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.
Japan as the Weakest Link?
Simply put: the DPRK has already reached the point with conventional munitions alone to threaten Japanese “soft” population centers with terror strikes. The latter are socially (if not militarily) meaningful given Japanese antimilitarism and fear of bombing, in particular, both of which are based on its tragic World War II historical legacies. Depending on how missile strikes are handled against Japan (and perhaps even some industrial urban soft targets in the ROK’s heavily congested southeast port districts, such as Busan), the DPRK may not require an actual working nuclear munition to achieve desired social terrorism, economic chaos in global and regional markets, and internally divisive political effects. Japan has a trillion-plus yen bond market that is still viewed as the “safe haven” by large investors in times of East Asian economic duress or turmoil. And similarly regarding Korea, those megaplexes of industry (shipbuilding, autos, steel) first favored by Park Chung-hee politically and economically in the 1970s are now fixtures on global stock exchanges, including the now-ubiquitous Hyundai Chaebol and LG. Hitting such targets would therefore be a blow, not just to South Korea (and the citizens living there), but also, quite literally, such a strike would create a “global effect” that could make stock exchanges in Tokyo, London and New York plunge.
But it is not just the regional and global financial markets at risk. Geopolitically, dependence on U.S. bases in Japan for Southern defense, and Japanese dependence on U.S. support for deterrence, binds Japanese and South Korean crisis escalatory dynamics closely together—and yet, their mutually animosity latently gives the DPRK opportunities to manipulate escalatory fears and risks in its own favor. “Urban terror strikes” on dense and very large Japanese urban areas is a mode of potential escalation that would put the United States in a very hard place, especially given the geopolitical reality of the continuously sour Japan-South Korea relationship. That relationship has been strained by trans-social issues of diluted Japanese historical textbooks, disputed islands, and the recent rejection by South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, of a December 2015 agreement with Japan to accept apologies and reparations for the ugly history of “comfort women.”
With this backdrop, deliberate North Korean crisis escalation via purely conventional missile strikes could create delicate tradeoffs. The United States would effectively be pressed between meeting South Korean concerns of avoiding war at almost any cost, versus Japanese concerns of sovereign homeland security, with a Japanese society that remains strongly divided on the value of the alliance and the wisdom of larger Japanese regional, collective security roles in support of the United States. The United States could find itself suddenly faced with the decision of whether to undertake immediate retaliatory conventional strikes that would innately risk further (perhaps nuclear) escalation on the peninsula—the latter to keep alliance promises to Japan. Or perhaps the United States may choose to forestall such escalations via passive restraint, favoring instead peninsular conflict management and avoidance of a general war that could engulf the South. Both would be risky and potentially harmful choices that could undermine the overall U.S. position in the larger region.
Meanwhile, the coercive financial approach does little to address a potentially dangerous game of tug-of-war between the two Korea’s at the low-intensity-conventional level of armed provocations since roughly 2010 (and which were historically rife in the Cold War). The U.S. globalist, proliferation-focused debate typically ignores the long-standing history of DPRK reliance on “sub-conventional provocations,” which include using such methods as sinking ships, artillery bombardments, terrorism, and Special Forces insertions, in order to contest the status quo against Southern leadership or in sensitive disputed areas of maritime boundaries. Such actions have long been tied in turn to increasing regime weakness relative to the South’s wealth, alongside the North’s identity-based claim to representing the true Korean ethnic nation free from foreign influence or “pollution.”
Essentially these armed incursions have been tolerated, with the United States notably pressing hard on the South to forgo serious improvements in its own escalatory military options. But U.S. influence, in this regard, is not what it once was. As the Cold War fades into the background, the traditional Southern identity narrative has itself diversified greatly in ways that downplays the desirability of reunification with the North among the younger generation, including the left. Now the ROK is actually acting like a true Westphalian entity with its own idea of globalized, cosmopolitan nationalist identity tied to boundaries bequeathed by the Korean War. Accordingly, it has stood up true “counter-provocation” plans that, from its perspective, allow it to match, tit-for-tat, Northern provocations short of the threshold of all-out conventional war. Since March 2011, it has moved from a “passive” deterrent approach based on consultation and studying of nonmilitary options to an “active” approach of potentially immediate retaliatory strikes of both symbolic and military utility against offending Northern target sets. This “active” approach includes successfully securing consecutive agreements from Presidents Obama and Trump to increase the respective range and payloads for the ROK’s conventional missiles.