The Winter Olympic truce at play now will likely expire at the conclusion of the Paralympic Winter Games in March, followed by U.S.-ROK joint exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve in April. Well in advance, North Korea is warning that the exercises will push the Peninsula “back into the grim phases of catastrophe and the provokers will have to bear all responsibilities….”
U.S. policy should therefore expect an adverse reaction from Pyongyang, with North Korea attempting to drive wedges into the U.S.-ROK alliance and the international coalition. That will likely involve a combination of “brotherhood” outreach to the South Korea after the Olympics interspersed with threats and potentially provocations, including missile and or nuclear tests.
Beyond the Olympics, North Korea will continue to present the United States with three interrelated security and diplomatic challenges. The first is dealing with the rapidly evolving threat to the United States’ homeland and possessions; as well as the existing threat to U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. The second is reinforcing allies’ confidence in U.S. defense commitments and extended deterrence in the face of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The third and final one is maintaining the international coalition behind the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” toward realization of the denuclearization of North Korea.
What policy options, then, does that leave the United States with? There are a variety of considerations both in the military and diplomatic domains as well as in terms of policy coordination with China and South Korea.
Policy Options: Military
A number of military options to address the threat posed by North Korea to the United States homeland and possessions are being advanced — limited actions, or a “punch in the nose;” preventive war; and pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
The entry point into military options is related to the issue of the rationality of the Kim regime. In short, can North Korea be deterred? National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is a skeptic: “I don’t think that anyone is willing to bet the farm, or a U.S. city on the decision-making – rational decision making of Kim Jong-un,” he has said.
To date, the deterrence message of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander General Vincent Brooks – that any attack by North Korea on the United States and its allies will be met with a an “effective and overwhelming” response – remains unchallenged. At the conventional level, the U.S.-ROK counterprovocation planning that followed on North Korea’s sinking of the frigate Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 has deterred Pyongyang from similar provocations (North Korea moved expeditiously to resolve the 2015 DMZ land mine incident).
The unanswerable policy question at present is whether North Korea will continue to be deterred, at both conventional and nuclear levels, once it has confidence in its ability to strike the United States and deter U.S. entry into contingencies on the Korean Peninsula in support of South Korea. For those who hold that the United States will not be able to deter a nuclear-capable North Korea, or that the costs of depending on a rational decision-making process in Pyongyang are too great, there is a case for a military response: a punch “in the nose” now to underscore U.S. resolve or preventive war to end the North Korean threat, at lower costs today than in a conflict with a fully nuclear-armed North Korea.
There are, however, significant risks that must be considered.
This starts with our intelligence capabilities and a high degree of confidence in our ability to identify all targets related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and ends with our ability to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal without suffering a North Korean retaliatory response against South Korea, Japan, or the United States itself. Even a one-shot response from North Korean artillery could produce staggering casualties in Seoul and its environs.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made clear his government’s opposition to the use of force to resolve the nuclear issue – saying that, “without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action.” To act without the consent of Seoul would put the alliance at risk; igniting a second Korean War could end it. The consequences for U.S. global leadership and security in Northeast Asia are unfathomable.
The issue of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality/rationality must also be considered. There is an inherent contradiction, a logical disconnect, in the pre-emptive strike and “bloody nose” options. Military action is advocated because of Kim’s perceived irrationality – that a nuclear-armed Kim cannot be trusted to be deterred. At the same time, the advocates of such options are counting on Kim to be rational – to absorb the blow and either not respond or respond in a minimally acceptable way. To bet on Kim’s rationality is to make a “Hail Mary” strategic bet. The consequences of being wrong are again unfathomable.
Policy Options: Diplomacy
Beyond the fatalism of military options, there is also a diplomatic fatalism – that diplomacy over the past quarter century, including the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks, has failed to end North Korea’s nuclear program, that North Korea will never surrender its nuclear capabilities, and that the best diplomacy can effect is a freeze on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
From an “America First” and defense of the homeland perspective, a “freeze,” if realizable, would not be a bad deal. For our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, it would not be a very good deal. First, a freeze would leave South Korea and Japan vulnerable to North Korea’s existing nuclear and missile inventories. Second, it would call into question U.S. confidence in the effectiveness of its missile defenses or deterrence by denial. And, in doing so, it would raise questions about the U.S. defense commitment. Third, it would almost certainly fuel debate in South Korea and Japan over the need for an independent deterrent and, beyond Northeast Asia, call into question the U.S. commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
To be politically acceptable, a freeze would require a degree of transparency and verification that North Korea has never accepted. Physical restraint in testing is easily monitored, but to be effective, transparency and verification would require access to North Korea’s computer laboratories and facilities where explosions and tests can be modeled.
