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Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles: A New Weapon for America and its Allies in Asia?

The Buzz

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has developed an impressive array of land-based anti-ship missile systems, which are part of a robust sea-denial capability. That growing capability is forcing the United States (US) and Australia to rethink Pacific strategy. Some are now asking why the US, and Australia for that matter, have no land-based anti-ship missile systems in their inventory. After all, we want to be able to do sea denial in Asia as well. So, should we be developing our own?

Both the US and Australia have other anti-ship systems in their arsenal of air and sea-launched weapons. But there’s a real prospect that land-based systems would pay operational and strategic dividends. That’s a view that has also been recently expressed by members of the US Congress, think tanks, and scholars.

Some definitions are helpful here: sea denial is the ability to deny or prevent an adversary from operating in an area of the sea. On the other hand, sea control is the ability to operate freely in a maritime area while preventing adversaries from doing the same. Sea control requires that you have sea denial, but also that you can prevent an adversary from exercising effective sea denial over the same area. For years, sea control has required the integration of air and sea power. Though land-based systems alone can provide only sea denial and not sea control, the joint integration of land-, sea-, and air-based systems would be a powerful tool in gaining and maintaining sea control, especially in littoral regions.

The development of China’s maritime-denial missile capabilities puts enormous pressure on the US and its allies in the Western Pacific. Gone are the days of having the capability to impose sea control just about anywhere. Furthermore, China’s carrier, aircraft, and submarine programs suggest a desire in Beijing for some measure of sea control and power projection in the future—in the current context of strategic rivalry, which indicates a serious challenge to the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether this challenge manifests itself peacefully or violently will depend in part on how the US and its allies employ military power across all domains.

The three strongest arguments for land-based systems can be categorized as lower escalation risk, strategic flexibility, and mitigation of platform vulnerability.

Land-based systems, especially if they are mobile, deployable and of limited range, (like Japan’s type 88s) will provide leaders with a denial option that is less threatening and so less prone to escalation. That point is made effectively by naval strategists Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes. Simply put, deploying a carrier group or air assets in response to actions involving territorial disputes may threaten the sovereign territory and vital interests of an adversary. Using anti-ship missiles to impose only sea-denial in a disputed area of operations is inherently defensive and less threatening, which gives leaders the option to demonstrate resolve in protecting economic exclusion zones and littoral regions without directly threatening undisputed sovereign territory. Choosing land-based anti-ship systems as a flexible deterrent option increases opportunities for peaceful resolution.

Deployable and non-deployable (fixed) land-based systems also would allow the US and Australia to maximize the power of their existing sea-control assets in a conflict by providing strategic and operational flexibility. By using deployable land-based systems in littoral regions and fixed systems at key choke points along sea lines of communication, allied leaders could then surge air and sea power to more critical and decisive regions.

Perhaps the most compelling argument is that it’s becoming harder to ensure the survivability of platforms (with the relative exception of submarines) against a capable adversary. Air-Sea Battle, with all the risks that it entails, appears in part intended to provide an environment where US carriers can survive in a conflict in the Western Pacific. The high cost per unit of fifth-generation aircraft (the F-22 and to a lesser extent the F-35) is also a result of the great challenge of keeping them flying till they can successfully launch their weapons, and hopefully return home. By contrast, hardening fixed missile sites is likely to provide inexpensive survivability for land-based systems.

There are still many questions ahead in the research concerning ground-based systems. For example, developing those weapons may require withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That treaty limits ground-based missile systems to a range of less than 499km, or more than 5,500. But the US alleges Russia has already violated the treaty. And, of course China was never a signatory, so its current systems are unhindered by the treaty’s provisions. Additionally, the defense community must weigh the advantages of hardened and fixed systems versus mobile and deployable ones. Finally, other characteristics, including speed, range, and targeting systems, require consideration and analysis.

