Everyone seems to be calling for the United States and its allies to undertake crippling financial sanctions against North Korea based on the assumption that “denuclearization” is the main—and perhaps only—strategic security goal of the United States towards Northeast Asia. However, there are several practical problems with this recommended U.S. policy approach, not just in the probable failure of such sanctions to achieve their goal, but collateral costs that would likely result given other, more imminent risks and threats to the U.S. strategic position in Asia.
The most severe sanctions would simply continue to undermine the regime in ways that guarantee it would rely upon provocations of all kinds, including anti-Japan, medium- and intermediate-range conventional missile tests, and provocative forceful acts towards disputed territories in the South. These realities threaten U.S.-Japan alliance credibility and deadly escalation on the peninsula itself in the presence of South Korea’s new, focused and capable “ counter-provocation options .”
Further, North Korea is hardly sanguine about its more powerful nuclear neighbor to the North: China. The North bristles at any patron-client interference by China, given an earlier five-hundred-year history (still recent in Korean minds) of economic, cultural and political domination by a stultifying Chosun Dynasty beholden to Peking. There are thus real limits to what either threats or re-engagement can achieve, as North Korea remains wary and distrustful of its demanding patron even in the best of times.
Rather than rolling back the nuclear and missile genies, or at a grand sociopolitical level, hoping for peace via reunification , we argue that the more urgent goal is to create a stable, peaceful, predictable atmosphere that avoids war . The latter, in turn, would allow the continued effective work of South Korea NGO activists in their feeding of an “information underground” in the North. Rather than obsessing about a still highly questionable ICBM capability, the United States would better serve its own strategic interests and the security of its frontline allies by doing more to clamp down on both NoDong and other medium- and intermediate-range tests that target Japan. Focusing on ending these conventional practices, in turn, could create a more stable and predictable status quo despite creeping nuclearization. And such stability in turn would allow—more quietly and in the background—the continued flourishing of transnational cultural pipelines to a North Korean populace hungry for news and entertainment from the outside world.
Realism 101: Sovereign Regimes Defend Themselves (By Threatening Neighbors)
A more in-depth, deeper look at North Korean weaknesses and security threats, from its own regime-stability viewpoint, illuminates the fundamentally rational nature of the full suite of North Korean missile and past low-kiloton nuclear tests. The U.S. approach assumes implicitly that North Korea is a pure aggressor regime, unconcerned with sovereign autonomy, independence, and self defense, based on its own unique social identity and political ideology. In fact, it takes its core “ideational” values and goals, and its adept defense—and sometimes violent—promulgation of them, quite seriously. Pure survival remains a key motivator and definer of all regime actions.
Yet at the same time, defense against external threats remains intimately tied to an absolutist ideological script that the core elite depend upon to create a teleological narrative of historical progress based on Korean autonomy from foreign predation. In service of this ideology, the asymmetric DPRK response to the weaknesses described above paradoxically creates its own strengths: namely, a growing ability to “detach” U.S. forces from South Korea—but not by realistically being able to physically hit far-off U.S. territory anytime soon.
The DPRK’s notable success with dummy warhead separation in the most natural flight trajectories of the NoDong Medium range missiles (1,100–1,500 kilometers), in ocean areas just outside northern Japanese territory, show how the turning of existential weaknesses into aggressive strengths has very little to do with Alaska or Hawaii. Even the harshest financial sanctions will, at this point, do little about the true military threat of highest capability and credibility: improved short- and medium-range missiles with various combinations of higher accuracy , quicker response times, new launch methods (allowing for medium-range missiles to be used against closer-in South Korean targets), variations in nose assemblies and payload weights that could allow for a tactical nuclear warhead on short-range missiles that could hit peninsular targets. This includes strategic warheads on medium-range NoDongs that could hit Japan, an extension of range for the conventionally-armed Hwasong-6, allowing it to hit Japanese targets, and potential solid-fueled follow-ons to the older NoDong ( the Pukguksong-2 ), which could be pre-fueled for quicker launch and carried on caterpillar launchers for maximum mobility (making preemption by the U.S. military harder). These highly various conventional capabilities would, given their relative inaccuracies, most likely be used to strike dense urban areas in both South Korea and Japan. Also, with the possible addition of nuclear munitions to those with higher payload capacities, they could strike U.S. bases in both countries or ports that would allow U.S. reinforcements to the South in time of war.