North Korea and the United States
Ramp up Tensions
In response to the U.N. Security Council’s adoption of another resolution imposing tough new sanctions on North Korea for its recent missile launches, Pyongyang has taken several retaliatory actions. It has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies; rejected the U.S. call earlier this week for negotiations to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula; and vowed to push forward with its nuclear and missile programs, including its ICBM program, which will place American cities within range of its nuclear-tipped missiles. On Wednesday, they threatened to attack the US territory Guam.
While Pyongyang has responded to previous sanctions resolutions with the same vitriolic threats, the present level of tension is considered by many to be much higher than before, raising the crisis to the brink of conflict. In fact, the threat against Guam could very well be considered dangerous since any attack on US territory would elicit a massive American response.
While one can see the growing tension between the US and North Korea in the light of current events, it’s important to see it in a historical perspective and its impact on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. For a quarter century the US and North Korea have held talks to keep North Korea from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Yet, despite sanctions and deals to provide commercial nuclear power to North Korea, it appears that the small nation has managed to become a nuclear power with the ability to project its weapons halfway around the world. Clearly, Iran’s leaders are watching what happens because if the US backs down, it means that the US will probably back down to any potential Iranian nuclear ambitions too.
In 1994, North Korea had declared, during “peace” talks, “We are ready to respond with an eye for an eye and a war for a war. If war breaks out, we will turn Seoul into a sea of fire.” The public didn’t know it at the time, but the United States was quite close to a major escalation that week, one that many in the Pentagon expected would lead to a Second Korean War.
According to CNN, on June 15, 1994, SecD Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili were briefing President Clinton and other top officials on three options to substantially reinforce the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War.
The Pentagon was advocating moving 10,000 more troops, along with F-117s, long-range bombers and an additional carrier battle group to Korea or nearby.
“We were within a day of making major additions to our troop deployments to Korea, and we were about to undertake an evacuation of American civilians from Korea,” Perry recalled.
The US stepped back and by October, Bill Clinton announced the U.S. and North Korea had a deal.
“I am pleased that the United States and North Korea yesterday reached agreement on the text of a framework document on North Korea’s nuclear program. This agreement will help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective: an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula…It reduces the danger of the threat of nuclear spreading in the region.”
As with the Iran deal many years later, the deal with North Korea was not a formal treaty and thus never debated by or ratified by Congress.
Needless to say, the North Koreans continued to work secretly on enhancing its nuclear program while the U.S. provided oil, two light water reactors, and a new electric grid, altogether worth roughly $5 billion, in exchange for promises.
Despite the deal, US intelligence agencies found evidence that North Korea was up to something. Spy satellites detected massive underground excavations and construction. In addition, A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, secretly traveled to North Korea several times.
The Clinton administration did not let the intelligence get in the way of improving relations with North Korea. By 2000, Secretary of State Madeline Albright was traveling to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il and declaring the administration no longer labeled them a “rogue state.”
Although the Clinton administration’s approach to North Korea was met by mixed reaction internally (pros and cons), the Bush Administration didn’t do much better.
By 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence that they had an ongoing program to develop nuclear weapons.
The talks broke down after one North Korean official declared that dialogue on the subject was worthless and said, “We will meet sword with sword.” Ultimatly, the US didn’t do anything to stop the North Korea nuclear weapons program.
The Bush administration did create a “redline” in 2006 when they tested their first nuclear bomb – a threat that proved to be a bluff.
That’s not to say that no one argued for a more vigorous response. In 1994, National Security expert and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle recommended taking out North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure in a 1994 PBS show (“Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg.” Show title “Defusing the North Korean Bomb”). In the show, he said, “In 1981, the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed a reactor that was about to come on line near Baghdad. It was a breathtaking display of bombing accuracy. They destroyed the reactor and did no damage beyond the reactor site itself.”
“The North Koreans have a reprocessing plant at Yong Byong. We know exactly where it is.”
He continued, “Only after we make the decision that if the negotiations fail, we will do what the Israelis did and end the program in that way, because if you don’t make that decision first, there is a risk that you go on negotiating past the point at which they take irreversible action and become the nuclear power we’re trying to prevent them from becoming.”
However, he didn’t see this action as unilateral. He noted, “Make sure that your allies know that you’ve made that decision and that the North Koreans know that you’ve made that decision.”