While there are challenges, any capability which preserves or enhances allied capacity to deny the Western Pacific and reduces the risks to (and our dependence on) carrier-based air-power would have to be extremely expensive not to merit further investigation. (ASPI has initiated research on the subject so watch this space for further publications and analysis.) Land-based anti-ship missiles could easily have a larger role in underpinning America’s position in Asia, and that means they’re important to Australia’s strategists and policymakers.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. The views expressed in this post are his own. Harry White is an analyst at ASPI where this piece first appeared

Image: Creative Commons License. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Moral Hazard in the Gaza Strip

Paul Pillar

The passage in the British House of Commons of a resolution favoring recognition of a Palestinian state, coming on the heels of the Swedish government's announcement of its intention to extend such recognition, is the latest indicator of European disgust with Israeli policies. Recognizing a Palestinian state is, of course, an empty gesture as long as no such state exists on the ground, and the ground that would constitute such a state is under another state's occupation. But recognition is a peaceful and respectable way to express dismay. The Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee probably was speaking for many both inside and outside Parliament when he said that he had “stood by Israel through thick and thin” but that “over the past 20 years...Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion,” and that “such is my anger over Israel's behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”

As the comments of the MP suggest, the behavior that is the object of the dismay and anger has both long-term and short-term components. The long-term part is the continued Israel occupation of conquered territory, with the accompanying subjugation of Palestinians and denial to them of political rights. In the shorter term is the destruction that the Israeli military wreaked on the Gaza Strip earlier this year, in an operation that began when the Netanyahu government attempted to use force to disrupt a unity pact between the main Palestinian political factions. This week United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toured the devastation in Gaza, remarking that “no amount of Security Council sessions, reports, or briefings could have prepared me for what I witnessed today.”

Another, even more recent, component of the Israeli-inflicted destruction in Gaza may also have influenced the mood of the Swedes, the MPs at Westminster, and indeed taxpayers in any Western country. At an international conference in Cairo participating countries pledged a total of $5.4 billion in aid, half for reconstruction in the Gaza Strip and the other half as budget support for the Palestinian Authority. Besides the sheer irksomeness of any of the rest of us in the world community having to pay to repair that damage, think about what this situation implies for Israeli incentives. The Israelis mow the lawn in Gaza as often as they like, and they don't even have to pay for the clean-up. They may even profit from it because any building supplies that Israel allows to enter the Strip generally come from Israeli sources. (Investment tip: it's time to be bullish on cement manufacturers in Israel.)

This is an example of what economists call moral hazard: of someone having no incentive to curtail risky (or in this case, outright destructive) behavior because someone else is covering the losses. This in turn is one reason to be pessimistic that the whole tragic cycle of periodic Israeli lawn-mowing will end any time soon. The Israelis' economic flank is covered by donor conferences, just as their political flank is covered by U.S. vetoes at the Security Council.

Those on the American political Right, who tend to be most sympathetic to those on the Israeli Right who are running that country, ought to think carefully about this situation and how it relates to the principles of economic policy in which they profess to believe. Governments, including the U.S. government, are stepping in with subsidies that are keeping people from being held accountable for their behavior and its consequences. This isn't just about makers and takers; it's makers and takers with the takers also being destroyers. The situation also ought to be thought of in terms of U.S. fiscal priorities. Any program for the benefit of the United States and U.S. citizens that gets brutalized in the Paul Ryan budget should be stacked up against U.S. subsidization of behavior by countries in the Middle East, and hard questions asked about what U.S. priorities ought to be.

Here's an approach to reconstruction from the most recent Gaza war that admittedly has no political chance of enactment but would be fair and principled: hold each side responsible for the destruction that it inflicted. Hamas would be responsible for paying for the damage it caused, including from rockets fired into Israel, and Israel would be responsible for the damage its forces inflicted.

