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Jul 19, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

Straying From the Warpath

An array of North Korean, South Korean and American missiles stand on display at a museum in Seoul.
(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

North Korea demonstrated at least a rudimentary capability to launch a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile with its latest test of the Hwasong-14. At the extreme estimates of its range, the missile has the ability to strike parts of the western United States. More tests and developments will be necessary to increase the Hwasong-14's range, payload and re-entry system, and questions remain about North Korea's ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and make it rugged enough to mount on the missile. Even so, Pyongyang is clearly well on its way to realizing its goal of a long-range nuclear weapons capability. This is the third installment in a three-part series examining the implications of this development for the United States' relationship with North Korea. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

This is how wars begin: not through the rash actions of erratic warmongers, but through the slow confrontation of irreconcilable differences. When the threat of inaction appears to exceed the threat of action, and compromise is off the table, conflict looks unavoidable.

North Korea and the United States appear to be well past the point of compromise. Pyongyang feels that its security hinges on a deterrent that would make Washington think twice about trying to overthrow North Korea's leadership or launching military action against the country. Washington, meanwhile, can't tolerate Pyongyang's efforts to develop a reliable nuclear weapon and delivery system that could strike the continental United States. Having nearly attained its security goal, North Korea can't delay further missile tests without giving the United States time to build national and international political support for military intervention. The United States similarly can't stop at a moratorium on North Korea's missile tests since only a few steps separate Pyongyang from long-range weapons capability. And past measures have done little to roll back North Korea's progress.

In the absence of a suitable middle ground with Pyongyang, Washington is counting on China and Russia to finally pressure North Korea into cooperating. Under the best-case scenario, further sanctions and isolation would cause factions of North Korea's elite to revolt, overthrow the Kim government and divert the country from its current course. But that outcome is not likely. The risk of destabilizing the country, on the other hand, would be high — too high for Beijing and Moscow to accept, especially when they have doubts that the United States will make good on its threat of military action. North Korea sees hesitation on the part of China, Russia and even South Korea and figures their reluctance to act will restrain a U.S. strike against it.

North Korea's Arms Push

Neither side wants war. The threat of physical conflict must be credible, however, if Washington wants to change Pyongyang's behavior or to convince Beijing that the risk of inaction outweighs the risk of direct action. The more credible the threat of war, the more pressure Pyongyang would feel to complete its program, and quickly. The more the looming prospect of conflict pushes China and Russia to try to prevent war, calling for talks and claiming the real danger lies in U.S. military action, the more confident Pyongyang would become that it can finish testing before Washington intervenes. And the closer North Korea gets to realizing its weapons ambitions without China's interference, the closer Washington gets to military action. That's not to say that war is inevitable, though. Changes in intelligence assessments, in leadership, in interpretations and in perceptions can always intervene unexpectedly. Or it may be that our core assumptions are simply wrong.

The U.S. military has for several years operated under the assumption that Pyongyang already possesses a nuclear weapon and the ability to deliver it at least regionally. But North Korea is unlikely to use a limited number of nuclear weapons to start a war with the United States, with its vastly superior military and nuclear arsenal. Consequently, traditional forms of nuclear deterrence could still keep Pyongyang in check. Political will may be lacking in the United States to undertake military action against North Korea that would disrupt economic and trade activity and leave behind a massive reconstruction project in Northeast Asia, if not lead to a regional conflict.

North Korea's government may be more risk averse than it seems. Pyongyang may not be willing to push its testing far enough to incite the United States to intervene. Alternatively, North Korea might not respond to a surgical strike against some of its nuclear and missile facilities, enabling Washington to interrupt its weapons development without triggering a full-blown war on the peninsula. Some Chinese commentaries have suggested that limited attacks on North Korea — even a single symbolic strike on a mobile missile ahead of a test — would shake the government enough to change its behavior. Pyongyang otherwise may feel sufficiently confident in its progress with the missile program that it shifts focus to political reconciliation with South Korea in an effort to ensure both its national security and its future economic prospects.

Geopolitics does not teach determinism. Despite the constraints and compulsions it creates, a country's geography can't eliminate every possible option. For all their differences, the United States and North Korea, perhaps ironically, share the same goal: avoiding a war. But each sees the other's path as untenable for its own national security. A war between the United States and North Korea is not inevitable, but it is growing increasingly likely — and not because their leaders are crazy.

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