President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.
But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.
First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.
By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):
“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”
In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.
Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.
But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):
“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”
The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.
Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.
The current situation is no ordinary escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Those happen with regular frequency, but tend to fizzle out after a few days or weeks. Not so this time. Rhetoric is certainly more extreme than it has been in the past. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s declaration on September 25th that North Korea reserves the right to (note: not that it “will”) shoot down American bombers even in international airspace is an eerily concrete threat. Its logic is easy to understand: in a situation as tense as this one, North Korea cannot be sure whether approaching bombers are merely intended to signal U.S. resolve in its defense of South Korea, or if they are out on a mission. When tensions run as high as they do right now, the potential for misunderstandings between the two parties poses enormous risks.
The tone and context of the statement matters. North Korea has accused other countries of making “declarations of war” against it on numerous occasions, just like its foreign minister did in New York on September 25. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, for example, claimed in 2016 that a U.S. State Department report release on human rights in North Korea constituted a declaration of war. But with the overall bluster, it is harder for the parties to read each other’s true intentions through the chatter.
In many ways, however, not much has changed on the Korean peninsula for the past few decades. North Korea’s rapid development of its nuclear weapons and missiles (including ICBMs) has certainly been a game changer, but many of the basic dynamics have remained the same since the fall of the Soviet Union, throughout North Korea’s nuclear crises. A look back into the archives provides a fascinating reminder that situations and dynamics that we explain and analyze time and time again often haven’t changed for several decades.
By the end of the 1980s, the U.S. first saw, on satellite images, what looked like the construction of a nuclear reactor near the North Korean town of Yongbyon. Together, with the international community, it began to demand that North Korea allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea was still a party to at the time.
What tools did the U.S. consider using to pressure North Korea into compliance? One that should be familiar to basically every human being on the planet within listening range to TV news by now: economic sanctions.
A look in the archives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reveals some assessments that the agency made about how well sanctions could function. And here is where things get very familiar. One memo drafted by the National Intelligence Council in December 1991 shows that much of the reasoning of the time around North Korea’s reactions to sanctions, as well as those of its neighbors, have remained very similar till this day. Let us look at some of the key analyses of the memo, one by one (some are shortened for simplicity):
“. . . economic sanctions per se would not cause North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”
This, U.S. intelligence assessed 26 years ago. North Korea has been under various UN sanctions since 2006, which did little or nothing to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The ambitions for a nuclear deterrent have always been stronger than Pyongyang’s fear of sanctions, especially when these largely lack impact because of China’s unwillingness to enforce them. And now, here we are.
“Foreign trade plays an important role in key sectors of North Korea’s economy. P’yongyang imports all of its crude oil, coking coal, and advanced technology, and 25 percent of its needed food grains.”
North Korea today exports far more coal than it imports (before the latest rounds of sanctions, that is). Though the data is uncertain, it is likely far less dependent on outside imports of food than it was in 1991. Still, the basic tenets hold. North Korea depends on the outside world for crucial resources, most notably crude oil.
The memo notes further that:
“A trade embargo – if fully respected and enforced – would cause a significant falloff in production and impose severe hardships on the North Korean populace. A curtailment of crude oil shipments would be particularly troublesome and would lead to industrial shutdowns, restricted transportation, and reduced agriculture and fishing.
And, further down in the document:
“The cutoff of oil deliveries would probably cause the regime to accelerate the shutdown of even essential industries and move to inefficient alternative forms of transportation – ox carts, bicycles, and charcoal-burning vehicles . . .”
There is currently no full trade embargo on North Korea. But under the current sanctions, and mainly due to China’s enforcement of them, a number of the results above are creeping into the economy. The fishing industry is suffering under the ban on seafood exports, and likely due to increased fuel prices as well. Should China continue to restrict its exports of oil, the transportation sector that supports the private market economy will also suffer. Agriculture, however, remains poorly mechanized—it largely reverted to manual methods after the famine in the mid-1990s when fuel became extremely scarce, so the predictions of the memo largely came true there as well, only through a different process.
But then, as today, the “if” on full respect and enforcement of a trade embargo was a big one:
“Most of the North’s trading partners would be reluctant to impose, much less to enforce, economic sanctions. China’s role would be key, and we believe Beijing would strenuously oppose – and assist P’yongyang in evading – an embargo.”