Hamas by all reports is in tough financial shape; that's one of the incentives it had for making the unity agreement with Fatah. But the damage it caused in this summer's war was so small that Hamas's friends in Qatar and Turkey could cover the bill with loose change that has fallen between the cushions of their divans. Heck, one could probably even add to the bill the cost of the Iron Dome missiles that Israel fired at rockets that never caused any damage, and it would be a pretty painless check for the Qataris to write.

The damage that Israeli forces inflicted is many orders of magnitude greater. But Israel is also far wealthier. In terms of GDP per capita it ranks right between New Zealand and Spain, according to the International Monetary Fund. It certainly can pay the bill. And if it balks at doing so, there are established methods that can peacefully and legitimately be used to collect from deadbeats. The half of the pledges from the Cairo conference devoted to reconstruction in Gaza totals less than the more than $3 billion in annual aid the United States bestows on Israel. Apply a garnishment to less than a year's worth of the subsidy, and that bill is paid. Hold the taker/destroyer accountable.                                              

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Ten Fascinating Facts About China's President Xi Jinping

The Buzz

A friend recently dropped off a hot-off-the-press copy of Xi Jinping: The Goverance of China. It is a compilation of speeches, main points of speeches, pictures, interviews, and a biographical sketch of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Several different parts of the Chinese government bureaucracy participated in producing the book, which runs more than 500 pages. While I can’t do justice to all the material presented, here are some things I learned from reading through Xi’s musings and the musings of others about him.

Xi loves the classics:

Although many of Xi’s speeches suffer from the same tedious socialist rhetoric that characterized those of his predecessors, Xi often enlivens his remarks with sayings from Chinese philosophers. When discussing the development of Chinese youth, for example, he reflects, “Learning is the bow, while competence is the arrow” and “Virtue uplifts, while vice debases” (55-57). Indeed, in a speech before professors and students at Peking University, Xi relates at least forty different quotations from ancient Chinese thinkers (185-199). No one says it better than an ancient Chinese philosopher.

 

Xi is a true believer—but only in the Communist Party:

Indeed, the Chinese president has no kind words for officials who “worship Buddha”; seek “god’s advice for solving their problems”; “perform their duties in a muddle-headed manner”; “yearn for Western social systems and values”; “lose their confidence in the future of socialism”; or “adopt an equivocal attitude towards political provocations against the leadership of the CPC” (463-464). He may have a revelation later in life, but for now there is no room at the Inn.

Xi never lets you see him sweat:

Xi does not whine. Although he states that he spends all his private time on his work, he doesn’t complain. Instead he simply says: “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state, I must put them above everything else, bear in mind my responsibilities that are as weighty as Mount Tai, always worry about the people’s security and well-being, and work conscientiously day and night; share the same feelings with the people, share both good and bad times with them, and work in concerted efforts with them” (114). Xi’s life in pictures similarly suggests someone who is calm, in control, and generally enjoying serving as president. Either he is constitutionally better suited to being president of a large power than most recent U.S. presidents or he just has a better public relations team.

Xi plays to win:

Xi has the soul of a competitor. In discussing his desire for China to become an innovation nation, Xi clearly is unhappy with China’s second-tier status, stating: “We cannot always decorate our tomorrow with others’ yesterdays. We cannot always rely on others’ scientific and technological achievements for our own progress.” The answer for him rests overwhelmingly in indigenous innovation: “Most importantly, we should unswervingly follow an independent innovation path featuring Chinese characteristics…. Only by holding key technology in our own hands can we really take the initiative in competition and development, and ensure our economic security, national security, and security in other areas.” He concludes: “Scientific and technological competition is like short-track speed skating. When we speed up, so will others. Those who can skate faster and maintain a high speed longer will win the title” (135-136).

How did I get here anyway?:

While Xi may enjoy being president of China, he may not quite understand how he got there, claiming “Since the people have put me in the position of head of state…” (114).

