After weeks of increasingly bellicose rhetoric, North Korea remains in the international spotlight. Following the country’s third nuclear test and the subsequent tightening of UN sanctions, tension on the Korean Peninsula has been steadily mounting. Though every eye is trained at the 38th parallel, there seems to be little worry about any physical threat behind Kim Jong-Un’s war cries. In fact, most international leaders seem to treat the 30 year old dictator and his vows to turn cities into “seas of flame,” with about the same seriousness as a child throwing a temper tantrum to get attention from the grown-ups. Although not many may have been concerned after Tuesday’s warning to foreigner’s in the South about imminent nuclear war on the peninsula, it is important not to brush off the serious questions underlying the Korean situation.
For one, it is important to ask, what does Kim Jong-Un actually seek to gain from all of this? What is it that he wants? Georgetown professor, and former Director for Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council, Victor Cha, studied the outcomes of past antagonism coming from the DPRK in his book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. Professor Cha found that “every DPRK provocation for the past thirty years has been followed within months (on average 5.9 with the United States, 6.3 with South Korea) by a period of dialogue and negotiations in which the North got something they needed.” So is the saber rattling of past weeks just another attempt to bring the US to the negotiating table in order to sue for lesser sanctions and international aide? Obama has been steadfast in his resolve to refuse negotiations until Kim Jong-Un tones it back, a move which has earned him respect from both sides of the aisle. Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) came out with praise of Obama’s no-nonsense handling of the situation. The former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee admitted that, “I’ve been critical on Benghazi and also on Iraq and Afghanistan in certain aspects, but as far as North Korea is concerned, I give them full credit.” By refusing to offer up any concessions, the administration hopes to counteract what’s been a policy of brinksmanship so far on the side of the North. After closing the cooperatively run Kaesong Industrial Park, positioning two new Musudan missiles on the East coast, and issuing repeated warnings about impeding nuclear war, the North has pushed the envelope about as far as possible without taking any actual instigating actions. So with Kim Jong-Un dangling the regions security by a string, and Obama holding fast on his unwillingness to negotiate, the question becomes: now what?The headlines about a nuclear test, followed up with threats to launch a missile immediately bring to bear the image of mushroom clouds and full-scale nuclear retaliation. Yet the threat of the DPRK launching any sort of thermo-nuclear device is pretty far removed from reality. The two Musudan missiles positioned on the east coast of the peninsula are thought to have a range of about 2,200 miles, meaning they could strike all of Japan and even US military installations on Guam. Amid the North’s warnings of a launch at any time, Japan has already vowed to shoot down any missile, test or otherwise, that North Korea launches, and the US has moved two missile defense ships closer to the peninsula.
While there’s no evidence that the DPRK is anywhere close to having the capability to miniaturize a warhead sufficiently to fit on a medium-range missile, the threat presented by the North Korean military is a real one. With a standing army of 1.1 million and artillery barrages capable of leveling Seoul from behind the DMZ, North Korea could inflict serious damage before the South has time to react. Though the administration has sought to deter any military action with a promise of a proportional response, top officials like Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, have warned that the DPRK is “skating very close to a dangerous line,” where a single miscalculation could prove disastrous.
The true threat behind a nuclear North Korea is not if Kim Jong-Un decides to launch a nuclear device, but if he should lose control of them. The real question is what happens if Kim Jong Un’s regime falls and loses control over whatever nuclear stores they may have. In a recent war game, the US military played out precisely this scenario, replicating “the collapse of a nuclear-armed, xenophobic, criminal family regime that had lorded over a closed society and inconveniently lost control over its nukes as it fell.” The results are frightening. Serious challenges were encountered by forces trying to locate and secure vast stores of nuclear material, often positioned close to major population centers. Furthermore, the games pointed out that, as one leader put it, “We have been spoiled by a command-and-control network that has been established for a decade.” Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, an incursion into North Korea would come without any on the ground intelligence or established command posts. Essentially our troops would advance blindly at first until adequate intelligence could be secured. Needless to say, such results are not encouraging. The thought of a North Korean nuke, slipping out of the country and into the international black market sounds more like a plotline of “24” than a frighteningly real possibility. Thus, it seems like the best case scenario would be Kim Jong Un being able to quietly disarm the situation while retaining control over his regime. Yet the prospects of obtaining such a result seem slim at the moment.
If Obama remains steadfast in refusing negotiations, and Kim Jong Un keeps ratcheting up the rhetoric, what kind of exit strategy could be possible that doesn’t result in confrontation? As Admiral Samuel Locklear testified on the Hill, in the past Kim Jong Sun and Kim Jong Il had seemed to leave themselves exit windows should the situation become out of hand, yet “it’s not clear…that he [Kim Jong Un] has thought through how to get out of it. And so that’s what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging.” So will Kim Jong Un blink and back down, or content himself with an empty show of force like an open ocean missile test?
Personally, I believe that the only way back from the brink lay in the hands of North Korean ally, China. Obama will not, and in my opinion should not, fold to the DRPK and take a seat at the negotiating table. The vicious cycle of threat, tension, and then concession must be broken if we ever hope to achieve any semblance of stable equilibrium in the region. It seems to me that the best possible scenario would be China intervening on behalf of their ally, pulling Kim Jong Un back from edge, while allowing him to claim some small victory in the outcome. Only a third party mediator could offer the potential for a clean way out for Kim Jong Un. Thus the real core of the predicament will come down to US-China relations, and with that in mind, all eyes should be fixed upon Secretary of State, John Kerry, travelling to Beijing this Saturday. One thing’s for certain, things are coming to a head, I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening north of the 38th parallel these next few days.