And, further down:
“We believe China – which has publicly opposed pressure tactics against the North – would not support trade sanctions and would veto UN action either to impose or militarily enforce an embargo. At a minimum, we believe Beijing would break the embargo by expanding trade with North Korea in an effort to preserve the P’yongyang regime. In particular, China would probably provide needed food and medical supplies, and could also increase oil deliveries . . .”
Again, no embargo is in place against North Korea, but current sanctions largely fill a similar function in blocking or severely restricting North Korea’s external trade in a wide range of goods. And as of now, China appears to be implementing many of the trade restrictions with force—at least enough for the North Korean economy to feel it. But in the grand scheme of things, Beijing’s sanctions enforcement remains an anomaly. China usually enforces sanctions only for temporary periods of time, when global attention is focused on North Korea, and reverts to normal trade with the country when tensions have blown over. It remains China’s primary objective in this that the status-quo be preserved, and part of that is to ensure the survival of North Korea in the long run. This was true in 1991, and it remains true in 2017.
So now we have a North Korea armed with long-range missiles and thermonuclear weapons. Make no mistake. This is the new normal. Pyongyang will never give them up, and no one can make them do so.
The follow-on effects of this development will transform global politics and security policy. A wave of nuclear proliferation and military buildup is definitely to be expected. So one must ask: given our knowledge of what was going on in North Korea, how did we ever let this happen? Also we must ask, what realistically can be done to lower the threat of war?
In 1994, when President Bill Clinton announced the “agreed framework” with Pyongyang that he claimed to believe would solve the problem, I found myself in guest quarters at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. with my wife (from China) of just six years. President Clinton said, “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Puzzled, my wife asked me, “What is this man saying.” I responded, “This, my darling, is what in America we call an ‘empty threat’” . . . and indeed it proved to be just that. Within six years, the CIA had detected North Korea’s clandestine program. In 2006, Pyongyang carried out her first nuclear test. “Experts” stated that alone North Korea was incapable of developing delivery systems or increasing the size of her arsenal. 2020 was given as the then conveniently remote date when Pyongyang might pose some rudimentary threat.
What went wrong? Intelligence failure of course. Inability to imagine what was going to happen as well. A failure of policy which sought to use negotiations and incentives (the provision of light water reactors) to bring Pyongyang around. Most important was a failure to take seriously the lessons of history.
Think of WWII. In Hitler’s time, the highest ranks of the military and security apparatus contained many opposed to war. They planned to carry out a coup if the Führer invaded Czechoslovakia. Those involved included Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath; Head of Intelligence Colonel Hans Osler; Head of Counter- Intelligence Admiral William Canaris; Chief of Staff of the Army Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, and the opposition contained many others—less well organized, from political parties as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians. When the Czech plans became known by the army, General Beck and others sent envoys to London and Paris who were rebuffed. Not, that is, until British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier came to terms with Hitler at Munich, in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia, thus inadvertently destroying the whole plan. Other plans were also made, but this one was perhaps the best chance. Reaching Czechoslovakia required passing through fortified mountain passes, and with the famous Škoda Works munitions factory supplying them, the efficient Czech army might well have broken Hitler’s momentum with a stalemate on difficult ground. It was, in other words, worth a try. The French and British governments should have reacted positively. Terrified, however, Chamberlain and others became intoxicated by a delusional vision of peace through sincere negotiation with Hitler and appeasement—i.e. letting him invade other countries, but not yours. The might-have-beens continue to add literature to an already substantial mountain of speculation.
The historical lesson here is that often prairie fires are started by discarded matches showing almost no flame. Douse the match somehow and all will be well: otherwise, hundreds of thousands of acres may go up in a firestorm.
In geopolitical language, this means force or the credible threat of force are best used the instant a threat is detected. Civilized people, however, tend to place actual force far down the list—after engagement, negotiations, incentives, embargoes, etc. which do not work when a country is genuinely on the warpath.
Possibly, World War II could have been averted as late as 1938, but by 1939, Germany learned that the allies would not resist, so the war could only be fought to the bloody finish.
Likewise, North Korea could have been stopped in 1994 by military threats or even strike operations against their nuclear facilities. Instead, we wasted time heedlessly and profligately. We weren’t even serious. No one had a gut sense of how bad things could really get. Yet, ask our people about how appeasement strengthened Hitler, and many could have given intelligent answers. But to them, this was history; it resided in their brains, but not their bones; they would never have made nor make such mistakes.
At that time, we also still harbored grave delusions with respect to Beijing’s interest in cooperation on the issue. In fact, one year after Clinton’s speech, China’s government made her first tentative move toward what is now territorial expansion greater in size than even that of the Third Reich at its largest—with the annexation of Mischief Reef from the Philippines.
