North Korea: A Red Line at the 38th Parallel

9 MINS READApr 14, 2017 | 20:02 GMT
North Korea nuclear tests: What to watch for
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

All eyes are focused on the Korean Peninsula. Signs suggest that North Korea is preparing to conduct another nuclear weapons test, perhaps as soon as April 15, to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. If Pyongyang follows through, the act will be nothing short of a provocation.

As tensions mount, China has stressed the importance of diplomacy and of preventing the situation from escalating to an "irreversible and unmanageable stage." So far, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has relied largely on non-kinetic means such as additional sanctions and increased enforcement or enhanced regional missile defense to keep North Korea's nuclear ambitions in check. But Washington has made clear that it will keep all of its options open. As the United States demonstrated with its limited cruise missile strike in Syria on April 6, it is willing to take unilateral military action. And considering North Korea's dogged efforts to advance its nuclear program, the Trump administration will have to carefully calculate the risks of a potential military strike.

A Range of Options

Action against North Korea could take many shapes or forms, from a limited strike to a large-scale military offensive targeting all of North Korea's military assets. On the lowest end of the scale, the United States could launch a strike to punish North Korea for continuing to develop its nuclear and missile arsenal and to deter it from pursuing nuclear weapons in the future. A punitive strike may be limited to a single base or facility in the country, with the threat of further action down the line if Pyongyang doesn't alter its behavior. Though this kind of attack offers the best way to keep the situation from escalating, it would by no means ensure that North Korea heeds the United States' warning and eases up on its nuclear and missile development. Nor does it eliminate the risk that Pyongyang may respond to the strike in kind.

Alternatively, the United States could elect to launch a more comprehensive punitive or preventive strike in an attempt to physically interrupt the nuclear and missile programs' maturation. The strikes would still be limited, focusing only on nuclear and missile infrastructure to signal that the United States is not trying to orchestrate a change in the country's leadership. This kind of operation, such as a strike on a single target, would encourage North Korea to curb its response so as not to provoke further attacks — though a full-scale retaliation could not be ruled out.

If Washington judges that Pyongyang is likely to launch a counterattack regardless, it may decide a comprehensive campaign to degrade or eliminate North Korea's retaliatory capacity would be most prudent. This scenario would best position the United States and its allies against a North Korean response, but it would entail significant risks, virtually guaranteeing full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, a campaign of this magnitude would require buy-in from regional actors — something that has yet to manifest — and a buildup of military assets far greater than what the United States has deployed in the region so far. A more limited strike, be it a focused punitive strike or a larger one targeting nuclear and missile infrastructure, is more likely at this point. In the meantime, the Pentagon has rerouted several carrier strike groups to the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

Weighing the Risks

Such an operation could involve cruise missiles as well as fixed-wing aircraft conducting strikes against various facilities across North Korea. Prime targets include the nuclear reactor or uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, as well as North Korean nuclear scientists. Should the United States plan more extensive strikes aimed at disabling all elements of the North Korean nuclear program, it may also deploy special operations forces to go after underground facilities that airstrikes couldn't easily or reliably destroy. But the broader the target set, the greater the risk of retaliation. North Korea has a hefty arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that it could launch at nearby targets, including U.S. military facilities elsewhere in the region. Pyongyang's conventional artillery, moreover, could also do significant damage to northern areas of South Korea, reaching as far as the country's capital. U.S. military planners would likely view this kind of escalation as an unacceptable risk.

Estimated range of North Korea's various missile types
The United States will base its decision about whether and how to strike North Korea in large part on the kind of reaction it anticipates from Pyongyang. North Korea has many reasons to mount a credible retaliation to any action taken against it, not only to maintain the appearance of a powerful actor on the global stage but also to ensure domestic stability. A weak response from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's administration could undermine its legitimacy among the country's public or perhaps prompt a palace coup. At the same time, however, Pyongyang understands that a significant retaliation would meet with a commensurate response, which could cripple North Korea's military capabilities.

