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Jul 18, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

10 mins read

The U.S. and North Korea Race Against the Clock

Soldiers in North Korea survey the South from across the Demilitarized Zone in late 2011.
(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 second installment in a three-part series examining the implications of this development for the United States' relationship with North Korea. Read part 1 here.

The United States and North Korea appear to be on a collision course. Their differing interests are reaching a point of irreconcilability, and each side sees in the other a significant threat to its national interests. To understand the rapidly shrinking timeline for a potential conflict between the two, we must first state a few assumptions about each country's view of the other.

These assumptions are based on more than merely statements by individual leaders, which often are more about subjective desire than about objective reality. Instead, they are founded on a geopolitical analysis and intelligence study of the United States and North Korea drawing from assessments of history and strategic culture as well as studies of politics, economics and past behavior. Assumptions, of course, can be wrong and must be constantly tested; they also evolve over time, as circumstances and evidence change. But for now, these are our baseline assumptions about the key actors in the Korean crisis.

The View from Pyongyang

North Korea has long considered the United States, and not South Korea, its primary adversary. Pyongyang sees the long-term presence of U.S. military forces in South Korea as a direct, intentional hindrance to unification of the Korean Peninsula on its own terms. And when North Korea denounces joint exercises between U.S. and South Korean armed forces as practice for military action against it, it sincerely believes in the threat that it's decrying. North Korea has deterred the United States from military action for decades through a combination of political tactics and a robust military capacity that would create mass casualties for U.S. forces on the ground and for civilians in Seoul. Pyongyang, meanwhile, ensured that it never became enough of a threat that the cost of nonintervention would exceed that of intervention from Washington's point of view.  

Since the final years of Kim Jong Il's rule, however, North Korea's core leadership has reassessed its position. The government has begun to doubt that its frontline conventional weapons, even when supplemented with biological or chemical weapons, would deter U.S. military action or stop Washington from taking steps to overthrow it. A peace accord and nonaggression pact are no longer sufficient to guarantee the North Korean system's survival, a perception that has been reinforced again and again, most notably when the United States invaded Iraq despite the risks entailed. (Various so-called "color" revolutions, the Arab Spring uprisings, and the ouster and death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi even after his country gave up its weapons of mass destruction program likewise put Pyongyang on edge.)

North Korea's Artillery Concentration

Under current leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has drastically accelerated its nuclear and missile programs to try to develop a demonstrable capacity to strike at the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. The capability, from Pyongyang's perspective, would provide the only viable assurance that the United States would not work to overthrow the Kim administration through political, economic or military action. Pyongyang fully recognizes that the closer it gets to demonstrating the ability to strike the United States, the more pressure Washington will feel to stop the program, whatever the means. But the high cost of military action, which could rapidly expand beyond the Korean Peninsula, still keeps the United States from following through, as do political differences with its two regional allies, South Korea and Japan. China's objections have also deterred Washington from action.

North Korea, then, is caught in a conundrum: It feels it needs a nuclear capability to deter interference in its government, yet it understands that developing its deterrent will increase the chances of intervention. As a result, Pyongyang relies on the complexities of the region and the costs of military action to keep the United States at bay long enough that it can realize its nuclear ambitions. It's a dangerous gamble, but one that North Korea's leaders feel is worth the risk, since capitulation is the only alternative.

Washington's Perspective

For the United States, North Korea has long been a secondary problem. Though the country is a perpetual source of potential regional instability, its neighbors, and its own economic limitations, always manage to keep it in check. North Korea's nuclear program presented Washington with one of its first major post-Cold War crises. But the United States avoided military action in 1994 through diplomacy, and in the years since, its general policy toward Pyongyang has been to manage the issue and put off conflict. Confronted with the price of military intervention, the United States preferred declaring moratoriums on Pyongyang's missile testing, isolating it financially and making the occasional diplomatic deal. Washington, after all, has always expected North Korea to collapse at any moment, so waiting a while longer has been the more logical policy.

But in recent years, the U.S. view has started to change. Isolation, sanctions and stern statements from the United Nations have hardly slowed North Korea's drive toward a viable nuclear deterrent. Pyongyang no longer treats its nuclear and missile programs as bargaining chips to trade away in negotiations. And as its nuclear weapons development continues, nearing a point where the threat reaches the continental United States, moratoriums on testing are not enough. The sense is growing in the United States that Pyongyang's quest for nuclear capability is a crisis that can't be punted down the road any longer.

