North Korea’s post-Olympic diplomacy and flurry of diplomacy has temporarily decreased tensions on the Korean peninsula. Reciprocal visits of high ranking officials and representatives have met both in Seoul and Pyongyang. There has been a hiatus in missile and nuclear testing. Kim participated in the historical April 27th, 2018 inter-Korean Summit, he has had two meetings with President Xi, he has committed himself to a tête-a-tête with President Trump June 12th, 2018 by dangling the denuclearization of the North in exchange for security guarantees to lure the US to the negotiating table.
At the same time, bombastic rhetoric from Washington and Pyongyang continues, military parades have been held showcasing military hardware aimed at Washington and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems such as THAAD and Aegis Ashore continue to be deployed on the peninsula and in Japan.
Despite the Olympic and post-Olympic optics, we have not seen a fundamental reorientation in the North Korean or US military footprint in the region. Quite the contrary, using the rubric of maximum pressure, the US has unilaterally stepped up its military engagement with the deployment of two aircraft carrier groups. Furthermore, by working with alliance partners in the region, it has also lobbied hard to increase sanctions against North Korea, even targeting Chinese businesses and banks through secondary sanctions. At the institutional level, the US institution continues to prioritize North Korea hawks such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo over known conservative Korean hands such as Victor Cha whose expertise and experience would be ideal for pursuing a diplomatic solution to the peninsular standoff.
Unchanging Strategic Objectives: Regime Security vs Global Primacy
These contradictions should not mask that at a fundamental level there has been no change in Pyongyang’s determination to achieve an effective and reliable strategic nuclear deterrent to disincline the US from attempting to either bring down the North Korea government through a preemptive or decapitation strike. Simply, regime survival is its immediate and enduring national interest, and this has not changed since the end of the Korean War.
If we examine Kim’s statement at the North Korea-China summit on March 26th, 2018 we can develop more clarity as to the North’s long-term view of the evolution of the peninsula. Specifically, Kim Jong Un said “It is our consistent stance to be committed to denuclearization on the Peninsula, in accordance with the will of the late President Kim Il Sung and the late General Secretary Kim Jong Il”. This phrasing is salient to understanding the North’s position. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il understood denuclearization as denuclearization of the entire peninsula and the removal of the nuclear umbrella that surrounds the Korean Peninsula. In layman terms, the removal of US troops from South Korea and the region, including Japan.
Even at his surprise visit to Dallin, China May 7-8, 2018, Kim reiterated his stance on denuclearization that “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
What has changed for the Kim regime is that it feels confident enough it is strategic nuclear deterrent to pivot away from the nuclear pillar to the economic pillar of its byungjin ideology. This indicates that Pyongyang is coming to the negotiation table for denuclearization from a position of strength rather than a position of weakness.
Similarly, the US’s strategic concerns over North Korea have not changed either. A nuclear North Korea threatens the US at three levels. First, it threatens the US directly through the possibility of a nuclear tipped ICBM strike. While unlikely to achieve any tangible benefits for Pyongyang as an offensive weapon, the threat of a retaliatory strike may be enough to dissuade policy makers in Washington to take a more hardline military approach to dealing with North Korea.
The possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent during the “maximum pressure” campaign has contributed to inhibiting the US and given Pyongyang value time to engineer the fracturing of the maximum pressure campaign with its post-Olympic Summitry with President Moon, President Xi and potentially President Trump. In short, Kim has skillfully created a strategic diplomatic deterrent through his maximum engagement tactics.
Second, Pyongyang’s track record of weapons proliferation suggests that the North may proliferate nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to other so-called revisionist states or worse non-state actors such as IS to acquire hard currency. This would have the effect destroying the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and potentially dramatically increasing the number of nuclear states and instability in the international system. Iran stands the most to gain from this scenario as it has been using Pyongyang as a proxy for its own missile and nuclear development. In the case of proliferation to a non-state actor (s), the consequences would be severe, and the possibility of usage high consider the plethora of former IS fighters that have reintegrated back into Europe, Northern Africa and potentially North America. Even China’s far western provinces are at risk as transnational terrorist solidarity may extends into separatist groups.
