Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nuclear Brinksmanship: North Korea and the US

                                                                Photo credit: CNN

Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman offer their thoughts on the latest news on North Korea's nuclear program. 

Yohanes Sulaiman: The North Korean nuclear issue has been sliced and diced beyond recognition -- even by us, in the past couple of years. And the core issue remains: how much is the US and its allies willing to pay for getting an outcome they want.

While there have been discussions that a "limited strike" is on the table, frankly, I don't see any "limited strike" as possible. For the North Korean regime, any "provocation" must get a reply, especially a strike by the United States, for one simple reason: This is a very insecure regime that has to ratchet its provocations all way up to eleven. And any attack that goes without response, would make the North Korean people and, more importantly, its political elite question whether the Dear Leader has gone soft or has joined the rank of mortals, and thus presenting an opportunity for an uprising.

In essence, there is only two major options: wait and do nothing or go for war.

1. Wait

Some specialists argue that the regime is vulnerable due to its weak economy, growing discontent, etc. But as we can see from many examples all over the world, such as in Venezuela, where you have a two-bit very unpopular autocrat ruling a country that is wrecked daily with protests from the opposition, any determined autocrat, as long as he or she can maintain the loyalty of political elite, can survive indefinitely.

And North Korea is a special basket case, where you have a population that is totally subservient (they don't even riot during the great famine period!) and a cowed political elite. Moreover, you have China next door, who, while it loathes the regime, hates the possibility of the US presence in the Yalu River even more. Thus, regardless of North Korean provocations, Beijing will keep the supply lines open. And Kim Jong Un also knows that.

2. War

This will be messy for sure. Can't sugarcoat this. Thousands or even millions may die, with sky-high damage, and, depending on the outcome, that would also destroy the reputation of both China and the United States in the region, because the Korean and Japanese population would blame both China and the US. Kim Jong Un's regime is gambling that this will be the brake that forces both China and the US to stay in option one. Why is he confident? See all the appeasement from the US to North Korea since Bill Clinton era and how China keeps supporting the regime even today even after North Korea essentially gave China the finger.

The third option is the Trump option. Trump is so bombastic and unpredictable that he may actually convince China that war is inevitable and that China really needs to do something about Kim Jong Un. At this point, though, China's ineffective policy to North Korea would come home to roost simply because China does not have any Korean policy per se, except keeping the North Korean regime afloat. I doubt Beijing actually considers the possibility of North Korea going rogue, considering the close relationship between Kim Jong Il and Beijing. And even if China wants to do any regime change in North Korea, the possibility has probably already closed when North Korean agents managed to murder Kim Jong Un's brother in Malaysia, preempting this kind of scenario. So, there is very little possibility that China can impose regime change without bringing the entire country down, and Kim Jong Un knows it. And Beijing also knows it.

Brad Nelson: As I see it, the developments over the last day have revealed three new things. (1) US intelligence has recently estimated North Korea could have as many as 60 nukes, which is about three times the typical estimates that I've heard about North Korea nuclear capabilities. Most estimates have placed the country’s nuclear arsenal at around 15-20 nukes. (2) North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and therefore weaponize a ballistic missile. Nuclear weapons experts have believed that North Korea would probably perfect this technology, but that it was several years away from doing so. (3) Arguably, the rhetoric from the sitting US president ("fire and fury"), which has escalated tension (North Korea possibly targeting Guam), is another new wrinkle in this intractable situation. 

First, it's certainly possible that Trump's off-the-cuff remarks yesterday, while intended to signal strength and resolve, could be interpreted By Kim as deeply ominous and threatening—that Trump is seriously thinking about a 1st strike against the regime. And if that's the case, Kim, thinking he has nothing to lose, might lash out militarily against American interests in the region (South Korea, Guam, etc.). And second, if Trump really intend to deliver a nuclear 1st strike threat, that goes against decades of US foreign policy, which has embraced the notion of second-strike deterrent or extended deterrent threats as sufficient to protect and preserve US national security interests. Is Trump moving US nuclear policy in a more aggressive direction?   

So what to do? Well, as you know, there've been many different proposals bandied about by policymakers, scholars, and analysts over the years. Recent pieces by Mark Bowden and Jeffrey A. Bader do a good job of highlighting these options, which include regime change, targeted strikes against North Korea's arsenal, delegating the issue to China, putting significant pressure on China to strangle Pyongyang, resuming the six-party talks, doing nothing/acceptance (that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power), containment/deterrence, and direct high-level bilateral negotiations with North Korea’s leadership.

Of these, I'm in favor of a combination of containment/deterrence and negotiations. The other options either likely won't work and/or entail significant costs in blood and treasure (for the US, South Korea, and North Korea). Roughly speaking, my two-track plan involves very senior-level talks up to and possibly including Kim and Trump on freezing then rolling back North Korea's nuclear program over time in exchange for various economic concessions and security guarantees; at the same time, the US would also up its missile defense in the region and on American homeland, strengthen its ties to states throughout Asia via more military exercises and arms transfers, and actively clamp down on North Korea's economy and military. Based on how North Korea responds to all of this, the US could then decide whether to ease up on containment in favor of talks, or prioritize containment over talks. 

Historically for the US, this has been the most successful path to moderating disputes and tensions. The US used this dual-track approach vis-a-vis the Soviets during the cold war, and the Bush and Obama administrations did likewise against Iran. Eventually, both Iran and the Soviets came out of the cold, after they realized they couldn't compete against the US and its allies and needed to play nice with the rest of the world. The downside is that this two-track approach doesn't lend itself to a quick, overnight resolution and it requires patience by American leaders--something that's on short supply at the moment, it seems. Of course, nobody likes the idea of Kim possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can hit dozens of nations, including, it now seems, the heartland of the US. But patience can work in the end. Kim is rational, North Korea is isolated and poor, and China despises Kim and his antics. Plus, I see an added benefit here: if the US sincerely reaches out to Pyongyang, which is what Beijing wants, I suspect that China, seeing its interests taken into account by Washington, will be willing to do more than it has on the North Korea problem.

YS: Again, I don't think that negotiation will work simply because it cannot give both sides what they want: North Korea, at least under Kim Jong Un, simply wants nukes for self-preservation. Kim and his cronies might negotiate, but at the end of the day, they will present the fait accompli: They have nukes, deal with it. And that is unacceptable for everyone else. For Pyongyang, giving up nukes at this stage would risk a massive backlash domestically, because it would (1) signal that the Kim Jong Un's regime is as vulnerable to outside pressure, and (2) defeat the entire raison d'etre of its existence. Other states, such as Iran, can backtrack on their military nuclear programs because they've never tied their legitimacy to them, but not North Korea, which has placed itself in a corner.

What I think we have to deal with in the future is: how to deal with a nuclear North Korea, the possibility of further proliferation, and a massive rearmament in South Korea and Japan. Maybe I am too pessimistic here, but I just don't see Kim being willing or able to negotiate a freeze or roll back of his country’s nukes.

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