Watch Out! North Korea Just Threatened Another Nuke Test

The Buzz

All signs suggest that North Korea is getting ready to conduct a major provocation, which is likely to include testing nuclear weapons for a fourth time.

Although U.S. officials like to claim North Korea is “dangerously unpredictable,” its provocations tend to follow a well-established pattern. As I’ve explained in the past, the provocation cycle begins with North Korea mounting a highly visible charm offensive towards South Korea, which creates the impression that Pyongyang is seeking to dial down tensions. Amid this persistent charm offensive, North Korea makes a seemingly innocent demand of South Korea and/or the United States, usually that they halt military drills. In the thick of North Korea’s charm offensive, this demand seems to outsiders like an inconsequential afterthought. However, the demand always has two characteristics: it is very specific and it is something that Pyongyang knows full well won’t be obliged. Pyongyang then seizes upon South Korea and America’s failure to comply to justify the provocation it undertakes. Often, this takes the form of a medium or long-range ballistic missile test, which is sometimes followed by a nuclear test (which is justified as a response to the the international community’s “hostility” over the initial ballistic missile test).

North Korea’s behavior over the past few weeks follows this pattern to a t. On the surface, all signs suggest that North Korea is ramping up its efforts to engage South Korea and the United States. For instance, in his New Year’s speech this year— which is always the most important annual speech in the DPRK— Kim Jong-un largely focused on domestic issues. Near the end, however, he made an overture to Seoul, stating: “We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”

Having already referenced past major Inter-Korean agreements, Kim held out the tantalizing possibility that he wants to hold a leadership summit with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. “And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created,” Kim said.

The charm offensive continued in official DPRK media in the days that followed. For example, a Rodong Sinmun editorial last Friday stated: “If the north and the south open their hearts with each other and approach with an open mind the issue of the nation and reunification... it is possible for them to remove differences and record a new history of the inter-Korean relations [sic].”

The same editorial added: “It is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold inter-sector talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”

Naturally enough, these calls for dialogue contained “suggestions” that South Korean authorities drop their “confrontational” stance against North Korea. Some were more specific in demanding that South Korea abandon its anti-DPRK human rights activities and halt all provocative war drills.

North Korea then turned its charm towards the United States— and upped the ante. Specifically, on Saturday the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korea had sent a message proposing that the U.S. “contribute to easing tension on the Korean peninsula by temporarily suspending joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.” In return, North Korea promised that it “is ready to take such responsive step as temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned.”

President Park had already rejected North Korea’s calls to halt its joint military drills with the U.S., which are scheduled to begin in late February. Instead, she urged North Korea to resume talks without preconditions, something that Pyongyang itself has proposed repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. backed its ally in Seoul. As Reuters reported, the State Department rejected Pyongyang’s proposal and “called the offer by North Korea a veiled threat that inappropriately linked nuclear tests and the joint military exercises that have been carried out for decades.”

On Tuesday, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador responded to the rejection by proposing a joint dialogue with the United States. “The government of the DPRK (North Korea) is ready to explain its intention behind this proposal directly to the United States. We're ready for that if the United States wants additional explanation about our proposal," North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador An Myong Hun said at a New York press conference. He added that "many things will be possible this year on the Korean Peninsula” if the proposal is accepted.

In other words, North Korea has perfectly laid the groundwork for another nuclear test. On the surface, it has presented itself as a reasonable party genuinely interested in dialogue and compromise. But, as the State Department recognized, the seemingly overture by the North was in reality a “veiled threat” that linked the U.S. and South Korea’s joint military exercise to North Korea’s nuclear tests. This creates the pretense that a North Korean nuclear test is justifiable if the joint military exercises proceed as they do each and every year. Thus, once the military drills begin, watch for North Korea to respond with a major provocation, which could very well take the form of a fourth nuclear test.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck

Image: Wikipedia

TopicsDiplomacySecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

5 Things Wrong with the Reaction to the Paris Attacks

Paul Pillar

The responses, outside as well as inside France, to the recent attacks in Paris have become a bigger phenomenon, at least as worthy of analysis and explanation, as the attacks themselves. This pattern is hardly unprecedented regarding reactions, or overreactions, to terrorist incidents, but what has been going on over the past week exhibits several twists and dimensions that are especially misleading or misdirected.

