By Iran Review
By Ramin Nadimi and Hossein Ajorlou
North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles, which flew over Japan, quite recently to show that it is serious about going on with its deterrence strategy, which is based on improving the country’s missile and nuclear capabilities. This strategy has been so far successful and Pyongyang has clearly noted that it will continue to pursue this strategy until the United States of America ends posing threats to North Korea and some form of equilibrium of force is established between the two sides.
After the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea took long strides to beef up its military might. The country launched its nuclear program during the 1960s by starting nuclear research and, in parallel, it has been pushing ahead with its missile program.
North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in 1993. Some 13 years later, the country established itself as a nuclear power by conducting its first successful test of nuclear weapons in 2006 and also by test-firing a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. As a result of these developments, the country managed to attract the world’s attention to its nuclear and missile capabilities.
North Korea then moved to carry out more missile and nuclear tests in 2009, 2013, 2014, and 2016, thus further developing its nuclear arsenal. Finally, in August and September 2017, as threats from the United States of America and verbal attacks from new US President Donald Trump continued to increase, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, issued orders to his country’s officials to test North Korea’s first hydrogen warhead, which can be mounted on Pyongyang’s new intercontinental and ballistic missiles.
In view of all these developments, the following scenarios can be proposed for the future outlook of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula based on uncertainty of a possible military faceoff between the two sides:
1. Reduced possibility of military conflict: If measures taken by North Korea continue according to the current trend and the country does not take any measures that would constitute a high-level threat (including possible attacks on the US military base in the Pacific island of Guam, South Korea, or Japan), and if the United States of America does not increase its threats beyond their current level due to risks of a possible nuclear faceoff, the probability of a military conflict between the two sides will decrease. In other words, this scenario would be realized if the crisis on the Korean Peninsula continues according to the current trend, which in turn, may give birth to two secondary scenarios:
Reduced tension and start of negotiations: If the United States of America reduces its proclaimed and practical threats against North Korea and North Korea achieves its goal for creating necessary deterrence power and equilibrium of force, the two sides are possible to move toward negotiations aimed at reducing tensions through pressures from South Korea and Japan and possible mediation by China and Russia.
Increased tension and start of negotiations: If the United States of America increases its proclaimed and practical threats against North Korea and North Korea takes further measures to achieve its deterrence goal, but the two sides reach the conclusion that due to high costs of heightened tensions this trend is not advisable, it is still possible for them to enter into negotiations in order to manage the crisis. It seems that such negotiations would be held clandestinely in order to help both sides maintain their prestige.
2. Increased possibility of military conflict: If North Korea takes measures that are considered high-level threats by, for example, attacking US military base on Guam Island or US allies such as South Korea and Japan, in that case, the probability of a military conflict will greatly increase and the United States of America will respond in kind. Such a possible military conflict will also include a range of various forms of attacks using missile to nuclear attacks.
When analyzing the aforesaid scenarios, one can claim that the first scenario, that is, reduced possibility of military conflict, is more probable than the second one, which is increased possibility of military conflict. The reasons are as follows:
1. A reality called nuclear North Korea: According to the existing reality, North Korea has turned into a producer of nuclear weapons and possesses missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads at a continental level. Therefore, any military measures against North Korea will be followed by the country’s possible nuclear answer. Perhaps, this is one reason that increases the probability of the first scenario; that is, reduced possibility of a military conflict.
2. Opposition from China and Russia: Continuation of the current state of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is considered a good opportunity for China and Russia, because it challenges the power of the United States. Of course, due to their neighborhood with North Korea, China and Russia are not in agreement with further increase in the country’s nuclear capability. Therefore, they will do their utmost to mount pressure on both sides in order to keep the current level of tension in place while preventing the current situation from ending in a real military conflict.
3. North Korea’s missile range to hit vital interests of the United States of America: Although North Korean missiles cannot hit the mainland of the United States, its military base on Guam Island as well as Japan and South Korea, as two main allies of the United States, are in range for North Korea’s missiles. If these targets are hit, the United States of America will enter an all-out war, which will cause it many problems in view of the country’s domestic and foreign conditions.
4. Vast human casualties: Since North Korea’s military and nuclear sites are close to residential quarters in the country and also close to South Korea, and since weapons of mass destruction will be probably used by all involved parties, a possible war between the United States of America and North Korea will produce vast human casualties. Under the present conditions and in view of widespread presence of media outlets and activities by human rights institutions, such a war will cost the United States dearly and this is also a reason that reduces possibility of a military conflict between the two sides.
5. The global economic crisis: A possible military conflict in East Asia will cause serious economic crisis for Japan, which is world’s third economic power with a gross domestic product of five trillion dollars, and South Korea, which is world’s 11th economic power with a gross domestic product of 1.5 trillion dollars. Taken together, these two countries account for about 10 percent of the global economy. Now, if the impacts of such a military conflict on China are added to the equation, the entire global economy will be possibly caught in a serious crisis and this is a major reason preventing a military conflict between the two sides.
6. Unwillingness of North Korean and American officials for starting a military conflict: Despite all the provocative rhetoric by officials in North Korea and the United States of America, it seems that neither side is willing to engage in a military confrontation. On the one side, North Korea has shown that it has no plan to attack the interests of the United States of America, nor Japan and South Korea, but is all bent on deterrence. This is why Kim Jong-un, in his meeting with North Korea’s defense officials, talked about the country’s goal to create equilibrium of force with the US to prevent threats to the country from the United States of America. On the other hand, by taking such measures as asking Russia and China to mount pressure on North Korea, avoiding major military moves, and pursuing its regular policies like follow-up through the United Nations Security Council, the United States has shown that despite all verbal attacks, it does not have any intension for getting militarily engaged with North Korea.
On the whole, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by much ambiguity and the future outlook of developments related to it will be determined by forthcoming incidents and possible frictions. However, it seems that the crisis will go on under the existing conditions as a result of which the possibility of a military faceoff between North Korea and the United States of America will be quite low.
*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review’s viewpoints.
 “Stressed the need to run at full speed and straight, continuing to qualitatively consolidate the military attack capacity for [a] nuclear counterattack the US cannot cope with;” North Korea seeks to establish ‘equilibrium of force’ with US – Kim Jong-un, Russia Today, 15 Sep 2017, https://www.rt.com/news/403506-pyongyang-us-equilibrium-force