This week CIMSEC published articles analyzing European maritime security submitted in response to our Call for Articles. Submissions discussed various topics including key developments in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the strategic calculus of the players involved, and potential ways to resolve festering insecurity on the Korean peninsula. We thank our authors for their excellent contributions, listed below.
“There are two main tools left in the U.S. arsenal: economic sanctions and diplomacy. The first has been attempted, and leaves much to be desired. The second has received little play because it is politically unpopular to look ‘weak’ against North Korea.”
“Of particular concern, North Korea has been making progress toward attaining a nuclear triad by developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. After several failures, the DPRK successfully tested its first SLBM, known as the Pukkuksong-1/KN-11, in late August 2016.”
“However and whenever the Kim regime falls, it will be ugly – but some kind of end state will follow. Identifying the most desirable (or least undesirable) one will be critical to planning for North Korean contingencies.”
“The Korean peninsula now has more than one unpredictable player on the field. This gives substantial fresh upside in the potential to find solutions on the peninsula – with the downsides more terrible than ever.”
“Experts believe that each effort is bringing him closer to realizing his ICBM dream. What has led Kim to escalate this antipathy toward the U.S. to this extent and send out a very clear and unequivocal message that these developments are all aimed at the U.S. and its regional allies?”
“As the situation around the Korean Peninsula returns to normal now, we should reevaluate the Korean Peninsula crisis in order to identify where the misperceptions are that lead us to an overstatement of the reality in North Korea.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: “The Monument to Party Founding” at Munsu Street, Taedonggang District in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wikimedia Commons)
As we approach the halfway mark of 2017, the geopolitical narrative this year has been dominated by North Korea and its enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un. Bluff and bluster from Pyongyang is nothing new. However the last few months has seen tension rising to unprecedented levels and the rhetoric seems to be a lot more threatening – nuclear war with the United States at the top of the heap.
He has repeatedly demonstrated his missile capability either through launches into the sea (with questionable results) or at spectacular military parades. He is determined to develop an ICBM with only one obvious target. In this year itself he has launched seven missiles of various types and trajectories including an IRBM, the Hwasong-12 on 14 May, and another medium range missile on 21 May. Experts believe that each effort is bringing him closer to realizing his ICBM dream. What has led Kim to escalate this antipathy toward the U.S. to this extent and send out a very clear and unequivocal message that these developments are all aimed at the U.S. and its regional allies?
The DPRK’s Domestic Factors in Elite Decision-Making
Kim Jong-un has been variously described as a despot, a mentally unstable leader and even a schizophrenic who blows up close relatives with anti-aircraft guns on frivolous excuses. Increasingly there is a perception that underlying this unpredictable exterior is a very shrewd mind that allows the world to think him so and thereby keep everybody on edge. To retain absolute power in a political structure such as North Korea’s would require a great deal of cunning and skill because oppressive and totalitarian regimes beget palace intrigues, covert conspiracies, and palace coups. This kind of one-man authoritarianism also breeds megalomaniacal tendencies which is perhaps what is happening in this case with a young leader who wields absolute power and is largely unchallenged in the exercise of that power. However, such a leader cannot function without a supporting military structure and trusted generals, some of whom themselves must be wielding enough power of their own and are content to let him function so long as their own power structure remains intact.
The display of awesome military might at ceremonial parades and frequent missile launches may also be a brave attempt to battle internal insecurities and play to a domestic audience. This audience can be led to believe that the outside world is ganging up on them and therefore the great leader is developing disproportionate military power to safeguard the nation, which for a starving and economically backward population is a small price to pay against externally-imposed destruction. To the outside world at large, Kim needs to be better understood and perhaps a judicious mixture of the carrot and the stick is essential to contain this rhetoric which he may soon himself come to believe.
Determining the Credibility of the U.S. Response
The U.S., which should be the most concerned about this escalation in North Korea’s missile ambitions, could perhaps adopt one of three approaches – confrontational, conciliatory, or just plain indifference. None of these offer a satisfactory solution in themselves and a comprehensive strategic approach could perhaps offer a way ahead with a combination of all three. If the U.S. is looking to adopt a predominantly confrontational approach as indications from the current administration so far suggest, it needs to do a lot more than it is doing or has even shown an inclination to do. The famous ’pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ initiated by President Obama should have sent a clear and unequivocal message to the U.S. friends and foes alike in the region but ended up doing just the opposite. It not only created doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region amongst its allies but also emboldened its foes who perceived it as weak and ineffective. President Obama’s failure to act on the red lines he himself drew up on Syria and the Ukraine further eroded U.S. credibility in the Indo-Pacific. Irreparable fault lines have developed in ASEAN as countries increasingly veer towards China as insurance for their future well-being. The commitment expected of a superpower which hopes to shape the 21st century world order with a near-peer competitor breathing down its neck has been sadly absent.