1. Scale of the attacks vs. scale of the reaction. Seventeen people, not counting the perpetrators, died in the Paris incidents. With the usual caveat that the death of even a single innocent as a result of malevolently applied violence is a tragedy and an outrage, the response has been far out of proportion to the stimulus. The magnitude of what the Paris attackers did was modest by the standards even of international terrorism, let alone by the standards of all malevolently applied violence or of political violence in general. By way of comparison, about the same time as the Paris attacks the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram conducted a massacre in a town in which probably several hundred, and possibly as many as 2,000, died. The international attention to this incident was minuscule compared to the Paris story.

Of course anything disturbing that happens in a major Western capital is bound to get more attention than an even bloodier happening in a remote part of an African country. Probably another reason why press coverage of the Paris story was enormous from the beginning was that the target of the first attack was part of the media, and that ipso facto makes the story of greater interest to the press itself.

But much of what we have been seeing over the past week is an example of how public and political attention to something, regardless of what that something is, tends to feed on itself. Once a certain level of salience is reached and enough people are talking and writing about a subject or an event, then for that very reason other people start talking and writing about it too. As the attention snowballs, political leaders feel obligated to weigh in and to appear responsive, regardless of their private assessment of whatever started the crescendo of public attention. Thus in the current instance even the White House feels obligated to answer for the president or vice president of the United States not having flown off to join a crowd in Paris.

2. Consistency vs. inconsistency in upholding free speech. With the initial attack being against the staff of a magazine, the whole story quickly became couched as one of upholding the right of free speech and freedom of the press (a particular reason for the interest of the press itself and thus the extensive coverage the press devoted to the story). Lost sight of amid the swell of street-marching champions of such civil liberties is the inconsistency in getting so worked up about this one affront to free speech but not to others. Surely we ought to be worked up as much about other, comparable limitations on free expression, especially when the power of the state is used to enforce those limitations. In France itself the state enforces a variety of such limitations—some of which might be offensive to those who were offended by what the magazine published, and some of which are apt to be offensive to other groups—often with criminal penalties attached. Of course, glaring examples become even easier to find outside Western liberal democracies. One thinks, for example, of the outrageous blasphemy laws in Pakistan. And last Friday Saudi Arabia administered the first 50 of 1,000 lashes as part of the punishment of a human rights advocate accused of “insulting Islam” because he established an online forum for discussing matters of faith. Some international protest was heard in response, but nothing remotely comparable to the outpouring in Paris.

3. Right to free speech vs. responsibility in exercising that right. The exerciser of free speech in question in Paris was a satirical magazine that seems to specialize in cartoons that are bound to offend a lot of people. It is fair to say that in the centuries of struggles for civil liberties, this is probably not one of the nobler vehicles for the cause. We are not talking Thomas Paine here. What is that “je suis Charlie” stuff supposed to mean? That we are all dedicated to putting down religious prophets? With most rights also go responsibilities, and prudence in the exercise of those rights, with an honest effort to bear in mind the consequences of what one does or says. Responsible, prudent exercise of a right does nothing to diminish or compromise that right.

We in the United States should have had occasion to think hard about such matters recently with the episode involving a comedic Hollywood movie that offended the North Koreans—and ordinary North Koreans, not only the regime, were offended. If North Korea conducts computer sabotage against an American company, we certainly should strongly object to that. But we also might imagine how we would react if a North Korean film company, or any other film company for that matter, were to produce a movie with a plot centered around assassinating the president of the United States. We would understandably object, and it is unlikely that we would be discussing the issue primarily in terms of artistic freedom or a right of free speech.

4. Unity vs. disunity among world leaders. That image of foreign leaders locking arms with President Hollande and each other suggests that they are of one mind about whatever they were marching down the avenue about. Don't believe it. It was a phony show of unity. Each one of those leaders had his or her own reasons for being there, involving politics back home as well as international politics, and not just to show solidarity and good will toward the French. This may have been most apparent with the graceless Benjamin Netanyahu, who rebuffed the French government's request for him to stay away rather than inserting his own agenda, but he was not unique in having an agenda. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas initially acceded to a similar French request for him to stay away, before Netanyahu's decision to crash the event made it politically necessary for him to come as well.) If President Obama had attended, it mainly would have been to avoid subsequent political criticism at home for not having attended. That is a bad basis for deciding how to apportion the president's time.

