Détente is in the air in Northeast Asia, after the world was warned that a nuclear war could erupt “at any moment.” The U.S. administration of President Donald J. Trump is back to considering sanctions the best default choice to put pressure on North Korea. The world is safe again.
However, it’s unlikely that sanctions could change Kim Jong-un’s calculus. UN resolutions were designed to compel the regime to negotiate, not to destabilize it. Besides, sanctions generate constraints of their own. Difficult to lift once in place, they raise the stakes of negotiations and accelerate the endogenization of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Sanctions will not put an end to the military buildup in the peninsula and proposals of bilateral talks seem like déjà-vu.
If this administration is averagely risk-averse, it will not resort to military action unless North Korea triggers a conflict first. The “neither war, nor peace” period will allow the regime to acquire a full-fledged first-strike nuclear capability and progress toward a second-strike capability. Despite missile defense deployments, South Korea would eventually lose faith in the United States’ extended deterrence and withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (followed by Japan). Local actors might perceive this perspective as a lesser evil and a way to reestablish a regional power balance. Still, from the standpoint of the international community, the fall of the NPT norm would have global tectonic consequences.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
China would remain at the center of the game in an unexpected way. While Beijing tries to preserve the status quo, it increasingly perceives North Korea as a challenge. Yet China may genuinely lack diplomatic leverage to decisively influence North Korea’s strategic calculus. A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman recently eluded a question on regime collapse and a column in the Global Times vowed China could reexamine its defense commitments toward North Korea. The perspective of a nuclear-armed Japan might eventually alarm Beijing enough to contemplate regime change in North Korea, while the world would look away. Still, attempting regime change would be risky, as failure would expose Chinese assets to reprisals.
The U.S. president asserts he will do what it takes to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. Trump has long been convinced that threatening rogue actors with preemptive strikes contributes to bringing them back to the negotiating table. Over the past few weeks, he has repeated that the United States can “solve the North Korean issue” alone if China cannot or will not. The USS Carl Vinson episode provides a good example of this will to dramatize the situation. However, the path for the United States to posing a credible military threat to North Korea is narrow.
Clearly, U.S. invasion aimed at pursuing regime change while securing its arsenal would be irrational. Even an air campaign aimed at destroying North Korea’s capabilities would be unlikely to neutralize the entire arsenal and unable to prevent retaliations. Should North Korea respond with unleashed brutality, Seoul would be the martyr city, putting the United States under public pressure to stop the offensive or get dramatically involved. U.S. Pacific Command’s fight-tonight forces might well be “ready to respond to a North Korean aggression or Chinese coercion”; still, the warning that the United States might trigger a large-scale conflict on purpose is simply not credible. Such a devastating conflict could only stem from an incremental escalation aggravated by a miscalculation.
By contrast, limited U.S. military strikes on a launch pad might have some rationality if detected. It would be a gambit for the Trump administration, yet the strikes in Syria make for an interesting precedent. One necessary premise would be that Kim Jong-un, who emphasized the development of mobile assets to escape monitoring, believes in conventional escalation control, which can be safely assumed because no other hypothesis would allow regime survival in case of a conflict. The other is that the strikes be announced as purely symbolic.
In theory, such symbolic strikes could effectively convince Kim at once that operationalizing his long-range arsenal would be suicidal and that regime change is not a U.S. objective. North Korea would certainly retaliate in some way to save face while avoiding an all-out nuclear war, for example by targeting the vulnerable Japan, a risk Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently outlined. Dependent on the United States for its protection, Japan might have a hard time dragging Washington into a larger conflict, while South Korea, under threat of short-range artillery, would stay away.
An important parameter would be China’s reaction, especially if the U.S. move is unilateral. Fearing that regime change might be underway – there is some precedent in Libya – Beijing might act decisively to maintain its grip on its shaky neighbor. Yet once again such operation would be very hazardous. Only a risk-insensitive U.S. leadership would see in this contingency an opportunity to force China to act.
As countless historical examples tell us, strategic mistakes and accidental escalation happen from time to time. They might stem from perfectly rational calculus. “Strategic impatience,” if indeed a policy, should be accompanied by the following efforts to reduce the odds of a miscalculation.
First, consolidate the emerging regional security architecture. Global mechanisms have so far failed to induce stability and the required level of regional cooperation. A robust South Korean conventional deterrence capability would help Seoul tackle the risk of a limited North Korean aggression, while diminishing its reliance on nuclear deterrence. South Korea and Japan should emphasize that if a conflict with North Korea broke out, they would assist each other. China could assert itself as a responsible global player and diminish the need for a NATO-like structure by granting South Korea limited security guarantees against a North Korean aggression.
Second, continue to work on making North Korea a top priority on the international agenda. The crisis has objectively evolved from a symptom of regional distrust between China and the United States to a security nightmare with dangerous ramifications for all. Beijing is at a crossroads. The Obama administration held China accountable for implementing UN Security Council resolutions, while the Trump administration created a new potential point of leverage by linking the North Korean case with commercial incentives. Still, China should be convinced that there’s a solid plan, as the non-military leverage it possesses – cutting business ties with North Korea – will work only once and for a limited period of time. Controversial comments on THAAD, for example, are unlikely to help China decide.
Third, offer the North Korean regime a way out of its current pariah status. Whatever its horrific nature, it likely will not collapse under political pressure and even if it did, it could have irremediably damaged regional stability by then. The regime sees face-saving as a parameter that is as important for its internal survival as nuclear deterrence is to its external position. It has lobbied countries to prevent Kim’s indictment before the International Criminal Court, concealed missile test failures, and recently called for a conference on the legitimacy of sanctions. Beyond force, the regime is also permeable to external perceptions and it will become even more so as access to means of communication spread across the North Korean society. This creates both leverage and room for dialogue.
And finally, ensure negotiations are iron-clad against internal politics and lead to increased predictability – which the Six Party Talks did not achieve. An agreement with a clear calendar, binding for all parties, should be sanctioned by the Security Council, leaning on a now-strong corpus of resolutions. A settlement endorsed by all NPT nuclear weapons states would offer stronger security guarantees and help satisfy North Korea’s aspiration to be recognized as a more relevant power.
Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Views expressed in this article are his own.