However, notwithstanding this reluctance to act, there was a maturity and sagacity in the U.S. leadership and reaction to global events which inspired confidence. However, November 2016 changed all that. The foot-in-mouth outbursts from President-elect Trump on important foreign policy issues sent alarm bells ringing amongst all U.S. allies but there was still hope that the responsibility that comes with being the president of the U.S., the most powerful country on Earth, will make him come to grips with reality and shape a mature outlook. Unfortunately, the lack of any coherent direction in U.S. foreign policy initiatives has greatly eroded its image and a large part of the blame for that is attributable to the president himself. In the context of this article, his statement that South Korea would have to pay $1 billion for the THAAD system only to be retracted a day later by his administration speaks volumes about the foreign policy crisis facing the USA. The initial grandstanding on China only to ultimately accept meek acquiescence reflected an immaturity that bordered on the absurd and which regimes such as China’s see as a sign of great weakness and a vulnerability waiting to be exploited.
The final nail in the coffin was the ridiculous USS Carl Vinson affair of the missing CSG which not only damaged the professional image of the U.S. Navy but also exposed dangerous chinks in the abilities of the president’s administration, something the USA can ill afford at this moment.
Seeing this spectacle play out would have been a source of great rejoicing in China. From a situation last year when pressure from the U.S. at least got China to make the right noises about the need to rein in North Korea, nothing of the sort has happened this time. Rogue states such as North Korea are rarely amenable to reason and therefore need to be kept in check by their biggest benefactors who are unwilling to do so for precisely the same reason. It is a well- known fact that China is North Korea’s biggest benefactor and despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and thereby on the top table of a rules-based international order, has been complicit in funding and proliferating nuclear technology, expertise, and material to North Korea. China is also not so naïve as to have created these nuclear problems without retaining some element of control over their programs. However, this is now a handy geopolitical tool for China to keep its adversaries, principally the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and India on edge. The virulent Chinese opposition to the THAAD installation in South Korea was perhaps attributable more to this edge being blunted than any specific threat to China itself. The six-nation formula which was meant to rein in the North Koreans has been an abject failure mainly because of the Chinese intransigence to play honest broker and initiate any concrete action against North Korea.
Even after North Korea’s recent missile tests, China made a few perfunctory noises, mobilized a few troops on its border with Korea, and stopped a few coal carrying trucks after which it was business as usual. For some strange reason, these actions seem to satisfy the West who can perhaps not suggest anything better in the absence of a coherent strategy of their own in checking North Korea. Insofar as North Korea is concerned, this was reaffirmation of Chinese support in the event of a confrontation with the U.S. North Korea’s belligerence toward the U.S. is playing directly into Chinese hands as U.S. preoccupation with the Korean peninsula gives China unfettered opportunity to consolidate its position in the South China Sea and indeed in the entire Indo-Pacific.
Perhaps the most unflattering situation in this entire imbroglio is that of the U.S. in the region, primarily because it is not sure of its own position and as a result is creating great uncertainty in the minds of its closest allies, particularly Japan and South Korea. In the event of an escalation in the stand-off between U.S. and North Korea, it may be Japan and South Korea which will bear the brunt of Kim’s likely irrational response. This would not be acceptable to either nation and if the U.S. is unable to reassure its allies in the region with a credible plan to thwart North Korean aggression then it is unlikely to garner the unconditional support it expects.
It is therefore quite evident that Kim is going to continue making news for the rest of 2017 and beyond. Reason will take a back seat in his quest for an ICBM. The only country that could prevail upon him to curtail this ambition is China which has shown no inclination to do so thus far and is unlikely to do so as part of its own larger strategic design. It may even in fact offer clandestine support as it has done in the past in gross violation of international non-proliferation norms. The U.S. needs to get its North Korea policy in place as part of a consistent, mature, and well-thought out overall foreign policy addressing the concerns of its allies. Countering North Korean belligerence with ad hoc reactions like diverting a couple of CSGs is neither a strong enough signal of intent nor adequate for the message it wants to send across.