5. Debate about Islam. The Paris events have rekindled an old debate about whether the seeds of violent Islamist extremism can be found in the content of Islam itself. That debate had a surge a couple of decades ago when Samuel Huntington was writing about a clash of civilizations and about how Islam has “bloody borders.” The debate gets a renewed surge whenever, say, Congressman Peter King says something on the subject or events such as those in Paris transpire. The debate will never be resolved.

The debate as commonly framed is not very useful because even if those who argue that the content of Islam explains the motivations of those who commit violent acts in its name were right—and they are more wrong than right—that would not take us very far toward any implied policy recommendations. There still would be the fact that the great majority of adherents to the same religion are not violent and are not terrorists. There still would be nonviolent Islamist parties, movements, and regimes to deal with, and there still would be large Muslim populations whose emotions and preferences would have to be taken into account.

President al-Sisi of Egypt spoke the other day about the need for a reformation of Islam. Maybe he's right, but it certainly would not be up to Western governments to accomplish, push, or otherwise influence any such reformation. There probably isn't much else al-Sisi himself could do to accomplish it.

One of the essential policy-relevant points that Western governments do need to understand is that Islam provides a vocabulary for expressing a wide variety of ideologies (a fringe subset of which is used to justify violence). Another essential point is that notwithstanding the very wide array of ideologies and objectives found under the banner of Islam, there is a widespread sense of a single Muslim community or umma; what happens to one part of that community can become a grievance or inspiration for actions of another part, including a violent part.    

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsFrance terrorism RegionsWestern Europe

A Tragedy in the Making? North Korea Is Not a US Priority

The Buzz

On January 2 the US announced additional bilateral sanctions against North Korea, adding embargoes on three entities and 10 individuals. The  stated reason was the alleged North Korean cyber attacks on Sony IT infrastructure late last year.

In so doing, the US reinforced a trend in its policy toward the peninsula. As the Obama Administration is trying to isolate the regime, contain North Korea's nuclear program and halt its financial transactions, dialogue and negotiations have categorically been put on the back burner.

Washington's latest move was clearly targeted at institutions and individuals linked to arms proliferation, including North Korea's central intelligence organization (the Reconnaissance General Bureau), as well as two trading companies. The move adds to a UN General Assembly resolution in November condemning North Korea's crimes against humanity and opening the way for a referral to the International Criminal Court, thereby further marginalizing the regime.

The signal is clear: North Korea policy is not on the US priority list. The US Government refrains from any kind of dialogue with the DPRK and opposes any resumption of negotiations, no matter how Pyongyang conducts itself. At the same time it seeks to limit Pyongyang's scope of action.

The rationale of this approach is rooted in domestic considerations inside the US rather than based on an elaborate strategy. Advocates of the so-called “collapse theory” are strong position among senior advisers and continue to influence policy-making—often in contradiction to the State Department's preferences. Instead of engagement and negotiations, the idea is to topple the regime by sanctioning the increasingly demanding urban elite and functionaries, thereby stirring discontent.

Due to the supervisory powers of Congress and its ability to flex its political muscle against any engagement with North Korea, the State Department is unwilling to risk political disagreements on issues of low priority. Regardless of whether this is an excuse for inaction or a real political bottleneck, neither formal nor informal talks on the level of the Special Representative (or subnegotiators) have been possible, let alone a return to the negotiating table.

The US Government's sole focus on sanctions may narrow its own scope for action. The cases of Iran and North Korea both show that it has been easier to implement new sanctions than to lift them. The reason: embargoes are de facto laws that cannot be lifted without the backing of the US Congress. Getting Congress to do anything that favours Pyongyang is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, the gap between expected sanction outcomes and unintended (positive and negative) side effects is growing.

In Pyongyang, US sanctions have not been perceived as a disciplinary measure but as a hostile act. The North still considers the US as party to its long running conflict with the South, and thus a wartime enemy. By that logic, the sanctions are seen as targeted at the North's strategic capabilities and ultimately toward regime change. US sanctions have thus strengthened military hardliners in Pyongyang's delicate power structures and impeded fragile moves toward opening up the country's economy.

