2017 was one of the most eventful and perilous years on the Korean Peninsula since the armistice was signed, pausing (but not resolving) hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. A resurgent and assertive North Korea, under its third generation of dynastic leadership, conducted a series of ballistic missile tests as well an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. International media, expressing a sentiment widely shared by policymakers in the U.S. government, responded to these events by expressing a fear that North Korea was preparing to imminently launch a preemptive nuclear attack on U.S. territory.
This conclusion, and the ensuing U.S. decisions to impose severe economic sanctions and beef up military preparations, reflects the classic strategic error of mistaking augmented capabilities with increasingly aggressive intentions. In so concluding and responding, the United States has unwittingly increased the likelihood of conflict in a densely populated, economically vital theater in which the outbreak of war itself, not the North Korean state, should be viewed as the principal threat to American security and interests. Mutual confidence-building measures must be identified and implemented now if the world is to avoid nuclear holocaust and humanitarian catastrophe.
It is undoubtedly true, as critics would likely assert, that a nuclear-armed Pyongyang, with demonstrated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch and delivery capabilities, would pose a greater theoretical military threat to the United States in the event that a shooting war broke out and/or the Kim regime concluded that its survival was in imminent danger. But North Korea’s newly acquired ability to exact a greater toll in blood and treasure on its U.S. adversary, which otherwise enjoys overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority, is not a rational basis for Pyongyang to launch a suicidal preemptive strike against American, Japanese, or South Korean targets that is certain to trigger an overwhelming and decisive U.S. response.
There’s no evidence that North Korea’s leadership is irrational or suicidal. A small, isolated and impoverished nation, opposed by the greatest military power in the world’s history, does not survive for 65 years by tempting fate with reckless or unduly provocative actions. Moreover, America’s increasingly muscular and assertive foreign policy since 9/11 clearly indicated to the North Koreans that a preemptive strike would not prompt the American military to withdraw from the theater, as the Japanese High Command had famously hoped in launching their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On the contrary, the United States is certain to respond decisively to any attack and embark upon a full-scale invasion and occupation of the North.
If Pyongyang is keenly aware of its relative weakness and the implacability of its enemies, and if its intention is not to commit “suicide by superpower” and deliberately trigger U.S. military action, what is a neutral, open-minded observer to make of the flurry of North Korean military activity in 2017? To answer this, one might first consider that the first or primary audience for the regime’s actions may not be the United States. As astonishing as this may seem to the insular U.S. public, America is not central to every calculation made by a would-be dictator in the world. The success of its nuclear and missile development programs may (modestly) bolster North Korea’s defense, but the boost they give to national pride and self-image, as well as to Kim Jong-un’s internal political standing, is likely to be far more important.
News reports indicates that video footage of the recent missile launches are shown constantly on North Korean state television, suggesting that the missile and nuclear programs are a central part of state propaganda. The Kim regime is painfully aware that neighbors and rivals South Korea and Japan boast the fourth and second largest economies in Asia, respectively, with growing “soft power” in the form of cultural exports; South Korea is poised to bask in the global spotlight as host of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in just a few weeks. In contrast, North Korea remains an also-ran economically and developmentally, ranking near the bottom of global rankings in GDP, education, technology, and public health, and with no recognized cultural or historical icons to attract international attention. Nuclear arms is the only major category in which North Korea can plausibly claim to be a global power, and may be the signature achievement of Kim’s tenure in the eyes of the military commanders and Central Committee officials whose support he desperately needs to maintain his grip on power. Further, the fate of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, taught Kim that relinquishing a strategic nuclear deterrent will not end well externally, even if internal critics can somehow be persuaded to support such a decision.
So if Kim needs to publicly trumpet progress in these areas to give U.S. military planners pause and ensure internal political stability within the all-important military and party circles, his government is highly unlikely to be deterred in its pursuit of these capabilities by shows of force from the U.S. military in the region. North Korea is already fully aware of U.S. military capabilities; only the United States’ intentions are in debate. The U.S. decision to conduct joint exercises with its South Korean allies and commence flyovers of the North Korean coastline by B-1 Lancer and B-2 Stealth bombers, which the North regards as “first-strike” weapons in a potential U.S. nuclear attack, would thus be viewed by Pyongyang not as prudent preparations by a nation under threat, but as a prelude to a U.S. invasion. Fair or not, the North’s misperception of underlying motives renders these U.S-South Korean defense efforts highly provocative and counterproductive to the pursuit of peace and mutual trust on the peninsula.
If Washington is sincere in its wish to reduce tensions, it should immediately suspend overflights of the Korean Peninsula by bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons (whatever training value such flights have for the U.S. Air Force can be re-created in a more remote operating area), postpone the effectiveness of international sanctions recently approved at the UN (including those imposed by China), and delay any upcoming regional military exercises until diplomatic discussions with North Korea can begin in earnest. These discussions should begin on a bilateral basis and without preconditions, so as to preserve maximum flexibility for both parties and to enable the North’s delegation to overcome objections to their participation by their own hardliners. Even dictators have constituencies.
The participants on both sides can then carefully identify a series of confidence-building measures, which would likely include a moratorium on the North’s ICBM testing, a freeze on nuclear development under the supervision of the United Nations, and leading to the draft of a roadmap for the signing of a permanent peace treat and establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, including the establishment of an American embassy in Pyongyang. While many U.S. diplomats have tried and failed in the pursuit of reconciliation in the past, North Korea’s relative estrangement from its Cold War patrons Russia and China, the readiness and maturity of America’s South Korean partners, and the Trump administration’s atheism with respect to traditional diplomatic norms make this moment in U.S.-North Korean relations as fraught with opportunity as it is with danger.
Not since 1945 has the world order faced so much uncertainty. The legacy of the Trump administration, and the future of the Korean people, will be driven by the path chosen now.
Patrick Monaghan is a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, who served as indications and warning officer at the Combined Forces Command in Seoul from 1999-2000. He is now a practicing attorney and technology investor, residing in Seoul. Any opinions expressed herein are his own.