Although there is no evidence that Perle is advising Trump, he is on record defending Trump on Newsmax TV. In May, he told Newsmax that the media is “out to destroy this presidency,”
Whether or not Perle is advising Trump, it appears that Trump is following a modified Perle strategy towards North Korea.
Although everyone has focused on Trump’s “Fire and Fury” rhetoric, The US strategy is more complex and has a diplomatic side to it.
The US response has been most clearly conveyed by President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson. The President hailed the latest sanctions resolution as a major foreign-policy success, one that will deprive Kim Jong Un’s regime of perhaps one-third of the hard-currency earnings that have long been considered essential to securing the loyalty of his supporters among the North’s military and party elites.
Secretary of State Tillerson applauded the Security Council for acting unanimously, noting that the sanctions resolution was passed with Chinese and Russian approval. He has publicly emphasized the need for full implementation of the resolution, calling on Beijing to implement all U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea to date, in recognition that China has undermined the effects of previous Security Council resolutions. At the same time, he has renewed the call for a diplomatic solution and the resumption of negotiations once the North acts to indicate a willingness to pull back on its nuclear and missile programs. To encourage the North, and in classic State Department style, he declared that the U.S. does not seek regime change, effectively signaling desire for concession even before the negotiations have begun.
While much of this seems like previous American diplomatic initiatives, there may be a difference this time.
Today, the North is on the verge of deploying nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles, a capability that the Kims have long sought to ensure the survival of the N.K regime. With missiles able to hold American cities hostage to destruction, Pyongyang may feel it can deter the United States not just from attacking the North but from coming to the assistance of its most crucial regional allies, South Korea and Japan, if the North should attack either of them. Threatening American cities could perhaps also be a means to forestall a U.S. nuclear response to the North’s large-scale use of chemical and biological weapons, which North Korean planners may believe are necessary to achieve military victory on the Peninsula.
The diplomatic responses of the Trump administration – sanctions, pressuring China, and calling for negotiations – have failed in every past administration to change Pyongyang’s behavior. And despite the latest Security Council resolution, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be different this time. Given the failures of the past and the nature of the threat now posed by North Korea, it is delusional to think that sanctions will stop Kim Jung Un from continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and missile force. It is equally delusional to think that President Xi will sever the lifeline China provides to the North. And those who think that North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear and missile capabilities are simply indulging in a fantasy.
Also, anyone who thinks that pure diplomacy will work should remember the multitude of diplomatic talks that took place in the 1930s to stop Germany, Japan, and Italy.
Which brings the US back to the Perle strategy – going to the negotiating table with the clear threat of a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure.
However, a preemptive strike is an option that carries a high risk of escalation and the potential for catastrophic loss of life.
One military option that has a lower risk of North Korean response is to shoot down a North Korean missile test after it leaves North Korean airspace. Several US warships have the ability to shoot down a missile during flight and such an action would show that the US will act militarily and has the ability to counter North Korean missiles.
Of course, if the US missile fails to intercept the ICBM, the political damage would be great.
But, staying on the current course will, at best, lead only to the next crisis. But, the next crisis may be much different, and even more dangerous.
Despite Trump’s comment that “it won’t happen,” the threat became even more apparent this week with reports that the intelligence community now believes the North has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile. They also said that North Korea may have as many as 60 nuclear weapons.
Once a nuclear warhead is deployed on an ICBM-class missile, Pyongyang may be sufficiently emboldened to resort to the use of armed force, setting the stage for full-scale war – certainly a possibility behind the declared North Korean Guam threat. However, any nuclear attack on Guam would elicit a massive nuclear response by the US.
Even a conventional attack on Guam would bring about a conventional attack on North Korea against its leadership, command and control, nuclear facilities, and missile facilities. Massive air strikes against NK artillery forces along the DMZ are also likely.
Although it seems that all the options are equally undesirable, the best choice may be the “Soviet Union Strategy.” During the Cold War, the central focus was on containment of the Soviet Union until it dissolved from its own internal weaknesses and contradictions.
By any standard, North Korea is not the Soviet Union. It is even more economically vulnerable, poses less of a military threat, and is politically less stable. But until the Kim regime falls, the North will remain a dangerous enemy to US and its ambitions in the region that needs to be treated as such. But according the war camp in US, this will require skilled diplomacy, building a strong anti-North Korea alliance, and highlighting the brutality and gross human-rights violations of the regime. It also means not bailing out the North Korean regime with food and fuel deals.