The North has increasingly diversified its foreign and trade relations. This has been particularly evident since China reset its priorities and no longer unconditionally supports North Korea's economic and energy needs. Pyongyang has since reached out to other partners. While Russia will increasingly be a partner for energy supplies, diplomats have stepped up contacts in Southeast Asia and Europe, and even reached out to the EU. An additional driver of this process is the willingness under Kim Jong-un's regency to gradually open up economically.

Due to the US reluctance to return to the negotiating table, the North is forced to concentrate its efforts on engagement with the South. This might strengthen President Park Geun-hye's engagement policy and bring cooperation and reunification higher onto the agenda. Leaving negotiations to the two Koreas might be a desirable outcome. Nevertheless, in terms of conflict settlement, and in order to guarantee long-term success, the US will eventually have to return to the negotiating table.

Bernt Berger is a Senior Research Fellow and the Head of Asia Program at ISDP. He has two decades of work and study experience in China and broader Asia, focusing on issues in foreign and security policy, political development and regional security. This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Why to Fear ISIS's Cyber Caliphate

The Buzz

Yes, most 12 year old children could probably figure out how to hack a Twitter feed.  But yesterday, the “Cyber Caliphate”— allegedly connected with the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham— managed to gain access to social media accounts of US Central Command, responsible for American security interests in the Middle East.

Ok, they've got our attention. And the message is: "we are tech savvier than you thought, and we want to do more."  The timing of the intrusion a week after the gruesome attacks in Paris is also not lost on us.

So, what is the Cyber Caliphate?  We don’t know much.  But some suggest that the ringleader is Briton Junaid Hussain who was once imprisoned for hacking into former Prime Minister Tony Blair's Gmail account.  Hussein has been connected with a group of hackers called Team Poison, which claims to have gained unauthorized access to the networks of Blackberry and NATO and teamed up with “Anonymous” to infiltrate banks.  Other reports indicate Hussain recruits digital experts to come to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.  If accurate, this is extremely concerning.

The CENTCOM hack matters because it demonstrates that the Cyber Caliphate’s skills are developing.  No, the group didn’t access classified systems or even unclassified ones.  What’s more likely is that the group picked CENTCOM for a different reason – because it would get more attention than the previous intrusions they’ve claimed.  In the past month, the group twice hacked the Albuquerque Journal: once on Christmas Eve (the website) and once last week (the Twitter account).  The group also swapped out the main headline on New Mexico’s Mountain View Telegraph website and broke into Maryland's WBOC 16 tv station website and Twitter feed.  Changing headlines on a website is more complex than just obtaining a password and sneaking into Twitter. It's serious enough that the FBI is investigating.

It's easy to miss blips on the digital radar when there are so many, but if our miscalculation about the kinetic capabilities of ISIS is any measure, we ought to pay attention to the CENTCOM hack.  There’s been lots of chatter online about "cyberjihad" and "digitaljihad."  For months, we've seen messages boasting about advanced capabilities, better encryption and that cyber attacks against critical infrastructure in America and elsewhere are coming. ISIS's social media sophistication is impressive, and this online network is ready-made for seeking out sympathetic supporters with coding expertise. 

Last year, the former head of McAfee David DeWalt told the Financial Times that "We've begun to see signs that… terrorist organizations are attempting to gain access in cyber weaponry."  Software exploits can be bought relatively easily online.  How to use them is the hard part, but if those behind the Cyber Caliphate have better skills than we give them credit for, we need to act now.  Thankfully, earlier today the president provided Congress with another draft cyber security bill; hopefully politics won’t get in the way.

It's one thing to publish slick and engaging online magazines like Dubiq and even to use hashtags effectively to attract attention.  It's quite another to actively infiltrate websites and take over Twitter accounts.  Even if the Cyber Caliphate isn't directly related to ISIS (which it seems to be), the fact that someone wants to help this terror group with its digital offense is sobering.  Those of us tracking the electronic capabilities of terrorists have been anticipating this moment — with dread— for some time.  Today, it's just a non-violent intrusion into Twitter.  Tomorrow, it could be much more complicated.  We've got to actively prevent scenarios that could be much worse.

Meg King is the Strategic and National Security Adviser to the President & CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

Image: Twitter

TopicsCyber SecurityTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Anti-Ship Missiles: Could They Make Modern Navies Obsolete?