What you see is what you get:

While it is possible that there is an alternative Xi Jinping lurking beyond these 500 pages, there is remarkable consistency in the ideas and values that he espouses through his speeches and his actions. Morality, virtue, and responsibility to the people, for example, emerge as consistent themes in his discussions of the necessary qualities for Chinese officials. His efforts to streamline the bureaucracy, understand the needs of the people, and ensure proper oversight of Party officials are also hallmarks of Xi’s long tenure as a Communist Party official.

Almost there but not quite…:

Xi’s musings on soft power suggest some remaining confusion about how it all works. While he calls for bringing back to life “relics sleeping in closed palaces, legacies of the vast land of China and records in ancient books”—all of which would serve Chinese soft power desires—he nonetheless holds fast to the CCP’s traditional—if misguided—approach to soft power: “To strengthen our cultural soft power, we should intensify our international right of speech, enhance our capability of international communication, and spare no efforts in establishing a system for international speech to tell, in the right way, the true story of our country…. we should also enhance education in patriotism, collectivism and socialism through school, film, and television to help our people build up and persist in a correct concept of history, national viewpoint, state outlook and cultural perspective, so as to fortify the will of the Chinese people, who should be prouder of being Chinese” (180).

Lei Feng lives:

No biographical sketch of a senior Chinese official can ignore the opportunity to honor the (possibly apocryphal) model communist citizen Lei Feng by embracing his superhuman work ethic and devotion to the ideals of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping is no exception. When as a teenager Xi was sent down to a small village in Shaanxi Province during the Cultural Revolution, for example, he was “able to walk for 5 km on a mountainous path with two dangling baskets filled with almost one hundred kg of wheat on a shoulder-pole.” He also exchanged a motorized tricycle he won after being named a model educated youth for a “walking tractor, a flour milling machine, a wheat winnowing machine, and a water pump to benefit the villagers” (480).

A man of letters:

Xi talks about reading as one of his favorite pastimes—in fact the only one for which he still has time—and he is apparently a fan of Russian literature. Impressively, he can reel off more than ten different favorite Russian authors, including Gogol—whose writings must resonate with him as he tries to clean up corruption in the Chinese bureaucracy. Of course, he expressed his affection for Russian literature in an interview with a Russian television, so he may have been simply playing to the home crowd (114). Still in the village to which he was sent during the Cultural Revolution (note: the Cultural Revolution is not actually identified as such in the book), the local people remember him as “reading books as thick as bricks while herding sheep on mountain slopes or under a kerosene lamp at night” (480).

I have a dream:

Xi Jinping’s China dream looks set to become one of the defining elements of his tenure as Chinese president. It represents patriotism, innovation, and unity. “One can do well only when one’s country and nation do well.” For Xi, Chinese everywhere should contribute to realizing the China dream: “For Chinese people both at home and abroad, a united Chinese nation is our shared root, the profound Chinese culture is our shared soul, and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is our shared dream” (p. 69). And Taiwan should get ready as well. As Xi says, “Sooner or later we will have to resolve the political disputes that have long existed in cross-Straits relations rather than leave them to later generations” (254).

This piece first appeared in CFR’s Asia Unbound blog here.

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsChina

Double Trouble: American Strategic Options Regarding ISIS

The Buzz

On September 10, President Barak Obama announced that he had ordered the United States military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State (known as ISIS and ISIL).  He said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy…  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”  Many well-known former US officials, both Democrat and Republican, were quick to share their opinions regarding how the President’s plan might be adjusted to ensure success.  The recommendations offered by a number of these senior officials, however, exposes a troubling lack of understanding of critical on-the-ground fundamentals and an almost disregard for a decade’s worth of physical evidence.  If this advice were to be acted upon in the future, the current bad situation could deteriorate into disaster.

One week after the speech, former Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced his disapproval of the President’s vow that the mission would not result in American “boots on the ground.”  The reality, he said on CBS This Morning, is that “they're not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own…  So there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”  Former Democratic President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, shared a very different opinion about the use of ground troops.

