Is North Korea Preparing to Start A War?

North Korea War M1 Abrams Tank
January 26, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North Korea WarDPRKROKKim Jong-unChinaMilitaryDefense

Is North Korea Preparing to Start A War?

A recent 38 North article by Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker warns that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has likely decided to go to war against South Korea and the United States. Kim Jong-un’s recent behavior suggests he is not interested in war with the South.  

A recent 38 North article by Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker warns that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has likely decided to go to war against South Korea and the United States. This piece, written by two leading Korea experts and seasoned practitioners not known for being alarmists, created quite a stir, even in Seoul.

For the authors, Pyongyang’s main objective from 1990 until 2019 has been to normalize relations with the United States and gain its support against China and Russia. However, the failure of the February 2019 Kim-Trump Hanoi Summit cost the North Korean leader a lot of political capital. Hence, he gave up on improving relations with Washington and concluded that nuclear escalation was the least bad option left.

The two authors make good points that are too often overlooked. The North Koreans are not rabidly anti-American like many believe and communicated frequently in private their wish for better relations. The authors are also right that Pyongyang sees China as an existential threat. The United States is an ocean away, while China is a neighboring would-be hegemon.

I am not arguing here that Carlin and Hecker are certainly wrong. After all, Kim might be preparing for war. Who knows for sure except him? Also, Carlin and Hecker may have access to information unavailable to the broader public. Still, their 38 North piece suffers from major logical and empirical flaws.

Three logical issues are apparent. First, if North Korea’s main goal during the last three decades has been to improve relations with Washington, why give up everything now?

If we follow the authors’ reasoning, Pyongyang has invested massive efforts and resources into U.S.-DPRK normalization. Even if the Hanoi Summit ultimately led nowhere, North Korea gained a yet-unseen level of American recognition. An American president even walked its soil for the first time. Furthermore, Donald Trump stands a good chance of returning to office soon, probably bringing back a more cooperative approach. It is hard to believe that the Hanoi failure alone convinced Kim to jettison three decades of efforts and start a war.

Second, the piece explains that counterbalancing China with American support was Pyongyang’s longstanding goal. But the Chinese threat is still there. The authors even note “few signs that relations with China have moved very far, and, in fact, signs of real cooling in China-DPRK relations.” In that background, how would a war against the U.S.-ROK alliance help counterbalance Beijing? Assuming the North Korean state survives the conflict, it would likely be in a weakened position to resist Chinese influence.

Even if the DPRK triumphed and pushed the ROK and U.S. troops into the sea, its situation would not be much better. It would reign over a devastated and impoverished Korean Peninsula without an American presence to counterbalance China. Kim Jong-un himself told Mike Pompeo in 2018 that if U.S. forces left Korea, his country would become a mere Chinese protectorate. Kim has little reason to expect now a U.S.-DPRK war to improve the balance of power against China in his favor.

Third, the piece is unclear about what North Korea hopes to accomplish and how it would accomplish it. It seems to imply that Pyongyang is contemplating a nuclear strike to reunify the Peninsula under its rule. But to physically control the South, a conventional invasion would be necessary. Hence, following the article’s logic, Kim has concluded that he and his military can survive a nuclear exchange with the United States, defeat the remaining U.S. and ROK armed forces, and occupy the South.

Showing that a victory is plausible and the benefits outweigh the costs would reinforce the case that war is coming. Yet, even if overestimating their country’s strength, it is doubtful that the North Koreans assessed that their small nuclear arsenal would neutralize America’s 1,400 deployed nuclear warheads. How could Kim have concluded, looking at the sheer balance of nuclear forces, that he could win a nuclear war and then live to conquer the ROK?

The authors preempt this criticism by stating that surprise attacks happen, and the historical record should make us doubt the enduring strength of deterrence. Although true, the most prominent surprise attacks in recent history were launched by aggressors possessing credible theories of victory.