Commodore Anil Jai Singh is an Indian Navy veteran whose commanded four submarines and one ship. He is presently the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted on email@example.com and on twitter @ajs_subdriver.
Featured Image: U.S. soldiers hang a South Korean flag on the top of their tank during a joint exercise in the city of Yeoncheon on May 30, 2013. (Jung Yeon-JE/AFP-Getty Images)
The Korean peninsula now has more than one unpredictable player on the field. This gives substantial fresh upside in the potential to find solutions on the peninsula – with the downsides more terrible than ever.
On the campaign trail, his inauguration, and now as the maxim of his press team, Donald Trump has laid down a promise to shake up Washington in ways that no other politician could. While the jury is still out on whether the domestic politics as usual tug-of-war has been upended with a new president in town, Mr. Trump’s position as a political outsider and foreign affairs neophyte is having immediate and tangible consequences for United States foreign policies across the globe. Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House has infused unpredictability into American foreign policy in ways that have been cautiously avoided for most of the last four decades.
Nowhere is this newly founded unpredictability more salient than in North Korea. The Korean peninsula is home to a frail, 64-year old ecosystem of stability built on military might, big power politics, and constant commitment problems. Stable predictability is the foundation of this tenuous Korean peace, and Donald Trump’s penchant for shooting from the hip and upending convention could crumble that foundation and send Korea’s fragile ecosystem of stability up in flames.
The frailness of the Korean peace is exactly what gives President Trump’s Korean policy such incredible leverage. Whether it is threatening trade wars with China, loosely considering first strikes against the North Korean regime, or brokering peace through a hamburger summit with Kim Jong-Un, the chance that President Trump’s foreign policy decision making will fall outside of the acceptable mainstream means that all other players involved need to rethink their priors and reexamine their strategies. Principally we assume this means the North Korean regime itself must rethink the location of the red lines it so often toes as a core tool in its foreign policy toolbox.
Chinese North Korean Policy in the age of Trump
The player that has the most to think about is North Korea’s foremost ally and benefactor – China. Donald Trump’s unpredictability may be able to pressure China into taking decisive action with North Korea, especially if it believes that further nuclear development may lead to a preventative first strike from American military forces. Trump’s firing of missiles at a Syrian airbase has created the perception American destructive force is more predisposed towards use than it was during the Obama presidency. A perceived penchant for quickly executed military action gives Donald Trump certain advantages that a calculating, forward thinking President Obama did not have. The Obama White House launching a sudden, unilateral preventative strike against North Korea seemed a remote possibility. Would we see the same cool-headed restraint with Mr. Trump in the Oval? That becomes less clear.
If the Trump administration takes this unpredictability to the Korean peninsula, China will see itself stuck between two bad choices – watching as the North Korean regime is attacked and perhaps toppled by an external force waging war in China’s own backyard, or take part in isolating a North Korean regime that would crumble onto itself when it is cut off from foreign currency and vital agricultural and energy inputs. Of course, China has many intervening policy choices that it can make between those extremes – with the most likely being pressuring Kim Jong-Un enough to denuclearize but to remain short of imperiling the regime’s survival. Should Kim Jong-Un remain incorrigible, China has other strings to pull within the North Korean leadership. And pull those strings it would, if China credibly believed that an American first strike was credible and imminent.
The U.S.-ROK Alliance and North-South Relations
There are other channels through which President Trump’s disdain for convention could lead to shifts on the peninsula. Mr. Trump has put sacred cows of American foreign policy on the table before, including expressing discontent with the U.S.-ROK military alliance. That President Trump would be somehow more reverent towards the thrice yearly U.S.-ROK join military exercises seems doubtful. He has floated that it is possible that the U.S. would ‘go it alone’ on North Korea without Chinese assistance; would that threat extend to sidelining South Korea in potential peace treaty talks? If these issues are at least perceived as being on the table, the Trump administration could set the stage for the kind of grand, two-track bargain that is the only real diplomatic way forward for all players on the Korean peninsula. That includes North Korea taking serious steps on nuclear talks, and opening the door to Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Disarmament; and it also includes the U.S. and South Korea making credible commitments toward diplomatic recognition of the DPRK and moves toward a peace regime on the peninsula.