Had we or the Philippines sent forces simply to demolish this minor maritime feature, China might well have desisted. Likewise, had the allies prepared for war or actually fought over Czechoslovakia, Hitler would never have acquired the aura of invincibility that so benefited his campaigns.
Now, the new situation has ratcheted into place. South Korea and Japan will likely become full nuclear powers. The existing East Asian arms race will pass through India to the western borders of Russia, thus menacing Europe. No solution exists any more, except a balance of terror. Sad nay tragic, but SO human. Welcome to the pre-war period.
 See among many others, Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1997))
 See Williamson Murray, The Change in the Balance of Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984)
It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.
Still, it is important to remember one key fact that has gotten lost in the bluster and chatter: Neither Trump’s statement, nor North Korea’s response, imply any change of the status quo.
Trump’s words were dangerously crude, and struck a tone that previous American presidents have not taken toward North Korea. At the end of the day, however, striking North Korea has never not been an option for the Unites States. Within the strategic confines of the North Korean nuclear issue, it has always been implied that the U.S. would consider striking North Korea should it sense serious, imminent and tangible threats against itself or its allies. That is what overflights of bombers over the Korean peninsula—which the U.S. has often conducted after North Korean provocations and did only a few days ago—intends to signal. Trump’s statement was reportedly spontaneous, rather than a result of newly calculated U.S. language or new red lines. In other words, it was not intended to signal a change of policy.
Similarly, North Korea’s threat against Guam was not a shift of position. The whole point of North Korea demonstrating its ICBM-capacities is to show the U.S. that it has the capacity to strike its mainland, or islands such as Guam. It is worth re-reading the central passages in full:
The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.
The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.
The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK closest.
Note the following:
The KPA (Korea People’s Army, North Korea’s military) is, according to KCNA, “carefully examining the operational plan” for striking Guam. That’s not exactly a threat of imminent bombing. Rather, it is simply stating that North Korea has plans readily available for how it would attack Guam, should it choose to do so. Anything else would be surprising given North Korea’s tense relationship with the United States, and its heavy emphasis on missiles in its strategic doctrine.
That the plan is to be reported to Kim Jong-un, and will be put into practice if Kim Jong-un decides it should be, is also not a change of policy. Remember: Kim Jong-un is the supreme commander of the North Korean military. He could order any attack he wants at any time. This fact was true yesterday, and will likely be true tomorrow as well. Of course, the wording of the statement makes it sound as if though North Korea might launch an attack in the near future. But North Korea threatens its neighbors and adversaries in regular intervals. Consider the following paragraph from a news report in the spring of 2013, another time when tensions ran high between North Korea and the U.S., citing a North Korean statement:
“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”
In other words, North Korea regularly makes it a point to remind its adversaries of its capabilities. In terms of pure language, this time appears to be no different.
None of this is to say that the current tensions are not dangerous. Words eventually need to be backed up by action for them to carry any meaning. In situations like this one, the danger of escalation beyond the point of no return, and of miscalculation, is grave and serious. That is precisely why words and rhetoric must not be overblown, and understood in their proper context.
 Source: Korean Central News Agency, “U.S. Should Be Prudent under Present Acute Situation: Spokesman for KPA Strategic Force,” August 9, 2017. North Korean outlets always write Kim Jong Un’s name in bold, and in a larger font.
North Korea’s latest ICBM test—conducted on July 28—was not as big of a shock as the one preceding it. The message North Korea sent with its initial test on July 4 was loud and clear: the country can hit the United States mainland with its missiles, and perhaps soon with nuclear weapons. The second missile launch primarily served to drive home that point, and to do it with a vengeance. The missile North Korea launched in the late evening hours of Friday, July 28 reached an altitude of 3.7 kilometers and flew 998 kilometers, metrics that Pyongyang claims shows its ability to hit the entire territory of the United States. On Tuesday, August 1, evidence surfaced that North Korea may have carried out another test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during the preceding weekend, proving the mobility of its missile-launching capabilities.
North Korea’s ICBM capacities means that when it threatens to annihilate its enemies for various reasons (as Pyongyang does from time to time), these words carry force. But overall, it does not change the strategic environment very much. It has long been known that North Korea’s ICBM- and nuclear-capacities are advanced, and as U.S. officials have pointed out, for the past few years, it has only been a matter of time before North Korea displays these capacities in a credible way.