Its formidable and seasoned military allowed Japan to defy the United States in 1941 and invade Southeast Asia, even if Tokyo gravely underestimated America’s resolve to fight a long war. Syria and Egypt started the Yom Kippur War in 1973 with a large numerical superiority, modern weaponry, and realistic, limited objectives. Argentina attacked the defenseless Falklands in 1982 and knew that geographic distance from Britain would hinder a strong response. In addition, this attack on remote South Atlantic islands was unlikely to elicit nuclear retaliations.

More recently, invading Ukraine was tempting for Russia because of Moscow’s overwhelming superiority in most indicators. One easily understands how Vladimir Putin assessed he could quickly conquer the country without taking much risk. Similarly, China’s growing dominance in East Asia makes it increasingly probable it would resort to force to annex Taiwan.

North Korea faces no such opportunity, as it is quite certain to lose an all-out war. Carlin and Hecker relate the current situation to Kim Il-sung’s decision to invade the South in June 1950. Back then, Pyongyang had an overwhelming superiority in numbers and quality, while the ROK had almost no armor and air force. In addition, the United States had no formal commitment to defend Seoul, while the DPRK had full backing from the Soviet Union and China.

Obviously, South Korea is far more formidable today, and it is now North Korea that has almost no air force. Also, U.S. presence on the ground would automatically commit Washington to the war if Pyongyang were to strike first. North Korean sources confirm that their forces are still too weak to wage a general war.

Moreover, the 38 North article is problematic because it leaves some facts out of the picture.

The DPRK has recently been providing Russia with large quantities of ammunition and even valuable ballistic missiles. It is hard to imagine Pyongyang liberally selling its arsenal to Moscow if it was expecting a total war in the near future. On the contrary, it should prefer to start a war if Russia could supply it with weapons and materials, which is unlikely as long as the Ukraine War continues.

The two experts’ assertion that the Korean situation “is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950” is simply untrue, as the Peninsula came close to war several times. In January 1968, North Korean commandos raided the Blue House in Seoul, leaving many dead, a few days before the seizure of the USS Pueblo. Many others died in border clashes during the following years. 2010 was also a dangerous time, seeing the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan. Don’t forget 2017’s “fire and fury” tweets, either. Relations are currently poisonous, but we have seen worse episodes.

Although North Korea’s recent promise to enshrine in its constitution the South as its main enemy is worrying, it signals little change on the ground. The DPRK is familiar with threats of nuclear annihilation. If we take Pyongyang to its word, it has “no reason to opt for war, and therefore, there is no intention of unilaterally going to war.”

It contrasts with Russia’s behavior up to the Ukraine War. First, Moscow readied its military for war. Then, it promised to employ “military-technical measures” if its demands regarding Ukraine were not met before effectively invading the country. In addition, one could argue that Pyongyang is merely reacting to Seoul’s Defense White Paper released in 2023, reclassifying the North and its regime as enemies. Indeed, South Korean law still considers the North not as a sovereign, equal state but as an “anti-government organization.”

If anything, some of the recent signaling is rather reassuring. Kim now calls the South the “Republic of Korea” instead of the traditional derogatory “South Joseon” and recognizes its separate statehood. Pyongyang deemphasizing reunification and the two countries’ shared identity suggests a diminishing interest in subverting or conquering the ROK and a desire to respect each other’s sovereignty.

After announcing its new approach to inter-Korean relations, the DPRK closed a radio station traditionally used to send encrypted messages to spies infiltrating the South. It also took down propaganda websites targeting the South Korean public. North Korean television now airs maps showing the country’s current borders, whereas it formerly showed the entire Peninsula as DPRK territory.

When a state contemplates conquering and annexing another, it usually emphasizes its shared destiny and the need to reunify with the lost homeland. The Kremlin justified its invasion of Ukraine by underlining Russian-Ukrainian “historical unity.” China continues denying Taiwan’s political legitimacy and preaches about “one country.” Although not impossible, North Korea preparing an invasion while underscoring its enemy’s separate existence would be extremely surprising.

Inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK relations are worryingly poor. North Korea appears determined to challenge the status quo in the West Sea, and further tensions are probable. Pyongyang seemingly hopes to revise the Northern Limit Line to its advantage. The current American administration’s disinterest in diplomacy and lack of initiative does not help. Still, it may be too early to affirm that Kim Jong-un has chosen war.