Thirdly, a nuclear North Korea would arguably be protected from a US attack allowing the North to begin to invest resources into building a more robust and dynamic economy realizing its byungjin objective of parallel economic and military development. Even a relatively strong North Korean economy that had nuclear weapons would be in a position to engage in nuclear blackmail with South Korea. Pyongyang could promote reunification or some kind of federation on favorable terms or pressure the South to end their longstanding alliance with the US. In either case, the US’s presence would decrease or be removed all together in either scenario.
This scenario would impact the region and the US differently. Within the region, alliance and strategic partners may make the calculation that the US security umbrella is no longer reliable prompting them to acquire their own preemptive strike capabilities and/ or a nuclear strategic deterrent. This would have implications for Northeast Asia, the South China Sea (SCS) issue and potentially cross strait relations.
While nuclear peace theory argues that nuclear weapons do create stability and security as seen in the Cold War, its logic does not extend beyond a bipolar system in which many regional rivals with different political systems, values and security concerns coexist which aptly describes Northeast and Southeast Asia.
The erosion of a US guaranteed security architecture in the region would decrease the US’s capacity to remain engaged in the region economically, politically and militarily. Any decrease in US capability to project all elements of power within the region would inhibit the US’s ability to promote its rules-based order and the international system that’s it has helped secure for the past 70 years. It would detract from not contribute to the resurrected Quadrilateral and severely attenuate the Indo-Pacific initiative promoted by the Trump Administration and supported by keys allies in the region such as Japan, Australia and India.
Preservation of the US-led system secures its influence in the region, but crucially is understood as balancing China’s rise in the region, arguably the most important foreign policy issue facing the US over this and coming generations as evidence in the 2018 National Defense Strategy in which China was designated as a strategic rival.
Escalating tension: Preserving US Primacy
As the US’ security concerns will not be solved without comprehensive, irreversible, verifiable dismantling of North Korea nuclear weapons and capability to produce those weapons, the US will step up comprehensive pressure on Pyongyang, despite warming in inter-Korean relations. For the US, Pyongyang’s nuclear brinksmanship destabilizes its security at the regional and global level both in the immediate term but also the long term by attenuating its capability to compete with an increasingly capable Chinese strategic rival.
In the Trump Administration’s first 16 months in power it has shown itself to put campaign promises into practice. The rejection of the TPP, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, renegotiating NAFTA, pressuring NATO member to contribute more to their security commitment, tariffs on steel imports, stepped up pressure on China in the SCS in the form of FONOPS, the resurrection of the Quadrilateral and the significant stepping up pressure on Pyongyang are salient examples of the Administration’s commitment to a more forceful approach to achieving its national interests. The withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is only the latest evidence that the Trump Administration is committed to its campaign promises but also to removing nuclear threats to the US and allies. A willingness to even put long term close partners such as South Korea, Canada and Mexico in uncomfortable positions strongly suggests that the US Administration will not back down from its threat to deal with North Korea.
In policy terms, the US approach going forward will necessarily depend on partners in the region, especially Japan, but also interregional partners such as Australia. South Korea’s current leadership is inclined towards diplomacy, understanding that Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear deterrent is aimed at Washington, not Seoul making it an unlikely proponent of stepped up pressure or military solution. Moreover, the intransigent and reckless approach to North Korea by the Trump Administration has moved the Moon Administration to finding endogenous diplomatic solutions to deescalating tensions on the peninsula.
The Inter-Korean Summit and the Blueprint for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation which proposes three beltways to promote economic development linking South Korea, North Korea and China given to Kim at the Summit indicate the Moon Administration is sincere in its outreach to the North. Notwithstanding, its tight economic relationship with China also means it is difficult to engage in a North Korean denuclearization strategy that may have negative ramifications for its largest trading partner as well evidenced in the post-THAAD instalment in 2016 and its associated economic consequences. The short-term gains from a thaw in peninsular relations may give way to the much more existential challenges for the South in the long run as a nuclearized Korea redirects is attention to reconfiguring peninsular relations based on their nuclear terms.
