunizing states of the former Warsaw Treaty Organization. Why would anyone think North Koreans would respond to the fall of their decrepit communist regime by fleeing to an almost as decrepit Chinese communist regime?

And China, with a population of more than 50 times that of North Korea, and a GDP per capita of almost US$7000, many times greater than that of North Korea, certainly has the resources to deal with those who might misguidedly do so.

At the same time, North Korea is deliberately fuelling the notion that an attack on the U.S. is in the realm of the possible. China and Russia, for their part, have warned of the threat of violence on the peninsula and suggest a peace-saving compromise that would have the Americans terminate their yearly military exercises with the South Koreans in exchange for a freeze in the North Korean nuclear programme. This is tooth-fairy stuff.

Third, what is essentially at work here are leaderships with their backs up against the wall. Kim Jong-un presides over a country that is a prime example of a failed state. In 1953, at the end of the Korean War, the economies of the two Koreas were roughly at par. Two-thirds of a century later, the South Korean economy is 11th in the world, just behind that of Canada. North Korea’s economy is so dysfunctional that reliable numbers on its economic standing are hard to come by.

While information on the Hermit Kingdom is scanty, there are stories coming out of the North that point to serious internal resistance. Since Kim took power in 2011, there have been reports about another famine in 2016 after the devastating one of 1994-98 that is reported to have killed hundreds of thousands. Under the current Kim’s reign, some 70 members of the ruling elite have been assassinated; many of them members of the military hierarchy. Kim is suspected of having ordered the killing of his half-brother, a potential rival.

Kim’s nuclear braggadocio is an effort to keep the 300 or so families that feed from his trough in his camp and cow the rest of the population into continuing submission. Do not take as face value these scenes of North Koreans parading stridently before their Great Leader.

At the same time, for all these reasons, the stakes in and around the region are high and the temptation to go for broke is enormous. This is true not only of North Korea, China and Russia but also, of course, the United States. If and as the leaders of these countries take risks, upping the ante in the region, any of them could find himself on a slippery slope. Once one starts sliding, anything becomes possible. This is how the world has often become involved in regional and international wars, of which it has a tragically long legacy.

What next

What to do about all this? There is no magic wand, but here are a few ideas borrowed from the experience of the Cold War, when the West brought to a successful conclusion the historical confrontation with the Soviet Union without firing a (direct) shot.

The fundamental notion that guided NATO successfully through the East-West standoff was that the Allies needed to pursue a dual-track policy. One track was engaging in dialogue with the adversary. The other was ensuring a robust defence posture that would deter any potential aggressor.

So, by all means, engage in talks with Kim. This will send positive messages throughout a troubled region. At the same time, use the breathing space thus offered to make more robust the deterrent capacity of the U.S. and its Asian allies, one that makes it sufficiently clear to the North Korean leadership that any attack on Western targets will be effectively repelled and needs therefore to be reconsidered.

Despite his funny haircut and reputation as a strategically unhinged actor, I expect that Kim understands the issues all too well. Count on him not to go over the strategic edge. 

If, however, the world descends into generalized chaos, this assessment would have to be revisited. 

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