A North Korea armed with missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to the United States is a danger Washington cannot accept. Even if the U.S. government assumes that Pyongyang wouldn't start a war (an idea not everyone agrees with), questions remain over how it would use its new capability. North Korea could, for example, use it to constrain Washington's responses to regional moves or perhaps share its weapons technology with other "rogue" states, thereby significantly altering the global nuclear landscape. Given the pace of Pyongyang's missile tests, Washington sees that the window for taking one last shot at non-military action is rapidly closing.

The United States wants to avoid war, but to do so, it feels it must make clear that it will use military action if necessary. Washington's airstrike against the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons, recent ballistic missile tests and higher-profile military exercises on the Korean Peninsula were all meant in part to demonstrate that the United States is willing to resort to military action in the absence of a better option. The U.S. government is using the threat perhaps more to try to sway China and Russia than it is to change North Korea's behavior. From Washington's point of view, Beijing alone has the leeway to propose a nonmilitary solution to the North Korean crisis. Not only is China Pyongyang's primary economic backer, but it is also keenly interested in keeping the North Korean system in place as a buffer at its border.

From the Other Sides

But the risk of intervention outweighs the risk of inaction for Beijing. China still considers instability in North Korea, or the political and military repercussions of trying to overturn the leadership there, a greater danger than Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. It continues to believe, moreover, that for all Washington's bluster, the United States wouldn't follow through on military action to stop North Korea's missile development because doing so would risk starting an East Asian war. For China, which already lives with a nuclear-armed North Korea at its border, not to mention a nuclear India, Pakistan and Russia, Pyongyang's growing capabilities are a problem, but not an unmanageable one. The United States poses a bigger risk to its strategic interests. At the same time, China's options to respond have dwindled as Pyongyang has steadily restricted Beijing's communications and influence with it.

South Korea, too, has been coping with the North Korean military threat for decades. North Korea's nuclear program threatens South Korea, aimed as it is at the U.S. alliance structure. Nevertheless, Seoul understands that its national interests and those of Washington may diverge in the future, or at least not fully coincide. South Korea also foresees little danger of North Korea trying to reunify through force; U.S. support notwithstanding, Seoul's military capabilities have grown since 1950, and the international system is no longer conducive to military action on Pyongyang's part. In the event of another war between the two Koreas, China would be just as likely to intervene on the side of the South as on that of the North, if only to prevent the United States from getting involved.

Seoul and Beijing are each interested in managing the situation and forestalling conflict rather than in resolving the issue immediately. The advancement in North Korea's ballistic missile range, though a paradigm shift for the United States, represented only a small change for the region's overall security. Consequently, South Korea and China are trying to convey through their remaining channels with North Korea that they are willing to delay a crisis to shield Pyongyang from potential military action. Their assurances may embolden North Korea, but for Seoul and Beijing alike, delaying a confrontation is the preferable path, especially since neither see much chance of a true compromise between Washington and Pyongyang. China, meanwhile, maintains a sliver of hope that Washington may eventually accept the reality in North Korea and adjust its behavior toward the government in Pyongyang accordingly, backing off from military threats in favor of dialogue and management.

Russia and Japan each play a slightly smaller role and differ in their views of the situation. Moscow, which wants to avoid a war but lacks much clout with Pyongyang, is using the crisis to emphasize the threat Washington poses to international peace and stability. And Japan feels the change in North Korea's nuclear development perhaps more acutely than does South Korea. The missiles Pyongyang has been testing serve a more valuable military purpose aimed at Japan and the U.S. bases there than they do trained on South Korea, a country that has long been within the demonstrated reach of North Koreas' missiles. Tokyo sees the standoff with North Korea as an opportunity to fortify its position as the key U.S. ally in the region and to counter China's growing influence. In addition, the threat of Pyongyang gives the Japanese government further justification for its decision to lift the constitutional restrictions on the use of its armed forces.

Population Density

If these assumptions stand, a time is fast approaching when the United States won't be able to sit back and delay action anymore. Washington still has several options short of military action, but history has so far shown that the tactics are only temporary. Every deferral enables North Korea to move closer to its goal of developing a long-range nuclear missile while reinforcing Pyongyang's notion that U.S. security guarantees are nonbinding and rarely outlast a single president. Whether each side's perceptions of the other are accurate matters less than whether North Korea and the United States believe them and make their decisions accordingly.

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