The crescendo of shrill war cries from North Korea is obscuring the real threat it poses—its unbounded nuclear and missile potential.
Its February 12 nuclear test showed it is well on the way to perfecting a compact weapons design capable of being mounted on a missile. It now says it will restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to generate plutonium and will continue enriching uranium for weapons. And it may be moving to test-launch a new missile capable of reaching Japan or possibly Guam.
After the nuclear test set off renewed talk in South Korea and Japan about their own nuclear arms, Washington moved to reassure its allies by strengthening deterrence. Yet doing so did little to make Korea or the region more secure.
The surreal spate of threats from Pyongyang came in response to military moves by Washington and Seoul. The threats all seem intended to underscore North Korea’s own posture of deterrence—and are explicitly predicated on prior action by the United States or South Korea. Unlike Washington and Seoul, which have far superior forces, Pyongyang for now has escalation dominance only in the realm of rhetoric.
The danger is that as the armed forces on both sides conduct exercises, the rhetoric can have unintended consequences along Korea’s ceasefire line if it leads those forces to shoot first and ask questions later.
Consider what North Korea has said and done since its nuclear test.
After China cooperated with the United States to draft a U.N. Security Council resolution tightening sanctions, the North did what it always does whenever Washington and Beijing work in concert—raise tensions to provoke their discordant reaction.
It worked. When Beijing moves to calm Pyongyang down, many in Washington mistake its unwillingness to abandon the North as evidence of Beijing’s duplicity. Yet antagonizing Beijing will only deepen insecurity in Northeast Asia, not put more pressure on Pyongyang.
When Washington and Seoul announced that their annual joint exercise would involve the dispatch of B-52 bombers, unlike those in the recent past, highlighting the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the Supreme Command of the North Korean Army announced “strong practical counteractions”: it would declare the Korean War armistice agreement “invalid,” suspend talks at Panmunjom, cut off the hotline to the U.S. commander there as it has in the past, and threaten “precision nuclear strike means” of its own, which it did not yet possess. Kim Jong-un, on an inspection tour of his country’s coastal defenses, was said to have ordered that troops there “promptly deal a deadly counterblow to the enemy if a single shell is fired on their waters and land.”
When the joint exercise kicked off, the North stepped up the tempo of its own air sorties, held a mass rally and announced that its armed forces, “already put on a high alert, are waiting for an order … to blast the strongholds of aggression with prompt and fatal retaliation, should the provocateurs make even the slightest move.” South Korea’s defense ministry responded in kind, “We will respond forcefully if North Korea provokes us. If North Korea attacks South Korea with a nuclear weapon, then by the will of the Republic of Korea and humanity, the Kim Jong-un regime will perish from the Earth.”
Two days after Washington sent a B-52 on a practice bombing run in Korea on March 19, Pyongyang warned that U.S. bases in Japan and Guam “were within range of North Korea’s precision strike means.” The Foreign Ministry spokesman qualified the warning the next day: “The DPRK is now closely watching the move of B-52 and the hostile forces will never escape its strong military counteraction, should the strategic bomber make such sortie to the peninsula again.” Yet the threat seemed real enough to alert missile defenses in Japan and aboard Aegis cruisers in waters off Korea.
When Washington dispatched two B-2 stealth bombers on a similar mission, Pyongyang declared it was in a “state of war.” What did that mean? First, it said, “all the issues arousing between the north and the south will be dealt with according to the wartime regulations,” the first sign that it would bar entry to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Second, “If the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group perpetrate a military provocation for igniting a war against the DPRK in any area including the five islands in the West Sea of Korea or in the area along the Military Demarcation Line, it will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.” The North’s news agency reported that Kim Jong-un at a meeting on Strategic Rocket Forces operations had “examined and ratified a plan for firepower strike.”
Potentially Real Threats
In the midst of these rhetorical volleys, the Foreign Ministry spokesman on March 16 reiterated the North’s longstanding negotiating position: first, it “will never reach out to anyone to get it recognized as a nuclear weapons state in the future.” Second, “The U.S. is seriously mistaken if it thinks that the DPRK had access to nukes as a bargaining chip to barter them for what it called economic reward.” Third, its nuclear weapons “serve as an all-powerful treasured sword for protecting the sovereignty and security of the country” and are not negotiable “at least as long as the U.S. nuclear threat and hostile policy persist.” The nuclear threat could end with an end to the “hostile policy.” In short, its nuclear diplomacy is not about money but about reconciliation.
On March 31, however, Pyongyang announced a “new strategic line” laid down by Kim Jong-un on “carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously” and said it would restart its shuttered reactor at Yongbyon to generate more plutonium as well as producing weapons-grade uranium at its nearby enrichment plant. It said that “the nuclear armed forces should be expanded and beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively until the denuclearization of the world is realized.” Was this Kim’s version of Ike’s “bigger bang for a buck,” allowing some military-industrial resources to be reallocated from military to civilian production?
Last week’s White House decision to ratchet down tensions was perhaps belated recognition that Washington’s deterrent moves had not chastened Pyongyang. Far from it.
A Way Out?
Strategic patience may have given way to strategic impatience in Washington, but not yet to strategic rethinking.
That rethinking begins by acknowledging that the very steps that each side in Korea takes to bolster deterrence increase the risk of deadly clashes. This is shown by incidents such as the sinking of the South’s ROKS Cheonan in March 2010 in retaliation for the November 2009 shooting up of a North Korean navy vessel and a November 2010 artillery exchange in the contested waters off Korea’s west coast.
In short, deterrence alone will not assure calm on the peninsula. The way to reduce the risk of further clashes is a peace process in Korea in parallel with renewed negotiations to rein in the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang has long said it wants a peace treaty ending the Korean War. Probing whether it means what it says is in South Korean and U.S. security interests, especially now that North Korea is nuclear-armed. Whether the new strategic line of March 31 has ruled out negotiated limits on its nuclear and missile programs needs to be explored as well.
The second problem is that the steps taken to reassure U.S. allies also antagonize China—joint exercises that include flights of B-52 and B-2 bombers or the dispatch of aircraft carriers to Korea, expanding missile defenses, and helping South Korea to develop longer-range ballistic missiles (to add to the long-range cruise missiles it recently deployed). It is utterly unrealistic to expect China to abandon North Korea as the United States moves to shore up its alliances.
No chorus of disclaimers from Washington will persuade Beijing that the U.S. military rebalancing to Asia is not aimed at containing it. Washington needs to accompany it with a political and diplomatic rebalancing toward China, and encourage its allies to do the same. Cooperation has to be a two-way street.
A sustained effort at rapprochement could include bilateral discussion of urgent security issues, including exploring a naval no-go zone along China’s coast in return for China’s acceptance of a comparable buffer zone in the waters off Japan, greater U.S. restraint in arming Taiwan in return for greater Chinese transparency about its military plans and programs and tension-easing in the South China Sea.
Revived accommodation could also involve sustained military-to-military talks to address the two states’ mutual vulnerability through mutual restraint in the domains of cyberspace, nuclear weaponry and space. That might include commitments to forgo cyber attacks on each other’s critical infrastructure, acknowledgement of mutual deterrence (U.S. acceptance of China’s retaliatory capability as legitimate or a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons against each other), and a ban on attacks on or interference with one another’s satellites.
Such an approach would benefit South Korea, which does not want to be entrapped in a revived cold war between the United States and China. It could also ease pressure on President Park Guen-hye from her party’s right wing to shy away from engagement with North Korea, even though it is in South Korea’s interest to nurture much-needed change in the North and counter rising Chinese economic influence there.