Since July, the hot rumor in South Korea has been about a looming “August Crisis” on the Korean Peninsula. South Koreans do not easily utter the word “crisis,” and the narrative goes like this:
On July 6 in Berlin, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed inter-Korean military talks and the resumption of reunions for families separated by the 1950 Korean War as first steps to reducing tensions and beginning cooperation with North Korea. But Pyongyang rejected them by testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), the second one on July 29 timed closely with Moon’s proposed date for military talks (July 27) and North Korea’s celebrated “Victory Day” (known as Armistice Day in the South). As a result, the United States and South Korea heightened their defense posture, which included sending American strategic assets like the B-1B Lancer bomber over the peninsula. Pyongyang is believed to be quite sensitive to the presence of the bomber. The two ICBM tests botched any chance of holding inter-Korean talks in August or September following Moon’s August 15 Liberation Day speech to set the stage for celebrating the tenth anniversary of the October 4 inter-Korean summit declaration. Annual U.S.-ROK military drills, known as the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, began on August 21, raising questions about possibly inviting more North Korean provocations. This all means that August will not only be a month of inter-Korean dialogue, but one in which the two Koreas are up in arms, nose-to-nose.
But it doesn’t stop between the two Koreas: The UN Security Council rightfully passed new sanctions and autonomous ones are expected by the United States, South Korea and other countries independently. The U.S.-ROK-Japan security cooperation might be strengthened; Pyongyang might finally test its sixth nuclear device; outraged Tweets by President Donald Trump over China’s inaction suggest a confrontational Washington-Beijing posture over North Korea is on the horizon; and South Koreans are concerned that Washington might bypass their country and strike a bargain with China or North Korea. Combined with distrust and frustration between Washington and Seoul, crisis management could prove impossible. And now, both Trump and Kim Jong-un have threatened to throw “fire” at each other, spiking concerns among the South Korean policy community that their country might get caught in the middle of an eventual nuclear or conventional exchange. To top it off, Trump has unchecked authority to order a nuclear attack. Hence, the rumored looming “August Crisis.”
Recent gestures by both Pyongyang and Washington suggest the temperature has been lowered, raising questions as to whether an August Crisis might already have been averted. Kim Jong-un said he would observe Washington’s future actions before deciding on following through with strike plans around Guam waters. News reports have suggested that the United States might not involve its strategic assets in this week’s U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, to which Pyongyang has typically reacted less sensitively compared to spring exercises.
Still, the threat remains and every North Korean, and now Trumpian, provocation elicits a wave of compelling policy ideas and debates from the international public on what to do about North Korea. It’s important to identify some misperceptions in order to avoid the mistaken recommendations that accompany them.
• Threatening nuclear war and “fire and fury” will scare Pyongyang and make it back down.
Such threats would have the opposite effect. They will embolden Pyongyang to double its efforts and reinforce its belief that the United States is planning to attack it, which is the regime’s claimed logic behind its nuclear development. It has become a handy propaganda tool to further unite the North Korean people to rally around their nation’s flag against the United States. It will be perceived by regional allies and partners as a childish, irresponsible shouting match with no credibility.
Perspective is also important: North Korea has not yet mastered reliable ICBMs that can successfully strike American territory on target. Deterrent threats are useful at times, but it’s much too soon to be threatening nuclear war. As former Defense Secretary William Perry says, “Nuclear deterrence is only effective if threats are deemed credible, bluster hurts our national security posture.” Careless and frequent threats undermine and weaken the threats Washington might carry out in the future.
The verbal war of words is dangerous because Washington and Pyongyang could accidentally spiral into unintended conflict as a result of miscalculation and misinterpretation. Washington and Pyongyang must create off-ramps from escalation cycles. Tamer and more reasonable op-eds by Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson would not matter much to Pyongyang—Trump’s tweets do.
• Military action will solve the North Korean nuclear problem, or at least buy us some time.
Consequences largely depend on America’s precise target in the North but, in general, this option is twenty years too late. North Korea now has the bomb (as opposed to when the United States nearly took military action during the Clinton administration) and has substantial stockpiles of biochemical weapons and artillery pointed at Seoul. The danger is retaliation against South Korea, or even Japan. At risk are the fifty million South Koreans and 250,000 Americans (including civilians and military families) living in the South.
In foreign affairs, diction is the foundation of communication, intention and credibility. Ambiguity can serve strategic and useful purposes, but only when words are still used correctly. It is dangerous that the governmental and public discourse is confusing basic concepts in the security lexicon, which stokes anxiety in the region that Trump might actually follow through with military action. The terms “preemptive strike” and “preventive strike” have been conflated as inaccurate synonyms for each other and for “military action.” Preemptive strike or preemptive war—sanctioned by international law and a sovereign right—is a response to an imminent attack; it is the action taken when a country is about to attack you first. Preventive strike or preventive war is striking a country that poses no imminent threat but could be a future threat. However, preventive war is usually seen to be a violation of the UN charter, which legitimizes only actions of self-defense or actions to prevent threat to international peace if approved by the UN Security Council. Military action and kinetic means are umbrella concepts of the overarching use of force.
• Halting or pausing annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises will make North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs and tests.
This is not a proportionate bargain and is akin to a dropped shield before a drawn sword. Nuclear and missile testing are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions that inherently cannot come with price tags. Halting exercises would also essentially signify the abandonment of denuclearization. According to military officials, even a brief, singular pause presents serious challenges due to the allies’ capabilities because of the rotation frequency of U.S. forces and the short military conscription term for South Koreans. North Korea and China, along with Russia recently, have long proposed and raised the price for a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing for the decades-old U.S.-ROK military exercises that Pyongyang knows are inherently defensive.
Halting the drills has been tried before, but it failed to change North Korean behavior. In 1992, Washington and Seoul canceled their robust Team Spirit military exercise for a year, even at a time when Pyongyang did not yet possess the bomb, as a peace offering for accepting IAEA nuclear safeguards.
Instead, scaling back to appropriate, less inflammatory levels might be worth considering as a confidence-building measure, but at the right time and cost. The danger in accepting North Korea’s demand is Washington running out of negotiating cards too soon if the value increases for a nuclear and missile freeze.
• Freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will solve our problems or should be acceptable because Kim Jong-un won’t surrender his nuclear weapons.
A nuclear and missile cap, if at all even verifiable with clandestine sites and a history of reneging on its commitments, might seem to buy Washington some time and temporarily slow down the regime’s pursuit of weapons aimed at America.
But a mere freeze for an indefinite period absent a concerted effort toward denuclearization will still give Pyongyang the green light to threaten and attack South Korea and Japan while continuing its nuclear research and development.
A mere freeze will also invite even bigger, global problems for Washington. The mere existence of even a small deterrent would also continue to pose nuclear-security and nuclear-safety risks. U.S. credibility will be tarnished. Seoul and Tokyo could seek their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves, rattling China and potentially leading to a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. Nuclear aspirants like Iran would follow North Korea’s nuclear playbook and eventually obtain the bomb.
But fundamentally, a necessary verified freeze—even in the interim—will be a daunting challenge. The Six Party Talks broke down because they failed to agree on a verification protocol during the disablement phase—the second of a three-phased denuclearization process between shutdown and dismantlement. This convinced the other nuclear negotiators that Pyongyang was not serious about denuclearization and the clock also ran out for the Bush administration’s final term.