The Trump Administration initially and still sees China as having the most leverage to put pressure on the Kim regime. Notwithstanding, they have come to an understanding that there are limits to what China would like to do, perhaps without certain guarantees. The same is true for the Russians who have increased trade with the North and continue to allow migrant labor from North Korea into their borders.
The Sino-Russo “Double Freeze” proposal remains on the table; however, it is unlikely to be enticing enough for Washington to let up pressure on Pyongyang. On the contrary, there is consensus in the Beltway that the consolidation of Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear missile deterrent is near completion or completed and that Pyongyang’s post-Olympic diplomacy is a ruse to decrease pressure on the Kim regime allowing it breathing space to consolidate its strategic objective and further dilute the collective action that has been takers towards the North. This view has not deviated, even considering a potential tête-a-tête between Kim and Trump in June 2018.
In light of these emerging views on China and Russia’s reticence to maximize pressure on the Kim regime as well as South Korea’s challenged position vis-à-vis the North, for the US to achieve its strategic objective, the US and Japan must increase their cooperation using their complementary, comparative advantages.
While not exclusive to US-Japan collaboration, this cooperation will include enhanced defensive capabilities and monitoring operations, cooperation to garner international support for stronger sanctions, and stepped rhetoric that stresses that regime change is not the objective of the US, only denuclearization. Simultaneously, the US will continue to unilaterally increase its military presence in the region (Japan cannot participate in this because of constitutional limitations) and simulate various kinds of offensive and defensive capabilities to maximize perceptions within Pyongyang that the US can and is willing to engage in a preemptive strike. The US will also ensure that US-South Korean joint training continues and press for deeper cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the US in intelligence sharing.
Negotiations towards denuclearization are not an impossibility with Kim’s post-Olympic diplomatic reach out to the US. However, any diplomatic solution will require verification of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and demilitarization in exchange for a permanent peace on the peninsula. This is a generational project.
Immediate denuclearization is not realistic considering Pyongyang’s security concerns about the US. Saliently, the US and its allies are not solely concerned about nuclear tipped ICBMs but also short and mid ranged missiles, submarine launch platforms as well as chemical and biological weapons capabilities. Denuclearization must go together with broad demilitarization. This could realistically only occur incrementally through a long-term series of quid-pro-quos in which Pyongyang and Washington bilaterally and simultaneously engage in confidence building through mutual negotiated concessions.
Domestic political cycles within the US will make this long-term strategy unsustainable decreasing Pyongyang’s confidence in the US’s commitment to denuclearization in exchange for regime security. The unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement will only consolidated this logic in Pyongyang. At the same time, China and Russia are cognizant of the instability within the American political system and they will seize the opportunity to maximize their interests on the peninsula which includes strengthening the Kim regime and ensuring that Pyongyang remains wedded to the interests of Beijing and Moscow.
The implications of the above geopolitical complexities for North Korea and China are clear. The US will continue to pursue a hardline policy against the Pyongyang in line with its interests in preserving security primacy in the region. Any erosion or dilution of that position as the pivotal power in the region would have a cascade of effects weakening the US’s regional and international influence, its national security and hegemonic position in the global order. Crucially, it would weaken the US’s position in the region and its ability to counter growing Chinese influence. With these considerations at stake, countries within the region should make no mistake that the “America First” administration will do what it takes to ensure that North Korea does not retain any nuclear or ICBM capabilities, biological and chemical weapons, and short and mid-range systems that threaten US bases and allies in the region.
About the author:
*Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University based in Tokyo. Concurrently, he is a distinguished fellow with Canada’s the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and an appointed China expert with Canada’s China Research Partnership.