In fact, one of the most important implications from the ICBM-test came from South Korea. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed in the day after the test to deploy more interceptor missile launchers for the country’s controversial anti-missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, more commonly known by its acronym, THAAD, it was a radical turnaround from his previous positions. North Korea had probably hoped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea through its missile tests and other provocations in the months following the election of a left-leaning government in South Korea. As of now, it looks like those ambitions have failed.
Only a few weeks ago, this outcome seemed far from certain. Moon is a leftist politician, and his skepticism of THAAD’s deployment is well known. Donald Trump calling on South Korea to pay hefty amounts for the system earlier this year also did not help. The South Korean left has historically been wary of too much U.S. influence and presence in the country, and the left in South Korea has long favored cooperation, exchange, and negotiation with North Korea over sanctions.
At times, divergent attitudes on the North Korea question has caused significant strain between the two countries. For example, in the early 2000s, when South Korea was governed by the liberal Roh Moo-hyun and the U.S. by George W. Bush, the two often differed in their approaches to North Korea. While Bush had branded North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” Roh was an avid proponent of the “Sunshine Policy” of cultural and economic collaboration with North Korea, with the long-term goal of peaceful unification of the two countries.
To put it very mildly, Trump and Moon also differ in their approaches to North Korea. Trump has often vowed to pressure North Korea into making concessions on its nuclear and missiles programs, while Moon is a known advocate of talks and exchange with North Korea. Just to name a few examples, Moon Jae-in has pledged to re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, where South Korean firms operate factories with North Korean employees, which was closed under the Park Geun-hye administration in February 2016 in response to North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch in the preceding weeks. The administration has a long and ambitious wish list for economic cooperation projects with North Korea. Moon’s administration has repeatedly asked North Korea for military talks, only to be met with silence. Moreover, accusations surfaced in the run-up to the elections that Moon, as chief presidential secretary for Roh Moo-hyun, accepted the suggestion that South Korea ask North Korea for its opinion before abstaining from a vote on a UN resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea.
Moreover, one should not underestimate the desire among significant portions of the South Korean governmental bureaucracy and other institutions for closer ties with North Korea. Within the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, which is a ministry dedicated wholly to matters related to North Korea, there seems to have been cautious hope that finally, those programs of cooperation with North Korea that died under the two preceding conservative presidents would once again be started under President Moon. Though often seen as a long-term, distant goal, the very idea of unification with North Korea is rarely questioned in the general political debate in South Korea.
Near the North Korean border in South Korea, symbols abound of the currently broken dreams of inter-Korean exchange. At the Dorasan train station and inter-Korean transit center near the border, for example, where South Koreans working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex would pass through on their way to North Korea, all is set up for traffic to resume. When I visited the Dorasan transit center a few weeks ago, the customs transit forms were neatly piled up, and metal detectors and immigration inspection desks were all in place. There was only one thing missing: people in inter-Korean transit.
In other words, ambitions and hopes for closer relations with North Korea have long been present in South Korea, and the newly elected president carries them as well. North Korean strategists had likely hoped that their missile tests this spring and summer—one only a few days after Moon Jae-in’s election in May—would force Moon to eventually indicate through his response (or perhaps lack thereof) that better relations with North Korea are more important than the alliance with the U.S. Moon’s response to the latest ICBM-test went the opposite direction, with the decision to employ more THAAD units. Not only that—Moon’s administration has requested talks with the U.S. about allowing South Korea to boost its own arsenal of missiles, which it is currently barred from doing under a bilateral treaty. Perhaps President Trump will pronounce this a victory for his own policy of pressuring allies with U.S. troops stationed in their countries to pay for larger shares of their own defense costs.
It may not have been North Korea’s intention, but its ICBM-tests have helped Moon Jae-in clarify where South Korea stands. This clarification may not change anything regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs in the immediate term. But for those who worried that the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. would suffer with presidents of diametrically opposed political camps, it is a welcome development.
The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.
This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.
On June 21. 2017 United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.”  Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.” South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.
But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.
No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.
Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.
Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.
At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.
No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.
This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies. My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.
Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with rogue nations. She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.
These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.
Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
The tragic passing of Otto Warmbier on Monday, June 19, says a lot about the North Korean system. His case is highly unusual because North Korea tends not to treat its foreign prisoners with physical brutality such that they sustain any permanent injuries. We still do not know what exactly happened to the 22-year old college student during his approximately one and a half-year long detention in North Korea, beginning in January last year. After he was returned to America only six days before his death, Warmbier’s doctors said he had lost a severe amount of brain tissue during his time in North Korea and said that MRI scans showed he had most likely suffered a brain injury shortly after he was convicted to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. They found no clear signs of beatings, torture, or the like. North Korean doctors claimed he contracted botulism, took a sleeping pill and never woke up, but American doctors found no evidence of botulism.
