War with North Korea: from unthinkable to unavoidable?



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US President Donald Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. But he’s in charge, so his views bear analysis.
AAP/CrowdSpark

Kim Beazley, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, University of Western Australia

This is an edited extract of Kim Beazley and L. Gordon Flake’s essay in Australian Foreign Affairs 2, Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder.


One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.

Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.

A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.

The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.

Insecure enemies

What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.

Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.

For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.

The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.

He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.

Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:

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Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.

Man in the middle

It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.

This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.

Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.

Trump is more on song with his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who stated in January:

We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.

Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.

This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.

Battle options

Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?

An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.

However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.

What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.

But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.

Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.

This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.

For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?

Diplomatic alternatives

It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”

There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.

It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.

But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.

The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.

That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.

High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.

Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.

Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?

The ConversationOne senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.

Kim Beazley, Senior Fellow, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, CEO, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why a first strike option on North Korea is a very bad idea



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Unification flags hang on a military fence near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea.
Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Andrew O’Neil, Griffith University

The prospect of South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together under a “unification” flag at this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics signifies a brief respite in tensions rather than being a genuine thawing on the Korean peninsula.

After an initial surge of optimism in response to Pyongyang’s decision to accept Seoul’s offer to march as one Korea, reality has started to bite with the mechanics of implementing the deal.

While welcoming the Pyeongchang initiative, many South Koreans have pushed back against the decision to merge both countries’ women’s ice hockey teams, calling out the sexist nature of the decision (not a single woman was involved in determining the merger).

Meanwhile, citing “insulting” behaviour on the part of South Korean media, the North Koreans have cancelled a joint cultural performance with South Korea, scheduled for next week.

Understandably, the Pyeongchang “thaw” has attracted major headlines. But it obscures the significant possibility that we will witness major conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2018.

The South Korean government has worked hard to engage North Korea in structured dialogue in an effort to defuse the nuclear-armed state’s continued military threats. But there is nonetheless a growing risk that the Trump administration will authorise limited military strikes against the North’s weapons of mass destruction, conceivably within the next few months.




Read more:
The Winter Olympics and the two Koreas: how sport diplomacy could save the world


Despite extracting a commitment from the US that any military action against North Korea is contingent on first gaining South Korea’s endorsement, there is justifiable concern among South Koreans that the Trump administration will act unilaterally if US intelligence assesses Pyongyang is about to deploy an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.

Given the extent to which we have underestimated the sheer pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development over the past decade, this intelligence assessment might happen sooner than we think. Donald Trump would then face a difficult problem: how to avoid being the president who allowed North Korea to achieve the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear weapons.

Since coming to power, the Trump administration has been deliberating over whether to carry out preventive strikes to degrade Pyongyang’s ability to sprint to the finish line of acquiring a deployable ICBM that can hit the continental US with a nuclear payload.

An increasingly popular assumption is that the price of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can destroy prime targets on the US mainland is higher than risking a second Korean War. And this is not just the musings of a few hardheads in the Pentagon: a growing number of Americans believe some form of military action against North Korea is justified if sanctions and diplomacy fail to achieve denuclearisation.

Most worrying of all, a belief seems to be gathering pace that the US can somehow launch “surgical” military strikes while containing a larger conflict, because Kim Jong-un will not respond for fear of triggering an overwhelming retaliatory response.

There are two basic flaws underlying what one expert has termed “the myth of the limited strike”. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s highly unlikely Kim Jong-un will believe the Trump administration’s assurances that “surgical” strikes are not the opening phase of an all-out US assault aimed at overthrowing the regime.

When the US goes to war, it tends to go full throttle – in recent times, this has translated into regime change (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Why would the leadership in Pyongyang assess that this time around would be any different?

The second major flaw in the argument is that what is portrayed as limited in Washington, and among some armchair strategists supporting this course, will inevitably be seen in Pyongyang as a major assault on North Korean territory and its prized strategic assets.

Even in the scenario that Kim Jong-un actually believed the Trump administration did not intend to implement regime change, as Van Jackson notes, his position as North Korean supreme leader would be untenable domestically if he did not respond with force.




Read more:
Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong


Pyongyang would have a compelling incentive to retaliate early with any nuclear reserve that survived a US first strike. In this scenario, the North Korean leadership would confront a stark choice of either using these weapons of mass destruction to maximum effect or risk losing them in follow-on US precision munition strikes.

As I have argued elsewhere, like all new nuclear powers, North Korea will place a premium on permissive command and control systems that allow authorities to use nuclear weapons whenever they want. This will be reflected in a hair-trigger launch posture if it perceives an imminent threat.

The ConversationWhichever way you cut it, a US first strike against North Korea would almost certainly trigger major war on the Korean peninsula, with a high risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear conflict. While the appalling humanitarian consequences of this don’t need to be spelt out, the strategic illogic of the arguments advocating a first strike must be continually reinforced.

