Breaking Down the North Korea Crisis
Take a deep breath, don’t panic
Whatever you might have heard over the last several days, the United States isn’t about to be engulfed in a ball of nuclear fire, courtesy of Kim Jong Un. It’s a little more complicated than that.
That’s not to suggest that the crisis on the Korean peninsula is a trivial matter. North Korea is a demonstrated nuclear power, with a fast emerging Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capability. With every bombastic threat issued by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the two hot headed leaders are falling deeper into a vicious cycle of escalation that could turn very ugly, very fast.
There is a way out, but this means acknowledging just how bad the current situation is. Because Pyongyang relies on nuclear weapons for its security, it won’t give them up voluntarily. The only plausible way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is through military force, which would trigger a war that would likely kill millions.
That fact hasn’t been lost on senior White House officials. In a conversation that appears to have been mistaken for off the record, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told a reporter that “there’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it … they got us.”
That leaves the United States with very few options other than to accept a deterrence relationship with North Korea. As distasteful as this sounds, it might not be all that bad, as it is key to much-needed nuclear restraint.
U.S. Army vehicles in South Korea. Army photo
Last month, North Korea conducted its first ever ICBM test. Trump promised to respond with “fire and fury,” and tweeted that America is “locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” Predictably, North Korea laughed off the president’s remarks as a “load of nonsense” and proceeded to detail plans to fire missiles into the waters off the coast of Guam.
The media response has been predictable. The narrative that emerged is roughly this. North Korea now has the ability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons, and war is imminent.
The good news is that is a gross exaggeration. Trump’s “bull in a china shop” approach to North Korea has contributed to the worst crisis we have seen on the Korean peninsula since the 2010 sinking of the patrol boat Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died. But to suggest that were are on the brink of a nuclear war is sensationalist and irresponsible. Sure, the odds of a miscalculation that could spiral into a full-blown conflict have increased significantly, but the North Korean leadership is not suicidal.
On the contrary, the goal of the Kim regime is survival, and its determination to develop a credible nuclear deterrent is a case in point. North Korea is painfully aware that using nuclear weapons against the United States, or U.S. allies, would guarantee its own destruction. In addition to seeking its own deterrent, North Korea is thus effectively deterred by the United States.
Furthermore, whether or not North Korea has the ability to strike the mainland United States with nuclear weapons is far from certain. The answer to that question depends on who you ask, and who you believe. U.S. intelligence agencies seem to believe this is the case, although they do not specify at what confidence level that assessment is made.
Others, including the South Korean vice defense minister Suh Choo-suk, however, doubt that “North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms.” Evidence has also emerged which indicates that Hwasong-14 might not be as advanced as it appears.
Analysis published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists shows that both tests in July 2017 carried a “dummy payload,” which was much lighter than an actual nuclear warhead and allowed the missiles to reach a far greater altitude than they would have under realistic conditions. This generated exactly the impression that Kim Jong Un wanted to achieve — that North Korea can deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.
A U.S. Army Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missile. Army photo
The bad news is that the details of North Korean ICBM tests don’t really matter. Even if North Korea does not yet have an operational ICBM, sooner or later it is going to get there. Probably within a year or two. And when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation, North Korea is a lost cause. Since withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, the country has built up to 60 nuclear weapons, according to recent estimates from the U.S. intelligence community.
Because Pyongyang sees its nuclear and missile arsenal as a guarantee for survival, no amount of pressure will reverse these developments. In that regard, North Korea is no different from the more established nuclear powers — except that it sees a much more urgent need for a nuclear deterrent due to concerns about U.S.-imposed regime change and preventive strikes.
As much as the United States hates to admit it, this points to the need to accept a deterrence relationship with North Korea. Refusing to do so thus far has only pushed North Korea to boost the credibility of its deterrent by demonstrating readiness to use nuclear weapons and by increasing its arsenal.
As far as some believe that missile defenses will change this equation, they are mistaken. On the one hand, missile defenses are not reliable. Neither the strategic Ground-based Midcourse Defense in the United States nor the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea has been tested under realistic conditions, and hence they might not work in a combat situation. Even if they do work, THAAD cannot protect Seoul due to its location.
Seoul. Photo via Wikipedia
The biggest threat to Seoul, home to 25 million people, and the world’s fourth largest metropolis, would not come from missiles, or nuclear warheads, but thousands of conventional artillery pieces — against which Patriot missile defenses do not provide an answer, either. North Korea also maintains a one-million man army and has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.
Even if the Kim regime refrained from using nuclear weapons, Pentagon officials estimate that the first ninety days of a war on the Korean peninsula could produce 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and American military casualties, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. In military terms, that translates to unacceptable losses.
As joint chiefs chairman Marine general Joseph Dunford said, a new Korean war “would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II.”
The fact that there are no good military options for eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program might be hard to stomach for some sectors of the country who seem to believe that the only acceptable form of American foreign policy comes in a bomb shaped package.
It’s time to stop living in denial. Last month’s ICBM tests weren’t a game changer. They represented a benchmark that we knew was coming sooner or later. The truth is that the United States has been deadlocked in a conventional deterrence relationship with North Korea for decades.
This points to the need for the United States to come to terms with a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea. Such a policy shift might in itself go a long way towards restraining North Korea, as the country would likely deem that its existing capabilities are sufficient to ensure survival. The next step could be to discuss ways to prevent crisis escalation, and seek realistic limits to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.
The alternative is the continuation of the current deadlock, which involves the unacceptable risk of a disastrous war. So you have to ask yourself, should we be so quick to throw away the option of a negotiated settlement with the North Koreans? And if so, do you feel lucky?
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy. Follow him on Twitter @WillSaetren. Geoffrey Wilson is a policy associate at the Ploughshares Fund, where he focuses on U.S. nuclear and military strategy. Follow him on Twitter @NuclearWilson. Dr. Tytti Erästö is the Roger Hale fellow at the Ploughshares Fund. Follow her on Twitter @TyttiErasto.