But whatever happened to Warmbier during his time in North Korean captivity, it is not unusual for people to be treated in inhumane ways by the North Korean system. Even though we know nothing about exactly how Warmbier was treated in captivity, the fact that the North Koreans kept him for so long after his state became life-threatening itself shows a lack of care for humane considerations when political ones are at stake.
For all the jokes that people outside the country crack about its leader and cult of personality, some may forget that North Korea remains a harsh police state. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been subject to treatment equal to, or worse than, what Warmbier was put through. North Korean labor camps are filled with people imprisoned for actions that would never be considered criminal in any Western justice system, but which the North Korean state deems to be politically offensive, such as smuggling in culture from the outside world. In no other state than a brutally totalitarian one could a young man be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner, which is what happened to Warmbier. North Korean authorities claimed that he had conspired together with a church in his home state to overthrow the system of the country, but they offered little evidence.
It is also difficult to discern any strategic logic in the North Korean handling of the case. In the past, North Korea has released several Americans from captivity after high-level visits by American public figures. For example, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were freed from North Korean captivity in August 2009 (they were originally captured in March the same year) after former President Bill Clinton made a visit to Pyongyang to bring them home. When then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited Pyongyang in 2014, to bring home jailed Americans Kenneth Bae and Todd Miller, he described the disappointment of the North Koreans he interacted with that he was not there to give Pyongyang any diplomatic victories:
“The debate and dialogue started immediately in the car with Mr. Kim,” Mr. Clapper continued. “They were expecting some big breakthrough. I was going to offer some big deal, I don’t know, a recognition, a peace treaty, whatever. Of course, I wasn’t there to do that, so they were disappointed, I’ll put it that way.”
By contrast, North Korea’s mistreatment of Otto Warmbier served the regime no discernable purpose. On the contrary, the impression now is that North Korea did not at all release him on humanitarian grounds, like it claimed, but that the regime simply did not want him to die on their soil. It is difficult to see any North Korean gain in what happened, and meanwhile, the losses are clear. Tourism, a small industry that Kim Jong-un has wanted to nurture, will probably suffer a drop, not least in American visitors. About 5,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year, and around 1,000 of them come from the United States. Since the two aforementioned American journalists were imprisoned in 2009, a total of 14 Americans have been jailed in North Korea. Currently, three remain. Young Pioneer Tours, which brought Otto Warmbier to North Korea, has already announced that they will not take Americans on their tours in the future. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. government will introduce measures to further discourage or outright ban travel to North Korea, like it long did with travel to Cuba (a measure that may soon be reinstated). Each tourist that spends money on a trip to North Korea by extension (since all tour operators inside North Korea are tied to the state) helps fund the regime’s activities, including its nuclear and missiles programs. Some argue that tourism to North Korea can build cultural bridges and foster mutual respect: as an interesting aside, in a show of support of South Korean policies of rapprochement, the U.S. government said in 1988 it would strive to make group travel and exchanges to North Korea by Americans easier.
To this day, however, it is unclear what positive impacts tourism and engagement with North Korea has brought. For long, talks have periodically been held between North Korean and U.S. envoys and both current and former government officials, in unofficial settings. In recent times, they have focused on issues such as American detainees in North Korea, while North Korea has continued its nuclear and missile tests, reaching increasingly high levels of sophistication. American advocates of talks and negotiations with North Korea will face an even more difficult environment after Warmbier’s passing. There has been scattered chatter about the possibilities of a summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Most of it has been founded in naïve hope and mere speculation. Prospects for U.S. government engagement with North Korea seem even more dire now since the White House would be unlikely to want to grant favors to a regime whose treatment of one of its citizens caused the latter’s death.
Perhaps some in the North Korean power apparatus argued for his release far earlier, while more hardline forces refused until his health deteriorated to a point of no return. The North Korean healthcare system is far from any Western standards. At this point, however, all reasoning about the causes for North Korea’s actions are purely speculative. Perhaps, we will only know about the decisions that led to Warmbier’s death if the North Korean secret police archives are opened one day in the future.