The Buzz

It’s traditionally said that “the sea commands the land.” But the relationship between the maritime and terrestrial domains is more complex than that suggests. Episodes like the attack against HMS Glamorgan in the closing stages of the 1982 Falklands War—the ship was hit by a land-based Exocet missile—show how sometimes the land may command the sea, or at least try to prevent the sea from commanding it. Technological progress over the ensuing decades, coupled with the current maritime tensions in the Indo-Pacific, and more generally the conflict between limited defense budgets and growing national naval ambitions, have revived the issue of land-based anti-ship missiles and the roles they should play. Interest is especially intense in countries building up their navies from a limited base (like the Philippines) or grappling with the realization that the conventional maritime balance is shifting against them (like Taiwan).

There are four basic questions:

- the degree to which shore-based missiles can prevent an enemy navy from operating freely in a given body of water;

- whether it’s more efficient to invest in those systems or in more traditional surface combatants;

- the vulnerability of missile launchers to enemy airpower and other systems, and;

- whether missile launchers should be camouflaged and dispersed among population centres or deployed only in non-built-up areas.

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The first and the third are part of the perennial competition between sword and shield, with technological progress at different times favouring both defense and offense, although not always at the same rate. If we compare shore-launched missiles to their predecessors, coastal guns, we may note that one of their key advantages is their mobility. Traditionally, one of the main weaknesses in coastal defense has been the fixed nature of fortifications, and even in the case of mobile guns the limited scope for their redeployment. On the other hand, anti-ship missiles can easily be mounted on all sorts of vehicles, and take advantage of existing road networks, as well as employing the terrain, including mountains and forests, to hide. By doing so, ships lose—in part—one of their greatest advantages vis-a-vis coastal defenses, their superior mobility.

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The fourth question, whether to deploy anti-ship missiles in populated areas, opens up a debate with technical, political, and ethical ramifications. In terms of camouflage, rural areas may offer the advantage of roads and forests, which may also mean better mobility and less likelihood of open-source detection, while cities may restrict the scope for a stronger enemy to conduct a limited campaign aimed at forcing a surrender without a full-scale air offensive. At the end of the day, the key question is whether to wage limited war trying to minimize civilian casualties, or to dare the enemy to escalate a conflict to a level involving widespread civilian casualties. The latter aspect is particularly important in a country like Taiwan, hoping to be assisted by partners and allies in the event of hostilities. A harsh moral dilemma is that such assistance may be facilitated by precisely the kind of damage from which any government is supposed to protect its population.

(Recommended: 5 American Weapons of War China Should Fear

Another important choice concerns the second issue mentioned above, the balance between surface combatants and shore missiles when it comes to investing in coastal defense. That’s a debate currently being conducted in the Philippines, a country striving to build a stronger navy and coastguard with US and Japanese assistance, and where some are arguing that missile launchers deployed in forested areas may provide a better deterrent than warships. That discussion echoes the wider debate, intense in Taiwan and in naval circles about the region, on how to react to China’s growing naval power, and in particular whether to abandon pretensions of sea control and conventional parity and go instead for sea denial and asymmetric naval warfare. In this regard, fast craft equipped with missiles are also seen by some observers as a better option than bigger ships, in particular when following an attrition strategy in which shore-launched missiles would be another component.

Finally, we have to take into account that many countries in the Indo-Pacific region considering the deployment of shore-launched anti-ship missiles are facing a range of maritime challenges, including the use of non-lethal force by a complex web of civilian entities (trawlers and oil rigs), state non-military actors (coastguards and similar agencies), and military forces, rather than just traditional navies acting in isolation. That makes procurement and doctrinal decisions even more complex, since it’s necessary to prevail in undeclared conflicts where conventional weapons cannot be used to repel aggression—in other words, in the grey area between war and peace now covering much of the region.

To sum up, shore-launched missiles proved their potential in the closing days of the Falklands War, a conflict much studied in the Indo-Pacific region, and later technological developments have ensured that interest in those systems remains high. But the systems engage a range of issues, many of which remain unsettled. Deeper exploration of those issues must lie at the heart of future decisions relating to procurement, deployment and use.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defense policy, international law, and military history, in the Indo-Pacific region.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina