North Korea’s dash for nuclear deterrence

Despite the rhetoric, both sides will want to avoid war at all costs, regardless of the US carrier group heading towards North Korea

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Matthew Bugeja
5 May 2017, 8:00am
Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, has proven to be at least as aggressive in his dealings with foreign powers as his father
Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, has proven to be at least as aggressive in his dealings with foreign powers as his father
For the casual observer watching the news about North Korea, and the rhetoric which has come out of Pyongyang over the past few months (particularly since Trump was inaugurated), one might think that a war between North Korea and the United States is imminent, but a little perspective is warranted. One doesn’t need to look too far back to establish a baseline for the troubled relations between North Korea and the US and its allies.

Just by way of example, in March 2010, a South Korean naval vessel was sunk off its west coast resulting in 46 sailors losing their lives with torpedo fragments being consistent with torpedoes produced in North Korea. In November of that same year, North Korea opened fire with artillery on the South’s Greater Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea, killing four people.

In 2017, there are several factors in play which render North Korea’s actions to be seemingly more dangerous than usual. On the one hand, you have a less patient President in Washington, who is far less restrained in his rhetoric than his predecessors. On the other, China (North Korea’s only remaining ally) has begun to distance itself more and more in recent months. Last February, Beijing suspended all coal imports from North Korea. For Pyongyang, this was no small detail, considering that coal amounts to around 35% of all its exports, and nearly all of it went north to China.

Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, has proven to be at least as aggressive in his dealings with foreign powers as his father. He has ordered four missile tests between February and mid-April, in part as a way of showing Pyongyang’s teeth in response to the annual military drills held between South Korea and the US in March. Several commentators on foreign media outlets have described the North’s rhetoric and belligerency to be a sign of a regime that is illogical and crazy, but it is anything but that.

One thing which Kim Jong-Un will want to ensure above all else is the continuation of his rule.  Thus, if the North were to invade South Korea or launch an attack on a US naval vessel at sea it would be putting that very priority in jeopardy with very little to gain in return. It cannot defeat both South Korea and the US, and should it escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, the regime in Pyongyang would not survive a nuclear exchange. Going by these assumptions, one would not expect the North Korean leader to launch an attack unless his rule is imminently threatened, at which point, all bets would be off.

Despite this, there have been reports that North Korea will have successfully developed the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental US by the end of Trump’s (first?) term in office in 2020, although mastering this capability will take longer still. If true, there is a small and limited window for the US to prevent the North, which it considers to be a rogue state, from being able to threaten its mainland.

So, what are Donald Trump’s options?

His ability to threaten North Korea is more limited than he thinks: a series of military strikes against North Korea to eliminate its nuclear threat is unlikely to eliminate its entire capability, given that its missile sites and bases are spread around the country. Moreover, it would invite retaliation against South Korea, whose capital city is a mere 56 km away from the demilitarised zone, which is within range of North Korean long-range artillery. For the uninitiated, the concern here would be heavy civilian casualties in a densely populated metropolitan area.

In short, a pre-emptive military strike would rattle Kim Jong-Un, who would fear for his regime, and retaliate in kind. Whilst he may be ousted, the casualties on both sides would be higher than any conflict we have seen in the 21st century. If this was a feasible option, one of the Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama would have considered it.

From an economic standpoint, the UN and the US have already put many rounds of sanctions on the country over the years, which has severely weakened the North Korean economy and its lower and middle classes, but this has not led to any change in the government’s approach.

China may be encouraged by the US to squeeze North Korea on trade and economic ties, but Beijing will be wary of going too far. Should it precipitate the North’s collapse,  this would lead to a refugee crisis it would be forced to deal with itself. This is something Beijing will look to avoid at all costs.

That does not leave the current administration with many attractive or feasible options. Diplomacy is a tool which is still available, but Trump will be all too aware of the contrasts with the Iranian nuclear agreement which he criticised himself on the campaign trail last year. President Trump has painted himself into a corner, and has not realised it just yet.

War with North Korea is possible, but not likely. None of the major players in the game want to start a war, as the resulting losses would be unacceptably high. But whilst the US wants a North Korea without the ability to strike at its mainland, Pyongyang sees it as imperative to guarantee the survival of its regime – nuclear deterrence is all too alluring. Can these contrasting objectives find a compromise? Not likely. But despite the rhetoric, both sides will want to avoid war at all costs, regardless of the US carrier group heading towards North Korea.

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Matthew Bugeja is consultant at Bugeja Geopolitical Consulting - www.bugejaconsulting.com