Policy Coordination: South Korea and China
Beyond U.S. diplomatic and military options, there are also considerations in terms of policy coordination between Washington as well as Seoul and Beijing.
With respect to South Korea, Trump and Moon have agreed on the need for policy to embrace both “maximum pressure” and dialogue “at the appropriate time.” But the dynamic within Moon’s progressive base is toward dialogue and engagement, as underscored by South Korea’s almost instantaneous reply to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Message.
In this inter-Korean context, the administration must make clear its red lines with respect to South-North engagement, some of which should include: no weakening of the sanctions regime; no reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex; and a firm insistence on the doctrine of no surprises. At the same time, the administration should also make clear its support for an expansion of family visits, well-monitored humanitarian assistance at the point of consumption, and an opening of telecommunications and media channels in an effort to expand North Korean access to independent information. North Korea is unlikely to agree to the latter, but the policy objective is to put Pyongyang on the defensive
With respect to China, in supporting UNSC Resolutions 2375, 2371, and 2397, China has aligned its diplomacy with that of the Trump administration. However, China’s priority interests on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia do not align precisely with those of the United States. Denuclearization, if attainable peacefully, is a preferred outcome but not at the cost of instability, a breakdown of order, and an end of North Korea, a potential result of “maximum pressure.” Yet, in all likelihood, denuclearization will not take place absent a crisis in North Korea. In such a fast-moving, dynamic environment, the prospects for strategic miscalculation in Beijing and Washington are extremely high, given the present absence of official dialogue focused on North Korean contingencies. This lack of U.S.-China strategic dialogue on North Korea needs to be addressed.
To keep China on board with the international coalition, the administration should be prepared to address Chinese interests in terms of the end state of unified Korean Peninsula. Mattis and Tillerson in their joint Wall Street Journal op-ed made clear that the United States has no interest in deploying troops north of the 38th parallel. It is also possible to reassure China that the United States has no interest in maintaining THAAD deployments in South Korea once the threat posed by North Korea ceases to exist. Decisions on the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance and U.S. force posture on the Peninsula after unification, however, are to be decided by the citizens of a united country, not between China and the United States.
The Road Ahead
The strategic objective of the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward North Korea — “the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program”– was recently reaffirmed at the Vancouver meeting of Foreign Ministers on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The Trump administration has succeeded in bringing together an international coalition behind its North Korea policy. At the United Nations Security Council, China and Russia have supported successive resolutions that, over time, will contract the growth of North Korea’s economy by constricting access to international trade and financial institutions. The UNSC/international coalition represents a significant diplomatic accomplishment.
Despite Kim Jong-un’s announcement that that the November 28 Hwasong-15 missile test marked the completion of North Korea’s nuclear program, just saying so doesn’t make it so. There are still significant engineering challenges to be met before North Korea realizes a compelling ICBM operational capability. Among them are: stability and survivability of the Hwasong’s upper-stage and re-entry vehicle over an ICBM’s parabolic trajectory; miniaturization of a survivable ICBM-compatible nuclear warhead; and accurate navigation and guidance systems – all demonstrated by repeated testing under variable conditions.
At the same time, never has North Korea faced the concerted economic pressure that it faces today, and this will likely continue in the year ahead. This reality suggests that there is still time for the strategy of “maximum pressure” to play out before opting for kinetic options.
In effect, North Korea represents one of foreign policy’s “wicked problems,” one difficult or impossible to resolve at the present time given its multifaceted complexities. Wicked problems are ones to which there are no good policy options, only least bad. In this context, the aim of policy should be to protect and advance the security interests of the United States and its allies, while maintaining the UN and Vancouver coalitions, bearing in mind that a kinetic response could fracture coalition support.
There are still nonkinetic steps to take to enhance “maximum pressure” – enhanced defense cooperation with South Korea and Japan, particularly in missile defense; intelligence coordination to identify and sanction North Korean front companies; strict enforcement of maritime interdiction, allowed under UNSC Resolution 2375; enhanced PSI operations; and cutting off overseas remittances by requiring return of overseas North Korean laborers by the end of 2018. Consideration should also be given to having representatives of the UN Panel of Experts deployed to the China-North Korea border to assure China’s compliance with the UNSC resolutions it is supporting.
While resistant to resolution today, the challenges posed by Pyongyang can be managed, likely with a combination of defense and deterrence, until opportunities for resolution present themselves for diplomacy.
James J. Przystup is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the View of policies of the National Defense University or the Department of Defense.