Shortly before his dismissal, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said regarding North Korea, “They got us.”
If that was not true then, it is certainly true after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s September 3 nuclear test, one that appears to have been the largest to date. If the North has indeed acquired a thermonuclear warhead (also known as a hydrogen, or H-bomb), then U.S. policy for the past quarter-century is unequivocally a failure, given the overall objective was to avoid such an outcome.
There also appears to be a growing consensus that North Korea’s advances in nuclear warfare and ballistic-missile technology has made it more capable of engaging in operations short of war or limited war. The insurance policy provided by the possession of the most powerful weapon known to mankind certainly makes it easier for a belligerent state to get away with bad behavior given that an adversary would think thrice about responding with force to any act of aggression or provocation.
The implication is that the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan must prepare to be on the receiving end of a new spate of North Korean belligerence, which may include acts of violence in the region or abroad, be it of a conventional or unconventional nature. Unlike its enemies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) can play the provocation game all day long, since the existence of such a hostile, isolated regime possessing such destructive power is the very issue at stake.
So, what can the United States and its allies do? Will we have to continue being on the receiving end of cheap shots, or worse? Or should the United States and its allies prepare to return fire?
First, the United States and its allies must accept the DPRK as a nuclear power, if for no other reason than the fact it possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. How reliable these capabilities are is irrelevant. The possession of such an arsenal and the know-how necessary for development is enough to secure North Korea’s place in the world as a nuclear power. Only military action can disarm it, but the costs of war, which now ought to be common knowledge, will virtually guarantee force remains off the table as an option, regardless of how ambiguous Washington tries to seem.
Put simply, the Korean crisis is no longer something to be solved; it is a state of affairs to be managed. This is not something the Trump administration needs to acknowledge publicly, but it ought to do so privately.
Second, acts of violence short of war are nothing new for the DPRK. Since the end of the Korean War, the North has been responsible for a long list of incidents that have resulted in casualties—or worse—that have nearly prompted an all-out war . Limited war may in fact be a component of Pyongyang’s strategy towards the South and, by extension, the United States and its allies. Therefore, it would be imprudent to not prepare a counterstrategy against North Korea’s half-century-long campaign of unprovoked violence.
While Kim Jong-un may have “won” in the sense that he can now successfully deter foreign intervention, the United States and its allies are not totally helpless in the face of North Korean belligerence. In fact, the United States has options to eliminate specific threats posed by the DPRK. But it does not have many of them. In fact, what and where the United States uses force against is just as important as why.
For instance, an artillery bombardment, such as the 2010 attack on Yeonpyeongdo Island, would demand retaliation against artillery sites located on DPRK territory. The United States has not attacked North Korea proper since 1953, and such a retaliation would be viewed as a dramatic escalation of hostilities on the peninsula. Retaliation may be viewed differently if it was carried out by South Korea, which has borne the brunt of North Korea’s aggression in the post-war era. South Korea has retaliated upon occasion, and likely is not perceived by the North as presenting the same kind of existential threat the United States does. Even then, there exists ambiguity of what constitutes a reasonable, proportionate response that does not carry the risk of escalation. It is this very ambiguity that prevented the ROK from a major retaliation, such as when former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates convinced Seoul to call off a major strike on North Korean military positions.
On the other hand, retaliation during an air-to-air encounter or naval skirmish carries a lesser risk of escalation, given that the action is taking place above or away from DPRK soil and any counterattack would be immediate and limited only to the imminent threat. As a result, there is clarity and simplicity in such a scenario; few would argue that the United States and its allies have not only the right, but an obligation to take measures necessary to protect themselves in the face of blatant aggression. While Pyongyang would certainly cry foul, spinning the incident as an example of American “imperialist” belligerence, the DPRK is unlikely to respond disproportionately, if at all. The evidence lies in the long line of low-level clashes and skirmishes, none which have resulted in an expansion beyond the immediate confrontation. This is a clear indication that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the North Korean regime is quite rational, perhaps coldly so; up to a certain limit, it does not seem to have any reservations occasionally serving up its warriors as sacrificial lambs. This strategy is not likely to change simply because the North now possesses a nuclear deterrent; Kim Jong-un may feel even more confident in his ability to walk the tightrope.
But just how far can we go? Assume, hypothetically, that North Korean fighters intercept and shoot down a U.S. surveillance plane, just as they did to a U.S. Navy EC-121 Warning Star in 1969, killing thirty-one people. Unable to respond immediately, plans are drawn up to strike the air base where the North Korean fighters are based. It is a proportionate response and is limited only to the direct perpetrators of the atrocity. In the words of President Ronald Reagan early in his decade-long confrontation with Libya, the United States would be chasing the enemy “right into the hanger.” This would be a perfectly legitimate form of retaliation, right?
Probably. But the amount of baggage such an operation would carry is considerable. An attack on an air base is a major step up from one on individual fighters, warships, or artillery batteries, not to mention that it would be an attack on DPRK soil. Pyongyang could easily view it as a conflict escalation. Given that the United States would inflict tremendous damage in doing so, North Korea’s inability to absorb damage means that the country could become more likely to lash out in volcanic and unpredictable ways.
Even if North Korea maintained restraint, it could still harm the United States in another dimension—the legal realm. The law might seem irrelevant when it comes to a deliberate rule-breaker like North Korea, but its ability to create and sustain narratives of victimhood at the hands of the United States can be enhanced by its assertion of internationally recognized legal rights. In turn, the United States can quickly lose crucial political capital at the first suggestion of impropriety. This is an especially difficult problem when it comes to dealing with powerful countries like China and Russia, which may not explicitly endorse North Korean behavior, but nonetheless appreciate the obstructionist role it plays against their greatest geopolitical foe. With each subsequent encounter, the United States may find it increasingly difficult to assert itself or engage North Korea.
North Korea is physically weak, but derives its strength in part from exploiting the system it is so often at odds with. Frustrating as it may be, the United States and its allies would better served finding ways of avoiding such scenarios. The worst means of managing a dangerous situation is to give oneself no option other than to use force.
The key for the United States and its allies is to take advantage of opportunities to respond to North Korean provocations when it can. If they don’t, then they will only instill confidence in Pyongyang that it can get away with aggression and destabilizing behavior if they fail to stand their ground. Additionally, they could create conditions where the United States and others may be forced to reply to an even greater provocation by using equally greater amounts of force, thereby exponentially increasing the risk of all-out conflict. A precedent must be set early on to ensure the DPRK is not “surprised” should the United States have to turn up the heat.