Hey mom there’s something in the backroom I hope it’s not the creatures from above What if people knew that these were real I’d leave my closet door open all night I know the CIA would say What you hear is all hearsay I wish someone would tell me what was right – Blink-182 “Aliens Exist”
As Russian President Vladimir Putin aims his country’s missile defenses westward toward an ambiguous adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un chipped a ballistic missile into Mr. Putin’s eastern backyard. On Sunday, 14 May, a North Korean ballistic missile launched from the Paekun-ri (aka Paegun) missile base located northwest of Pyongyang flew 700 kilometers in thirty minutes to land in the Sea of Japan—a mere 97 kilometers from Vladivostok, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is home ported. The following day, the North Korean government identified the missile as a Hwasong-12, which first appeared in public at a mid-April military parade in Pyongyang. The official Rodong Sinmum news agency issued photographs purporting to show the launch, accompanied by a lengthy statement, which reads in part:
The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S., [Kim Jong-un] said, expressing the belief that the day when the DPRK uses the similar retaliatory means will come. He continued that on this occasion, the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose actual threat to it or not. If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history, he said, strongly warning the U.S. not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range for strike and that it has all powerful means for retaliatory strike.
The successful launch of the Hwasong-12 is important in and of itself, and also for what it may signify. Some experts question whether two earlier North Korean test launches conducted in October 2016 were in fact part of an intercontinental missile program and not tests of medium-range ballistic missiles.
It bears further consideration that the Hwasong-12 came within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok, and did so at a time when Mr. Putin was in Beijing attending the Chinese government’s “One Belt” (aka “Silk Road”) forum. According to one public report, Russia, only a few weeks earlier, deployed its S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system to the border with North Korea south of Vladivostok.
Russia’s Far East
After Sunday’s Hwasong-12 launch, Mr. Putin said laconically, “There’s nothing good in this.” He elaborated that while “the launch did not pose a direct threat to us, it undoubtedly will further provoke conflict and isn’t a good thing.” He called the test “unacceptable” according to Regnum, continuing, “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea, stop threatening it, and find ways to solve these problems peacefully.”
We are categorically opposed to the expansion of the nuclear powers club, including on the Korean peninsula. We consider [the North Korean missile test] counterproductive and dangerous. On the other hand, so are gross violations of international law, regime change, and promoting an arms race with threats to invade.
The “no direct threat” line was echoed in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which wrote:
North Korea’s missiles fly in unpredictable ways. They do not always impact where their flight guidance system directs them. In principle, they can fall on Russian territory, something that would lead to unpredictable consequences. But Russian air defense and anti-missile defenses are on constant alert. If these missiles threaten our territory, they will be intercepted and destroyed.
It quoted a frequently cited Russian military analyst, Viktor Litovkin, who added:
The fact is North Korea doesn’t target its missiles towards Russia, it aims them toward the Sea of Japan. It therefore doesn’t pose a direct threat to us militarily, though politically, it certainly violates all applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Mr. Litovkin echoed the Russian Defense Ministry, which said, “The missile attack warning system tracked the North Korean missile before it fell into the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Russian military remained fully in control of the situation.” As time progressed, the reported impact spot moved farther from the Russian coastline. The Russian Defense Ministry identified the point of impact as “500 kilometers from the Russian coast,” and some Russian media outlets downplayed its proximity to Vladivostok, for example, electing to use the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Japan-centric identification of the impact point.
Oleg Zhdanov—a politolog or ideologist whose extreme nationalist commentaries appear in publications like Russkaya vesna (“Russian Spring”)—accused the United States of using “North Korea as a pretext” to achieve “their main goal—they deployed a strike group with Tomahawks aboard near the borders of the Russian Federation . . . Russia, in fact, today is isolated. I understand the next step is to declare that Russia is a source of a military threat.” He continued:
On the one hand, while it monitors North Korea, the United States’ Tomahawk strike group continues to blockade the Russian Federation, at the point where all the ballistic missiles located in Russia’s Far Eastern region aimed at the United States are controlled. There are destroyers on the Baltic side, where [the United States] established an aviation-strike force that can fly to Moscow and back with a single aerial refueling. In Poland and Romania, [the United States] deployed antiballistic missile systems and troops, and transferred a tank division to Poland. In Syria and Afghanistan, Russia was given a clear understanding that any military movements would be brutally suppressed by high precision weapons.