The war camp narrative advocating that, the diplomacy must be backed by a strong conventional defense in South Korea. The US must also make it clear that it will take military action if necessary – something that North Korea doesn’t believe now. The US must also focus on a multi layered missile defense that can protect South Korea, Japan, other Asian nations, and the United States.
In this context, the Trump tough talk towards North Korea is no different than Reagan’s tough talk towards the Soviets in the 1980s.
Or, in the words of Winston Churchill, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
But, no matter what happens in North Korea, it’s also important to remember that how the US reacts to the threat will be closely watched by Iran’s leadership more than any other country.
Recommendations for the Next Ballistic Missile Defense-and-Defeat Review
By Michaela Dodge
August 4, 2017
The Trump Administration must advance U.S. missile defense capabilities, including ballistic missile defense interceptors located in space. It should also acknowledge the unique contributions of missile defense to U.S. and allied security in the face of threats like those posed by the large and growing North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile arsenals. By emphasizing steps ranging from ensuring that our current interceptors are optimized, to positioning the United States to address future threats by funding defense technologies and interceptors in space, the ballistic missile defense-and-defeat review provides a unique opportunity to put the U.S. missile defense policy on a sounder footing than its predecessors have done.
Withdrawing from Overseas Bases: Why a Forward-Deployed Military Posture Is Unnecessary, Outdated, and Dangerous
By John Glaser
July 18, 2017
T he United States maintains a veritable empire of military bases throughout the world—about 800 of them in more than 70 countries. This forward-deployed military posture incurs substantial costs and disadvantages, exposing the United States to vulnerabilities and unintended consequences. The strategic justifications for overseas bases—that they deter adversaries, reassure allies, and enable rapid deployment operations—have lost much of their value and relevance in the contemporary security environment. Deterrence is usually achieved by means other than nearby U.S. military bases, and a forward-deployed presence frequently exacerbates international tensions by causing fear and counterbalancing efforts by adversaries
Keeping the North Korean Threat in Proportion
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 9, 2017
There is no question that North Korea poses a major threat to its neighbors and can drag the United States and potentially China into a serious regional conflict. There also is no little doubt that it has some current nuclear strike capability with air delivered weapons and may already have a marginal capability to deliver missiles with nuclear warheads against city-sized targets in South Korea and Japan. In a period of months to years, it will be able to conduct enough tests to develop a reasonable probability of delivering a moderate fission-sized weapon against an American city with a high chance of success. No one should downplay the threat from the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or take the proposal that any use of force could escalate to a major war on the Korean peninsula casually. At the same time, no one should exaggerate the threat to the point of panic, or make North Korea into some kind of towering threat.
What North Korea’s Statement against Trump Really Means
By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
Foreign Policy Research Institute
August 9, 2017
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.
Trump Is Right On North Korea
By Rebeccah L. Heinrichs
August 3, 2017
Usually the most convincing way to look willing is to be willing,” so said the nuclear theorist Herman Kahn. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has tested the threats from U.S. presidents, and is unconvinced the United States is willing to stop him, because, well, they haven’t. With the pair of July successful flight tests of intercontinental-ballistic-missiles (ICBMs) Kim is now calling “bluff” on the U.S. bi-partisan, long-standing promise not to allow North Korea to hold the U.S. homeland hostage to nuclear attack. It’s now up to President Trump to prove him wrong. The alternative is to allow North Korea, a nation ruled by a cruel, inhumane, and morally repulsive regime to assert a significant degree of control over the United States, and with a penchant for the worst kinds of weapons proliferation.
A Blueprint for New Sanctions on North Korea
By Edward Fishman, Peter Harrell, and Elizabeth Rosenberg
Center for a New American Security
July 27, 2017
North Korea has emerged as one of the most significant national security threats facing the United States and its allies today. Since leader Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, North Korea has accelerated the pace of its nuclear tests, and appears to have made substantial progress in developing operational medium-, long-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Many experts assess that if left unchecked, Pyongyang could develop the capability to strike the contiguous United States with a nuclear warhead within 5–10 years. Because of that, in June 2017 U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis characterized North Korea as “the most urgent and dangerous threat” to U.S. peace and security. Sanctions have been a long-standing element of U.S. policy toward North Korea. However, prior to 2016, U.S. and international sanctions against North Korea were primarily designed to target specific entities involved in its nuclear and missile programs and its international support networks – rather than creating broader pressure on the country’s economy.