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The Strategic Implications of America’s Coming Choice on the Korean Peninsula
The growing lethality of North Korea’s military threat increasingly undercuts America’s ability to use diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions or military force to counter its dangerously provocative behavior. As Kim Jong Un accelerates the buildup of his nuclear-tipped missile arsenal, there is a distinct possibility that no matter what actions the United States and its allies take, the Korean peninsula is headed for war.
What is to be done? It is important to keep demonstrating U.S. resolve—shooting down a missile perhaps—to reinforce the credibility of American deterrence. Yet it is vital that the U.S. also take steps to drive events toward a more acceptable outcome. Diplomacy could have consequences almost as bad as a conflict. Should Kim Jong Un’s challenge of American resolve be rewarded with a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. will be seen as having been forced to accept the North’s terms—something that would irreparably damage the credibility of America’s extended deterrence worldwide.
Driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies is a longstanding goal of America’s adversaries to include Russia, China and North Korea. Accordingly, Pyongyang wants to weaken the U.S-Korea Alliance. Kim’s aim is to compel American troops to withdraw from the Korean peninsula, thereby leaving Pyongyang in a more advantageous position to settle matters with Seoul. Having recently tested a thermonuclear device, North Korea may soon have the leverage to foment a serious enough crisis to force the U.S. to choose between war or negotiations on North Korean terms. While it would lose an actual fight, North Korea almost certainly believes the U.S. will back down rather than risk nuclear war. Such a move could tear the Alliance apart and, with the whole world watching, fatally undermine America’s reliability as a security partner. It is not hard to imagine an emboldened Russia taking more aggressive hybrid actions in the Baltics, Poland or Ukraine as a challenge to the political cohesion of the NATO Alliance; for China to be more aggressive in the South China Sea; or for other adversaries to overtly circumvent non-proliferation conventions.
The first question regarding military options is “toward what end?” North Korea’s military threat makes the use of force extremely risky. If the U.S. decided to demonstrate its resolve by conducting some sort of minor, localized strike, the North could simply play the victim without changing its strategic calculus. However, to achieve real punitive effects, North Korea’s capable air defenses and hardened military-industrial infrastructure would require that the Alliance mount a sustained military campaign. Things would almost certainly escalate quickly. To make military options viable, the lethality of the North’s military must be significantly reduced beforehand or the price will be extraordinarily high—the Alliance would not be able to prevent North Korea from launching its road mobile missiles nor its artillery from punishing Seoul.
Reports that the U.S. is exploring negotiations with North Korea are broadly welcome. However, starting or carrying on talks will be far easier than converting them into sensible, durable achievements. In this context, reaching a settlement with North Korea may be no more feasible than resorting to military force. It takes two to negotiate, and the Kim regime has no reason to negotiate a settlement that doesn’t give it what it wants—which is a peace treaty and the withdrawal of U.S. forces while it retains its nuclear capabilities. Not only would this put America’s other security arrangements at risk, once U.S. forces have departed, the North could seek to unify the Korean Peninsula—and use those nuclear weapons to deter interference.
Relying on China to rein in North Korea is similarly problematic. Why should China take responsibility for what it sees as a U.S. problem? China is an adversarial competitor whose strategic interests and risk calculus vis-a-vis North Korea diverges sharply from those of the United States. China has probably concluded that it cannot overly pressure the Kim regime without risking its collapse or other unpredictable outcomes. Although China may incrementally do more to moderate rising tensions, it would be a mistake to interpret these actions as support for U.S. objectives. Its long-term interests are probably better served by preserving some relationship with North Korea, however strained, until it assesses that the risks of doing so outweigh the risks of acting against the Kim regime—particularly if it has concluded the current course of events might lead to a major reduction in U.S. presence and influence in Asia.
If the international community could muster the resolve to implement sanctions heavy enough to truly pressure North Korea, what would be the actual outcome? The hope being that maximum sanction pressure would dissuade North Korea from deploying nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, effective sanctions could easily lead to as destructive a conflict as would the pre-emptive use of force. There are no indications that Kim will simply give in. Faced with crippling sanctions that directly and immediately threaten the survival of his regime, Kim is more likely to lash out violently and bring the peninsula to the brink of war to break international resolve and relieve the pressure.
North Korea’s military threat is at core of its own deterrence strategy. As long as North Korea holds the Alliance at such high risk it is very unlikely that military, diplomatic, economic or political pressure will force it to change its course. The enormous damage it could inflict prevents countries from applying enough pressure to alter its behavior—leverage it uses to maximum advantage. The U.S. and its allies need to undercut the North’s strategy by taking steps to significantly reduce the lethality of its military and shake Kim Jong Un’s confidence. This might make it possible to apply enough diplomatic and economic pressure to force a more favorable outcome while providing increased options to de-escalate a crisis before it turns kinetic. If conflict becomes inevitable, the end costs would be significantly more acceptable.
Improving the readiness of the Alliance and the reliability of its missile defenses would provide increased deterrence but these measures alone cannot be the focus of effort. North Korea’s military would still be lethal enough for it pursue an aggressive strategy of nuclear brinksmanship. Deterrence has been the cornerstone of the Alliance but unless something is done to reduce North Korea’s ability to threaten, events increasingly point to miscalculation and war. Should it come to war, a strengthened Alliance military posture would enable it to destroy North Korean forces more quickly, but the North would still be able to inflict a lot of damage. Furthermore, the U.S. has yet to demonstrate that it can reliably defeat volleys of ballistic missiles—leaving its cities potentially vulnerable.
So, if all options are unsatisfactory, what can be done? The short to medium-term answer is containment and crisis management but the long-term solution may be to open up the Alliance’s options by reducing the North’s military threat. In both cases, the under-utilized instrument of power is information. Time matters. If North Korea does not yet have a reliable enough nuclear/missile combination, it soon will. Once a crisis escalates it will be too late. Should it come to war, the full price North Korea has set will have to be paid. Given the adversarial mindset of China and Russia as well as the global interests at stake, a lot more hangs in the balance than just northeast Asia.
The U.S. and its allies should implement an influence campaign to convince North Koreans that if Kim Jong Un’s actions lead them to war, their best hope would be to cooperate and actively assist in a peaceful reunification. Of particular emphasis are the mid-level and senior elites whose personal decisions would directly impact the level of violence. A significant amount of data suggests this is entirely possible—although North Koreans demonstrate loyalty now, this does not mean they will not look to their own futures when forced to choose by life and death circumstances.
An information-centered strategy that undercuts Kim’s military threat can help preserve our deterrence, increase the effectiveness of our crisis management, and, in the event of a conflict or regime collapse, substantially reduce the costs of establishing an acceptable peace. There is no easy solution, but the time has come to begin forcing events toward a more favorable conclusion rather than waiting for one to be forced upon us.
The views expressed herein are his alone. They are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense or U.S. government or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Assessments made in this study do not necessarily represent the position of the US intelligence community or any US government organization.