Joining in the Kremlin effort to deflect attention from the North Korean missile test, the Russian Federal Assembly’s official Parlamentskaya gazeta (“Parliamentary Newspaper”) published survey findings, which said that while “39% of Russians consider the North Korean nuclear threat to be real . . . The real threat of the use of nuclear weapons, according to Russians, comes from the United States (50%) and al-Qaida (32%).”
With a land border running over 20 thousand kilometers (12,577 miles), Russia today resembles Charles Dickens’ c.1858 description of Prussia:
It is the awkwardest state on the face of the globe. Its breadth bears no proportion to its length, and its possessions are divided from each other by foreign states. She cannot defend her whole line of frontier.
Mr. Putin faces the perennial challenge of defending a largely indefensible border in Russia’s Far East. As far back as 2009, Russia reportedly deployed an S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system near Nakhodka (the red dot on the map above) to counter the then rising threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.
In August 2016, the Russian language news portal Gazeta asked military analyst Mikhail Khodarenok the question “What is the state of Russia’s missile defense?” He responded:
With the completion of the full deployment of the missile attack warning system (including the space echelon) and the adoption of the development-stage AMD A-235 Nudol missile system, Russia will regain the positions largely lost in the 1990s.
Regaining a position lost over two decades ago is useful only insofar as the threat landscape remained largely unchanged. As last weekend’s North Korean missile test makes clear, however, that threat landscape has changed ineluctably.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Putin spoke at the restored memorial cross marking where the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was assassinated in February 1905 just steps from the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower. Calling the memorial cross a reminder “of the price that had to be paid for disunity,” Mr. Putin said, “We must protect and defend Russia.” Speaking in November 2016, Mr. Putin said he would protect Russia without “indulging in a frenzied military buildup” (predavat’sya militaristskomu ugaru) against threats arising from “the creation of a United States missile defense system in Europe and NATO’s enlargement eastward;” in 2007, Maksim Agarkov assessed that such threats had “drawn [Russia] into an arms race.”
Crashing into the sea less than 100 kilometers from Vladivostok, North Korea’s Hwasong-12 exposed the fatal porosity of Russian missile defenses in the East. Mr. Putin’s pointless commitment to a westward-facing ballistic missile defense has served to emphasize Russia’s wide-open back door. It is a Russian Maginot Line, and an unaffordable one at that.
The national missile defense is our Maginot Line. It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective in countering threats that simply go around it . . . The Maginot Line of national missile defense will not only encourage countries to go around it, or to overwhelm it, it could also become the Trojan Horse that lets our enemies into the nuclear club.
Mr. Putin would have been wise to heed the above warning by Senator Richard Durbin, articulated during a 1999 Senate debate. The false promise of Mr. Putin’s European Maginot Line has been exposed by a single North Korean Hwasong-12 missile flying unimpeded to within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok. Yaroslav Shimov’s claims that “at the moment, Russia is fairly inactive in the Far East, as opposed to Europe, where the opposite is true” is as true militarily as it is politically. Notwithstanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s late March declaration that Russia will “complete its air defense system to protect Russia’s air and sea borders” by year’s end—and Russian demands that “North Korea refrain from further provocative actions”—last weekend’s missile test bolsters Mr. Putin’s internal critics, who assert Russia’s “Far East has been left unprotected” behind Mr. Putin’s western-facing Maginot Line.
The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.
“Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New Rocket.” Rodong Sinmum [published online 15 May 2017]. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/. Last accessed 15 May 2017. According to the report, “A test-fire of new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 was successfully carried out on Sunday by scientists and technicians in the field of rocket research, who are bravely advancing toward a new goal to be proud of in the world, true to the far-sighted idea of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, for building a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un guided the test-fire on the spot.”
 “North Korea’s 2017 Military Parade Was a Big Deal. Here Are the Major Takeaways.” The Diplomat [published online 15 April 2017]. http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/north-koreas-2017-military-parade-was-a-big-deal-here-are-the-major-takeaways/. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Failed North Korean missile launch was possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.” Chosunilbo [published online in Korean 28 October 2016]. http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/10/28/2016102800238.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “SPOTTED: Putin ‘moves military forces’ to North Korea border as world prepares for WAR.” Express [published online 18 April 2017]. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/792225/Russia-Putin-North-Korea-nuclear-Trump. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Nichego khoroshego: Putin prokommentiroval novyy raketnyy pusk KNDR.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/world/20170515/1494304896.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: «Nuzhno vozvrashchat’sya k dialogu s KNDR».” Regnum [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2274888.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Putin: Pusk rakety KNDR ne predstavlyal opasnosti dlya Rossii.” Life [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://life.ru/t/новости/1007780/putin_pusk_rakiety_kndr_nie_priedstavlial_opasnosti_dlia_rossii. Last accessed 15 May 2017.
