Accepting the Realities on the Korean Peninsula

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Written by Nils G. Bildt

As the Olympic Games officially kick off in South Korea, tension on the Korean peninsula appears—for once in some time—to be at an ebb. Over the last year the world watched with baited breath as tensions between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) steadily rose to alarming levels. Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un carried out multiple missile tests demonstrating increasing capabilities while President Trump waged a campaign of statements and tweets warning North Korea of “fire and fury” should its actions cross an unspecified red line.

In Washington, not unsurprisingly, the administration itself is split on what to do about North Korea. Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson stand against any preemptive strike, but National Security Advisor McMaster appears very much in favor of such action. The discussions regarding a preemptive strike miss a fundamental truth: de-nuclearization simply isn’t possible at this stage. It’s time, to accept the realities—North Korea has nuclear weapons and has (or soon will) the capacity to deliver those weapons via intercontinental ballistic missiles. Failure to accept this reality risks substantial miscalculation in a misguided effort to change the conditions on the ground.

It is further perilous, because, if you claim that you are dealing with an irrational mad man (in leader Kim Jong Un), how can you anticipate the DPRK’s reaction? Would they retaliate with a protest, a limited strike on South Korea or our regional assets, or perhaps an all-out nuclear war? The fact is we claim not to know this as the U.S. administration maintains that Kim is irrational. It seems that this would be a momentous risk to take for little or no realistic military or strategic gain. Moreover, should regime collapse come about due to an escalatory set of military events the outcome would be catastrophic from both a humanitarian and economic perspective. It would also mean the U.S. would end up handing China a geostrategic and moral victory (at least in the short to medium term) as any regime collapse or disintegration would end up needing to be managed by China.

If on the other hand the administration thinks (despite its rhetoric) it is dealing with a rational regime, then it negates the very purpose of the strike, as it would only serve to make the situation worse, and make future talks, even track 1.5 or 2.0 diplomacy, effectively impossible. It would further be seen as a unilateral act of war—how would this incentivize the DPRK to negotiate? Negotiation, short of the destruction of the DPRK regime and all-out war, is after all the only viable option. The premise that Kim would negotiate after a limited strike is false as he is aware that the U.S. would not risk an all-out confrontation, the likely destruction of Seoul, and possible nuclear exchanges. Instead a preemptive strike would prompt some sort of military response from the DPRK, one that would be calculated not to start total war, but one robust enough to severely hurt our South Korean ally—there are many ways it can do this without a full out attack on Seoul. This would severely damage our alliance with South Korea and possibly even Japan. No matter the response, it seems rather callous to go ahead with a strike when it risks lives of South Koreans, Japanese, or even some of our own citizens in the region, especially when not leading to strategic gains.

It would further undermine any gains made thus far in obtaining Chinese assistance in implementing sanctions. While safe to say that China has been less than cooperative in this endeavor, the West has little leverage over Pyongyang and China has shown itself to be an intermittent and uneven partner in handling Kim, even if a needed one. In effect, the U.S. has for decades outsourced its diplomacy regarding the DPRK to China. The U.S. needs again to lead diplomatic efforts. While Beijing is often frustrated at the behavior of its neighbor, it proves to be a convenient foil to Washington and Seoul’s interests in Asia. So long as Kim Jong-un doesn’t step too far out of line, we can safely expect Beijing to be unwilling to assert significant pressure on Pyongyang. A U.S. attack might further prompt a small Chinese presence in the DPRK, or at least effective protection, making any future strikes impossible and thus undermine our and our allies strategic posture in the region.

A strike would be an admittance that the DPRK has diplomatically outmaneuvered the U.S. and that the U.S. has failed to effectively engage its regional allies and the other regional actors. The Trump administration’s inability to frame a coherent policy towards the region is a major concern. While I do not necessarily share every view held by the formerly proposed ambassador to South Korea, Dr. Victor Cha, regarding the DPRK, he is a person with deep knowledge. That his hardline, yet rational, approach, to the DPRK was not forceful enough for the Trump administration is deeply concerning.

While perhaps the South Koreans were a bit over enthusiastic regarding Olympic Diplomacy—it is unclear what they will gain from it over the longer term—it ought still to be viewed as a success as it not only has reenabled north-south dialogue but could also possibly prove fruitful. It has further enhanced the security of the Olympic games. Their concessions are not over the top and have not led to a deteriorating strategic situation yet.

U.S. based pundits, politicians, policy makers, and bureaucrats need an injection of reality regarding the DPRK. As most rational thinkers on the subject would realize, there are few good options, and confrontation is possibly the least productive (although the U.S. should never relinquish the right to defend itself if attacked). A “left of launch” strike on DPRK nuclear (or other) assets, would be not only counterproductive, but could even be catastrophic for the entire region.

If attacked the DPRK might feel compelled to device some form of counter attack, worse than what it sustained but not bad enough to endanger its own survival. In fact, considering current tensions in the region, it is showing that it can act with some restraint. Something the U.S. Administration with its emotional brinkmanship and Pence’s uncoordinated speeches in Japan is not. Thus, talk in Washington, about militarily striking the DPRK unless it augments its behavior is not only foolish, it is further compounding the problem and is making dialogue harder. In short, the Trump administration is waking into its own “Discourse Trap”.

About the author: Nils G. Bildt, MA-IPS, is the President of CTSS Japan and has previously served as an Advisor to Japanese Parliamentarians and Cabinet Members regarding national security issues.