There are other ways the Korean stalemate can break, and not all of them include a U.S.-led offensive or even U.S. led negotiations. A U.S. ‘go it alone’ attitude moves the meter for Korean calculus on both sides of the DMZ, creating common cause among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. Pyongyang may see value in walking back the recalcitrant position it has taken towards China and attempt to move toward mending ties. A history of capriciousness and the domestic political factors that Kim Jong-Un must satisfy to stay in power may make the credibility of a North Korean commitment seem laughable. But it is important not to underestimate how much importance Beijing places on the continued existence of the DPRK as a buffer state that keeps U.S. influence at bay and U.S.-ROK military capabilities pointed at Pyongyang (instead of Beijing). Kim Jong-Un could offer Xi Jinping an off ramp to deescalate tensions and temporarily lower the chances of U.S. intervention. Xi may take that off ramp to return to the status quo and maintain North Korea’s position as a key strategic buffer.
The biggest shift may come from the advantageous negotiating position in which Seoul finds itself. The South Korean public is again ready for another round of North Korean engagement; a liberal president (may) sit in the Blue House, who sees himself as the heir to the country’s democratic, engagement-based legacy. South Korea may see itself as being sidelined in deciding its own future; and most importantly, a few missiles casually lobbed at an impending DPRK ballistic missile test can escalate to reprisals on South Korean citizens or all-out war. These circumstances give Seoul leverage over inter-Korean and regional events that it has not enjoyed for decades, perhaps even since the beginning of division of the Peninsula. As military and economic threats close in on Pyongyang from both the U.S. and China, a desperate Kim Jong-Un and a Moon Jae-In trying to break South Korean foreign policy out of its conservative mold may become natural allies in trying to diminish tensions and avoid large scale conflict.
For all the possibilities we see in Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy, we cannot forget that upending the ecosystem of stability carries huge risks and terrible downsides. North Korea suffers from serious conventional military deficiencies and an authoritarian government constantly in fear of being deposed; an unpredictable Trump means their own margin of error for survival is unpredictably slimmer. North Korean officials have been explicit in that they will act first if they believe war is imminent – Trump moving carrier groups to or starting a troop buildup in Korea could be the spark that reignites a major land war in Korea.
The Trump administration walks a very fine line. It must understand the reputation it has built, and operationalize that reputation to push a real deal on the peninsula. This is a once in a generation opportunity for a comprehensive strategy: showing it is serious in its potential actions, so as to cajole China into action and Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table; while at the same time being prepared to make big moves on military exercises, denuclearization, and peace deal negotiations when the time comes.
Without a comprehensive strategy, this is just two crazy people playing a game of chicken; a prospect made all the more the more terrifying when civil war and nuclear weapon use is on the line. President Trump has a window of opportunity to make big progress on the Korean peninsula. His reputation precedes him; he just needs to put it to work.
Travis Lindsay studies international security at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy & Strategy. He is a part of the CSIS Pacific Forum Young Leader program, and has previous experience at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He writes on U.S. foreign policy and energy security in East Asia, and has published with both The Diplomat and The Peninsula on Korea issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang March 31, 2013 in this picture released by the North’s official KCNA news agency on April 1, 2013. (KCNA via Reuters)
A useful exercise in considering courses of action that could be taken in response to a North Korean collapse is to skip ahead to the aftermath. However and whenever the Kim regime falls, it will be ugly – but some kind of end state will follow. Identifying the most desirable (or least undesirable) one will be critical to planning for North Korean contingencies. After all, how can one plan without an objective? Considering outcomes enables us to write policies that increase the likelihood of our preferred end state, while also helping guide contingency planning should something else actually occur.
We may postulate three basic outcomes:
Everybody is wrong, and the Energizer Bunny of family autocracies doesn’t collapse at all. It just keeps going and going…
The Kims fall, and the peninsula is reunited.
The Kims fall, and the peninsula remains divided.
Before getting into those, a couple preliminaries must be stated first. The North Korean government has continually stood since 1948 because its neighbors have been able to live with it. This is not to pass a moral judgment, but simply to note that since the 1953 armistice was signed, no interested party has found dislodging the Kims to be worth the price. North Korean nuclear capability certainly changes the calculus, but the fundamental result appears to be the same so far. The existence of North Korea provides certain conveniences in other matters. For China, it provides a buffer zone between it and a U.S. ally on the East Asian mainland, as well as a client state with which it may deniably perturb the West. For Japan, to whom geography gives a vested interest in peninsular affairs, the standoff prevents Chinese influence from dominating all of Korea – and also prevents a unified Korea rivaling Japan’s eminent position in Northeast Asia. And for both Japan and the United States, the North Korean threat justifies the presence of defensive forces – to include missile defenses – that are intended for defense against Korea but could also be used to keep the Chinese in check.