 “Kim grozit obrushit’ mech na golovy amerikantsev.” Nezavisimaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://www.ng.ru/world/2017-05-16/7_6988_kndr.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “V Minoborony Rossii prokommentirovali ocherednoye ispytaniye raket v KNDR.” Tsargrad [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://tsargrad.tv/news/v-minoborony-rossii-prokommentirovali-ocherednoe-ispytanie-raket-v-kndr_63333 . Last accessed 15 May 2017. The missile attack warning system is commonly known by its Russian language acronym, SPRN (Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii).
 “Vladimir Putin: Pusk severokoreyskoy rakety Rossii ne ugrozhal, no konflikt provotsiroval.” Vladnews [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://vladnews.ru/2017/05/16/127547/vladimir-putin-pusk-severokorejskoj-rakety-rossii-ne-ugrozhal-no-konflikt-provociroval.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that it had “determined the missile fell into the Sea of Japan 450 km from Okushiri Island in Hokkaido Prefecture,” according to Izvestia. See: “Minoborony Yaponii ustanovilo mesto padeniya severokoreyskoy rakety.” Izvestia [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://izvestia.ru/news/706934. Last accessed 126 May 2017.
 For example, Mr. Zhdanov wrote in a commentary published in Russkaya vesna that the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariapol is “mentally prepared” to leave Ukraine and join the DPR,” the latter an acronym for the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic [Russian: Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika. Ukrainian: Donets’ka Narodna Respublika]. See: “Mariupol’ i Odessa gotovy vyyti iz sostava Ukrainy, — ukrainskiy ekspert.” Russkaya vesna [published online in Russian 18 April 2017]. http://rusvesna.su/news/1492350071. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Severnaya Koreya blefuyet, — ekspert.” Politolog [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. http://politolog.net/analytics/severnaya-koreya-blefuet-ekspert/. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Rossiyane vidyat ugrozu primeneniya KNDR yadernogo oruzhiya — opros.” Parlamentskaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “The Opinions of Field-Marshal Radfetsky.” Bentley’s Miscellany, v.XLIV. (London: Richard Bentley) 591.
 “Chetvertyy polk S-400 zastupit na boevoe dezhurstvo v Nakhodke.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 August 2012]. https://ria.ru/arms/20120815/724086797.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017. The S-400 is designed to engage aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia deployed its first S-400 system in 2007.
 “Kuda prodvinulas’ rossiyskaya PRO. Kakovo sostoyaniye rossiyskoy protivoraketnoy oborony.” Gazeta [published online in Russian 27 August 2016]. https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2016/08/27/10162349.shtml?refresh. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
Ibid. According to published reports, Russia’s AMD (antimissile defense) A-235 Nudol ballistic missile completed its first successful test flight on 8 November 2015 (the first two test flights failed).
 “Putin prizval berech’ i zashchishchat’ Rossiyu.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 4 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/politics/20170504/1493662148.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 “Putin poobeshchal zashchitit’ Rossiyu bez «militaristskogo ugara».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 30 November 2016]. http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/06/30/647451-putin-militaristskogo-ugara. Last accessed 16 May 2017.
 Cited in Keir Giles (2014). European Missile Defense and Russia. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press) 13.
Congressional Record- Senate (17 March 1999) 4760.
 Yaroslav Shimov (2017). “Politika dvukh maniy.” Inosmi [published online in Russian 12 February 2017]. http://inosmi.ru/politic/20170212/238712546.html. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Shoygu: diviziya VS RF na Dal’nem Vostoke sozdayetsya isklyuchitel’no dlya zashchity Rossii.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/4108902. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Yaponiya i Rossiya potrebuyut ot KNDR vozderzhat’sya ot provokatsionnykh deystviy.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4108799. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
 “Dal’niy Vostok ostavlen bez zashchity.” Voprosik [published online in Russian 28 March 2016]. http://voprosik.net/dalnij-vostok-ostavlen-bez-zashhity/. Last accessed 17 May 2017.
It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before. North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.
But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster. On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea. And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far). With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked. And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.
So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula? Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan. That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia. But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:
The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight. And if war comes, so be it. The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam. Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action. Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first). And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse. While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side. Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia). Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons. In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.
Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one. It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States. Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test. In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.
However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces. In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong. So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.
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