On September 23 he told a CNN audience he believed the mission would require “an extended involvement with air power and with providing intelligence and other institutional support to the people who are fighting ISIS… I actually think in this case the…strategy has a chance to succeed…  We don't need to be there on the ground and I don't think it means a land war in Iraq."  There was one important point on which both men agreed: both maintained the mission could succeed if President Obama would only follow their advice.  Current conditions in the region and an analysis of numerous wars and battles over the past two decades, however, suggest that both are wrong.

Consider a few critical facts regarding the situation with ISIS before US airstrikes began.  Many of the members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have a decade or more experience in fighting insurgent and guerilla warfare.  As most know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has fought against the US in Iraq since 2003.  al-Baghdadi and his men are well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of American air power, and critically, how to survive it by burrowing deeper into civilian areas.

Further, and of greater significance to the current situation, since 9/11 there has been no location in the world where modern air power – even when complemented with hundreds of thousands of ground troops – has militarily defeated a committed insurgent enemy.  The list is long and painful: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and others.

Many in recent months have argued that the 2007 surge in Iraq “set the conditions” for success in Iraq, but the Obama Administration’s inability to keep 10,000 US troops there after 2011 was, as former Army General Jack Keane recently said, “an absolute strategic failure.” Such claims, however, do not stand up to examination.  An analysis of the 2007 Iraq surge and scrutiny of the current situation in Afghanistan explains why this claim is dubious at best.

In combination with the tactical cooperation of Sunni tribes, the 2007 Iraq surge succeeded in reducing the violence by the near-destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  But as has been well chronicled in recent weeks, AQI wasn’t destroyed.  It merely limped off to reform itself, learned from its mistakes, and renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  In 2013 ISI moved across the border into Syria to fight in the civil war, changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by February of this year launched an offensive, eventually capturing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

As I explained in a 2010 analysis, however, it wasn’t primarily the 20,000 additional ground troops the US sent to Baghdad that dramatically reduced the violence.  Then-Colonel Sean MacFarland was the commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division said, “I give huge credit to the Iraqis who stood up to al-Qaida. Maybe 75 to 80 percent of the credit for the success of the counterinsurgency fight in Ramadi goes to the Iraqi people who stood up to al-Qaida and joined us in common cause… But if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

Even as most Western eyes were riveted on events in Iraq this summer, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly.  In a 1 October 2014 report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman assessed the current situation in Afghanistan:  “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” he wrote.  “The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present US approach to Transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic, and governance levels.”

The Taliban has made these troubling gains despite the fact that, according to official NATO figures, as of September 3 there were still 28,970 American troops in Afghanistan (and a total of 41,124 NATO troops).  It is unclear upon what logic some claim that 10,000 Americans in Baghdad would have prevented ISIS from rising, when over 40,000 NATO troops and approximately 350,000 Afghan National Army troops have proven unable to prevent the Taliban from rising.

So long as an insurgent force is willing to die for their cause and the population is unwilling to turn against them, it could take more than a decade before one side or the other – or both – are exhausted to the point a negotiated settlement ends the fighting.  The ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria still has yet to reach even stasis, as illustrated by recent gains in northern Syria at Kobani and in eastern Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad.  This extension of territory has come despite now weeks of US and allied airpower.  These gains provide stark evidence of why former President Clinton’s strategic advice of using indigenous ground troops with allied air power cannot succeed: whether it’s been the rebels in Syria, the Peshmerga in Kurdish areas, or Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, all have proven incapable of standing firm.

I have served a total of four combat deployments in my career.  In 2009 I served as a military trainer for an Iraqi border battalion, and in 2011 on the ground throughout Afghanistan.  It is my opinion, based on all the available evidence and my own experience that if the United States follows the recommendations of either President Clinton or Secretary Gates, mission failure is the most likely outcome.

If using American air power in conjunction with unsuccessful and untrained ground fighters is likely to fail, and sending in highly trained US ground troops would likely result in a long term, bloody, and ultimately inclusive outcome, what options exist?