Andrew O’Neil, Dean and Professor of Political Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is a unified Korea possible?


Ji-Young Lee, American University School of International Service

North and South Korean athletes will march under one flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The “Korean Unification Flag” is both a highly symbolic marker of reconciliation and a reminder of a divided Korea, a condition that has lasted since 1945.

As a scholar of East Asian international relations, I’m fascinated by the question of reunification that has been a mainstay of reconciliation and dialogue between North and South Korea. Unfortunately, history suggests such efforts to reunite the peninsula as a single country often don’t go far.

What Koreans think

Most South Koreans are not optimistic about reunification. According to a 2017 Unification Perception Survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 24.7 percent of South Koreans don’t think that unification is possible. Only 2.3 percent of South Korean respondents believe that unification is possible “within 5 years,” while 13.6 percent responded “within 10 years.”

However, the same survey indicates that 53.8 percent of South Koreans believe that reunification is necessary.

Beyond that, however, there is little consensus as to what kind of country a unified Korea should be. Nearly half of South Korean respondents want to keep South Korea’s democratic political system, while 37.7 percent support some form of hybrid, a compromise between the South and North Korean systems. Still, 13.5 percent of South Koreans answered that they prefer the continued existence of two systems within one country.

Three strikes

The first time North and South Korea held talks since the 1950-53 Korean War was in 1971. They agreed on basic principles of the reunification. According to the July 4 South-North Joint Communique, reunification should be achieved through 1) independent efforts of the two Koreas, 2) peaceful means, and 3) the promotion of national unity transcending differences in ideologies and systems.

Despite its significance for later agreements, this détente soon collapsed due to the leaders’ lack of genuine intention to follow through. North Korea viewed the inter-Korean dialogue as a way to wean South Korea away from the U.S. and Japan. South Korean leader Park Chung-Hee saw it as a useful tool for consolidating his authoritarian rule.

In the late 1980s, tides shifted as the Cold War broke down and inter-Korean reconciliation once again seemed possible. The 1988 Seoul Olympics spurred South Korea to pursue improved relations with communist countries to ensure their participation. The Olympics hosted a record number of countries from both blocs of the Cold War, including the Soviet Union and China. This, even in the face of North Korea’s attempt to throw the games off by bombing a South Korean airliner killing 115 people in 1987. With the help of South Korea’s rising international status and active diplomacy toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China, Pyongyang agreed to talks with Seoul.

By 1991, North and South Koreans had once again come around to the idea of reconciliation and signed the Basic Agreement. In it, Koreans defined their relationship not as two separate states, but rather one going through a “special interim” – a process toward ultimate reunification. In 1992, they produced the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, by the end of 1992, inter-Korean relations grew seriously strained. North Korea refused to accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and objected to the resumption of a U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise.

Another milestone took place in 2000. North and South Korea held the first summit that amounted to the most substantial and frequent engagement between the two Koreas yet. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and his successor Roh Moo-Hyun’s Sunshine Policy meant to provide for a gradual change of North Korea toward the reunification through inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian, economic, political, social and cultural issues. But in the face of Pyongyang’s continued provocations and nuclear development program, this type of engagement-oriented policy had serious limits. Over time, it became less and less popular with the public.

The conservative governments that followed upheld the goal of the reunification, but made inter-Korean reconciliation conditional upon Pyongyang’s behavior. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and provocations like a torpedo attack on a South Korean navy ship and the shelling of a South Korean island, backpedaled much of the progress made during the 2000 summit.

After three major attempts and failures, is reunification feasible in 2018?

What these past talks show is that reconciliation has not been sustainable without the tangible progress in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

At the same time, the current South Korean President Moon Jae-In is more open to departing from the more conservative approach and pursuing engagement without such assurances. This may be a game changer. Without a doubt, he is much more proactive about creating opportunities for inter-Korean reconciliation.

The ConversationPresident Moon faces the same harsh realities as his predecessors. With Pyongyang’s increased threat, the South Korean government will have to work more closely with other countries currently implementing sanctions against Pyongyang. If Seoul works out a deal for inter-Korean exchanges and joint projects and North Korea continues to engage in a provocation, skeptical South Koreans will not likely support the government’s engagement policy.

Ji-Young Lee, Assistant Professor, American University School of International Service

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What the West gets wrong about North Korea’s motives, and why some South Koreans admire the North


B.R. Myers, Dongseo University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 – of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb – prompted a flurry of Western media think pieces attempting to explain the past and predict the future.

Most left out important aspects of the current crisis, says analyst B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic expert on North Korean propaganda and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.

In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.

You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?

A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.

In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.

If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.

Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.

You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?

Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.

But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.

And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.

Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”

While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?

That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.

You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.

I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.

In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.

How likely is a war?

I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.

On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The ConversationAlso, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.

B.R. Myers, Professor of International Studies, Dongseo University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.