With all this mind, how could the three basic scenarios play out?
This is actually more reasonable than it might seem. A long tradition of existenceis as good an indicator as any that the Kim regime knows how to stick around for the long haul. Nuclear brinksmanship will occur and deterrence will be tested, but fundamentally things will remain stable, if uneasy, in this scenario. For reasons described above, the situation has proven sustainable on the international stage.
Unfortunately, this does nothing to change the thousands of artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, but the status quo has still been decent enough for the South to amass one of the world’s largest gross domestic products. The Republic of Korea has made the best of the hand it’s been dealt, and will likely continue to do so. Not so much for the people north of the armistice line – but that appears to be the price of stability.
Reunification by the ROK
Should the Kim regime fall, another authority will have to fill the vacuum. The Republic of Korea would be the natural choice, and is sure to be the United States’ preferred option. However, this scenario places the Republic on the border of the People’s Republic of China. For the PRC to go along with this, U.S. forces will probably need to vacate the peninsula as soon as initial stability operations are completed. Continued U.S. relations with a unified Korea will become less a matter of our bilateral relationship and more a matter of how it plays vis a vis China.
However, diminished U.S. influence in Korea may not be to Japan’s liking. Undoubtedly a newly reunified Korea would be inward-focused for several years as it integrates the north into the peninsular and world economies – but the ROK would emerge stronger for it. Without the everyday American presence it has now, the unified Korea may attempt to assert itself on the world stage in ways counter to Japanese interests, not to mention those of China. We may again see Korea as a platform for competing international influences, as the 1890s saw between Japan, China, and the so far unmentioned but very-present northern neighbor, Russia.
Reunification by ???
War is a contest of probabilities, and no result is preordained. It is entirely possible that the Kim regime may fall, but could take Seoul with it, leaving the Republic of Korea just as dead as the People’s Democratic Republic. With no obvious authority, a new power would fill the vacuum. It may be a Maoist movement to succeed the Kims, a Korean nationalist one, or something else harder to predict. Whatever the case may be, any authority other than the ROK is likely to be less amenable to Western interests. The Republic essentially owes its existence to the UN effort of the 1950s and continued American presence thereafter. A post-ROK state would not feel the same obligations toward its predecessors’ enablers.
Continued Partition, Courtesy China
Reunification is not a foregone conclusion, even in the event of the Kim regime’s fall. It may be that the two Korean societies have simply diverged so much since the 1940s that a merger is no longer possible. Or it may be simply that power politics interferes.
As noted above, China values a buffer between it and the U.S. forces in South Korea. It could maintain this by invading the moment the regime collapses and establishing control of the North’s territory before the ROK (with U.S. support) can do so. It could then set up a puppet state and demand global recognition of its fait accompli.
At greater length, a similar outcome could also be achieved via a hybrid war effort in a destabilized North Korea. No doubt the Chinese have studied Russian operations in Ukraine. Even if the ROK controlled all of Korea on paper, a push by Chinese “little green men” could establish a frozen conflict keeping the ROK and its Western allies off balance. An ephemeral Korean version of the Donetsk People’s Republic might be good enough for China’s purposes.
Continued Partition, Berlin 1945-Style
It is conceivable that a wartime stalemate or diplomatic impasse leads to further partition of North Korean territory, reminiscent of Germany after World War II. Different players could have sectors, including China, the Republic of Korea, the U.S., and, just possibly, Russia. If such an occupation scheme was to go into place, it would almost certainly be an arrangement exclusively by the states involved. The presence of multiple veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council implies the UN will probably not have much utility.
What we think will happen is not necessarily what will happen. If one believes history arcs toward justice or that despots always fail, it is easy to blithely assume Korean unification is just a matter of time. This analysis reminds us it is not. Many potential outcomes exist and each will have unique second- and third-order effects. Some of the likelier effects can be identified, and today’s diplomatic efforts and operational planning may be able to mitigate them, and even nudge events in a preferred direction. Perhaps more importantly, the relationships built and knowledge gained in hedging against the North Korean challenge will enable quick, effective decision-making when something completely different occurs.
Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, strategic communications consultant, and Naval War College student whose opinions on matters large and small do not represent the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or his employer.
Featured Image: Monuments of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wikimedia Commons)