If the United States determines the country is unlikely to take that kind of chance, it will have little else standing in the way of a military strike. Short of that scenario, however, Washington may still be willing to assume the risks of a limited retaliation. The United States could consider the launch of a small number of missiles that might be intercepted, for example, or incursions by North Korean special operations forces into South Korean territory to be acceptable consequences. Even low-level naval skirmishes may not be considered too great a repercussion. Still, anticipating the scale of North Korea's response is a daunting and treacherous gamble.


The concentrations and reach of North Korean artillery

Beijing's Options

Then there's China's response to consider. Until now, Beijing has stressed diplomatic solutions to ease the rising tension, all the while warning against the chain reaction that military action against Pyongyang could set off. Beijing has consistently made clear that its red line on the issue is war or instability on the Korean Peninsula; China wants to make sure that it has a pliable buffer state along its northeastern border.

In the event of a military strike against North Korea, China could intervene, either to support the North Korean government or to facilitate a power transition without jeopardizing order in the country. Its options for intervention range from military backing for Pyongyang to support for a U.S.-led military campaign to a decapitation strike. But whatever path it chooses, it will stay focused on ensuring the North Korean state's continuity and preventing any scenario that could lead the Korean Peninsula to unify under a competing power.

The United States would doubtless risk a response in kind from China should it launch a military strike without consulting Beijing. And if Washington were to launch a full-scale campaign against North Korea, or if a limited attack spirals into a war, the likelihood of a Chinese military intervention to secure its interests on the Korean Peninsula will climb. Along with its desire to keep a buffer between its territory and U.S. forces in South Korea, China is worried about the threat of spillover from a potential conflict in North Korea.

What to Watch Out For

The window has not closed on a diplomatic solution to the problem. Pyongyang may decide to postpone its nuclear test, and the United States, in turn, could delay military action in favor of tougher sanctions. Still, given the high stakes at play, Stratfor will be watching closely for early warnings of impending military action.

North Korea's Nuclear Test

Having weighed the risks of another nuclear test, the North Korean government may be rethinking the move. On April 14, the country's foreign minister said in an interview that Pyongyang would forge ahead with the test "whenever supreme headquarters sees fit," not necessarily on April 15. Delaying the nuclear test, however, also carries enormous risk for North Korea since it could embolden the United States and provide an opportunity for a punitive strike. Preparations for a military parade to commemorate the founder's birthday appear to be on track so far. If the current leader tries to reduce his own visibility during the festivities, his behavior could indicate that he perceives a high risk of military action.

Defensive Preparations Near the North-South Border

South Korea is always on alert during its northern neighbor's test cycles. And because it is a prime target for North Korea's prospective retaliatory action, the country is anxious about the possibility of a military strike — all the more so as it deals with prolonged political instability at home. South Korea's acting president has ordered his military to intensify preparations. But reports have yet to surface that the country is bolstering security at the border.

A Shutdown at China's Border

Overall, we are on the lookout for any sign that China is changing its military posture or taking steps to evacuate foreigners from North Korea. Reports suggest that China is mobilizing troops along the border, though we have not been able to verify these claims. Nonetheless, Air China — one of two airlines with service to North Korea — has announced that it is canceling flights to the country starting April 17. As one of the only countries that operate flights to North Korea, China may be trying to prove that it is willing to ramp up its economic pressure on Pyongyang. Otherwise, it may have canceled the flights simply because of low passenger turnout. The move could also be a precautionary measure, though, and we're watching to see whether it indicates that China is preparing for a military crisis.

Changes in Travel Plans or Diplomatic Activity

Changes to the itinerary of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's impending 10-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region would be a red flag. He is expected to celebrate Easter with U.S. forces in South Korea. A sudden uptick in diplomatic activity between the United States and China, likewise, could signal imminent action in North Korea.


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