It is paramount that the United States set strategic objectives that can be reasonably attained.  In this current messy environment, I would recommend that the US repurpose its allied airpower to the establishment of a no-go zone some number of kilometers around all ISIS-controlled areas for the purpose of isolating ISIS and pinning it to its current territory; any ISIS forces or military vehicles that enter the zone without permission would be destroyed.  This no-go zone would be established via coordination with the US, Baghdad, and Ankara.  The Syrian regime would be informed of the location of the no-go zone in the northeastern part of their country and warned to keep their air force and ground troops from interfering or suffer a blistering coalition attack.

We would put diplomatic pressure on all the nations that border ISIS areas to effectively, aggressively control all effective logistic routes into and out of ISIS territory.  If there is a theoretical danger to the United States of ISIS-sponsored terror strikes, it is important to note the nations in and around ISIS territory face a far greater, direct threat.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular should deploy considerable numbers of ground troops at their borders to seal it so ISIS is unable to get sufficient amounts of the war-making material they need.  We might also encourage Baghdad and Riyadh to consider bolstering Iraqi troops with limited Saudi ground forces if it appears Iraq cannot adequately defend its capital city with its own troops.

Part of our diplomatic efforts should center on requiring the regional nations with the most to lose by a successful ISIS to put more skin in the game.  It appears some nations are content to let the United States expend its resources, spill its blood, in the defense of their national and regional interests.  The United States can provide the leadership and spearhead the establishment of the no-go zone, but we should insist the regional powers provide the ground troops necessary to enforce the zone and stabilize the current forward lines of contact."

Furthermore, we should increase our economic pressure on ISIS by aggressively seeking out all who do business with them and place uncomfortable pressure, if necessary, on such entities to sever ties with it.

As President Obama has already pledged, we should combine an aggressive and honest counter-social media campaign with robust Arab-led humanitarian support for all civil populations under ISIS domination for the purpose of demonstrating our support for the people.

At the same time, the United States should do more than merely ask Baghdad to form a more inclusive government; we must insist upon it.  If the United States is willing to expend its treasure, resources, and potentially blood in defense of Iraqi sovereignty (again), we must condition support on specified political developments; if ever the Sunni population in occupied areas are to turn against ISIS, they will have to be convinced Baghdad would not again abuse and marginalize them.

The ISIS fighters and leadership, meanwhile, will be denied the ability to fight their opponents on their terms.  Instead, if they venture out into the no-go zones, they will be destroyed on our terms.  As has already begun to occur, in time ISIS itself will so alienate the people under their domination – as well as some among their own group – that they lose the support or acquiescence of the local populations.  If ISIS loses the security of a pliant population and the people concurrently begin to believe their legitimate government is genuinely going to look out for their interests and give them freedoms and protections promised, ISIS’ support will eventually collapse.

It is crucial that the United States and regional nations not merely “service targets” from the air but actively seek to reduce the underlying causes of instability.  If we fail to do so, then even if by some miracle we eventually succeeded in militarily destroying ISIS, it would be a pyric victory: there would be no shortage of other groups ready and willing to take their place.  We must end the cycle of violence by applying comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic and social measures; military power has a role to play, but if the intent is to resolve the instability, military must take a subordinate role.

There has been so much damage, so many deaths, so much anguish suffered by so many, over such a long time that at this point even the best solution would require years of consistent application to bring general stability to Iraq and the Middle East at large.  But we must avoid choosing courses of action that analysis and evidence clearly indicate will likely fail.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the US Army.  He has deployed into combat zones four times, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm, and in 2012 was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

The opinions contained in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

Nuclear North Korea's Next Nightmare: A Succession Crisis?

The Buzz

Kim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance recently brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong-un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing “discomfort.” Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong-un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humor that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a “nine-millimeter headache.”

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong-un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a “grand bargain” about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the “Where’s Wally?” framework doesn’t quite capture it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist where this piece first appeared

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

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