North Korea's Growing Nuclear Threat Risks US Military Action

by Michael Swaine

North Korea's Growing Nuclear Threat Risks US Military Action 

During an April 2017 phone call between Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the US president said that “all options are on the table” to address an acceleration in North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. The pariah state already possesses a stockpile of nuclear weapons and will soon have a warhead capable of reaching Los Angeles.

Military action, including pre-emptive strikes, has not been ruled out, and the US and South Korea have drilled ‘decapitation strikes’ in recent joint military exercises. Open conflict of this sort would be a catastrophic outcome; to avoid it, all other avenues are being actively pursued – including efforts to persuade China to play a more decisive role in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table through peaceful means. Nonetheless, Donald Trump has recently stated that if China – which has traditionally assumed the role of mediator – fails to ‘solve North Korea’, then the US will do so alone.  

President Trump’s apparent lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the region and nuclear policy more generally, in addition to a keen desire to demonstrate his leadership credentials, raises temperatures further. The erratic belligerence of the North Korean regime is anticipated and, where possible, factored in by the wider global community when formulating policy towards the peninsula. If the current crisis is to be resolved, Washington must remain measured in its approach, and Beijing proactive yet firm in brokering a solution that forces North Korea to the negotiating table, rather than to war.

Kim Jong-un

North Korea has been ruled by Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his father in 2011. Little was known about the elusive young leader when he assumed power, but he quickly dashed any hopes for a break in the continuity of his family’s authoritarian rule. Jong-un has since consolidated his power through a series of ruthless purges of the military and state security apparatus. It is estimated that he has executed over 340 people since coming to power, many of them high-ranking government officials and military officers, including his uncle. The few remaining open exchanges with the South have been shut down, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric is directed toward the US and its allies. Worryingly, Jong-un has decided to make the realisation of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions his legacy.

Nuclear Program

In 2003, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three years later, it conducted its first underground nuclear test, followed by another in 2009. Three subsequent tests – one in 2013 and two last year – have been carried out under Kim Jong-un. In conjunction with its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has also accelerated the development of its ballistic missile capability. It ultimately seeks to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US. Over the past two years, it has successfully deployed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. It is estimated that North Korea is 18 to 36 months away from achieving a nuclear missile capability that could strike Los Angeles.

Role of the US and China

The two players crucial to keeping North Korea in check are the US and China. The former has both the will and military capability to present a clear challenge to a belligerent North Korea. The latter has long been accused of propping up the regime, while sporadically issuing stern correctives. Both powers have historically been more preoccupied with the dynamics of their own relationship which, in turn, has hindered efforts around executing a coordinated approach toward the Korean peninsula.

The US

Since taking office, Donald Trump has taken a tough stance on North Korea. Despite campaign promises to withdraw the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, Trump has since offered reassurances that their deployment will continue for now. In March 2017, the US deployed the Thaad missile defence system to South Korea – part of a long-standing policy initiated by the Obama administration – and it became operational the following month. Also in April, usually a tense month in peninsula relations as the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung is typically accompanied by a display of military might, the Trump administration declared that the age of ‘strategic patience’ – the policy of the Obama administration – with North Korea was over.


China is North Korea’s only regional ally and accounts for 85% of the latter’s foreign trade. The Chinese have long had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula. A shared border, and an ostensibly shared ideology, has seen China stand by its smaller neighbour as the rest of the international community shuns it. China is most concerned by the destabilising effect that conflict on its border would bring. The Dongbei provinces would be flooded with North Korean refugees and, if the conflict were to turn nuclear, nearly a quarter of a billion Chinese in Northern China could come under direct threat.

However, it appears that China’s patience may also be running low. Last year’s nuclear tests, the acceleration of the missile program and the assassination of Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia – who had been living in China under government protection – are all said to have deeply angered the Chinese. In February 2017, China announced it would freeze coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. If China continues to perceive North Korea as a growing threat then it may alter its traditional policy of interdependence, which would likely include a more robust implementation of sanctions.

Implications of Open Conflict

If current tensions were to escalate into open conflict, the consequences would be devastating. These remain the strongest incentive for all parties to reach a peaceful solution.

-          Casualties: A pre-emptive strike by the US and South Korea would not be able to neutralise all hidden and mobile nuclear launch sites, and it is unlikely missile defences would prevent all strikes from reaching Seoul. Further, North Korea’s response would also likely entail a coordinated attack by the country’s standing army and the use of its chemical and biological stockpiles, in conjunction with targeted cyber-attacks. Analysts at the Pentagon estimate that such a conflict could cause between 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and US military casualties, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

-          Economic effects: The economic and trade implications would be catastrophic and far reaching. In addition to the immediate costs of humanitarian and clean-up missions, the longer-term destabilisation of the economies of China, Japan and South Korea would be felt globally.

-          Regime change: The North Korean regime would be destroyed. Whatever damage the North managed to inflict would be eclipsed by the total and permanent losses it would suffer. While regime change would be almost universally welcomed, the manner in which the transition would take place would present hugely complex geopolitical dilemmas, particularly with regard to the role of the US and China.

Outlook for the Region

As noted above, the most recent hostilities represent a worrying departure from the past for three main reasons. First, North Korea’s acceleration of its nuclear and missile programs mean that a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the US is no longer a question of ‘if’, but of ‘when’. Second, President Trump’s worryingly un-nuanced stance toward the crisis threatens to further destabilise an already volatile situation. Finally, China seems to be approaching the limits of its patience. North Korea’s ever-brazen defiance of the wishes of its last remaining ally is forcing China to reassess the merits of continuing to prop up its troublesome neighbour.

Kim Jong-un, for his part, has shown occasional signs of pragmatism in his approach to both domestic and foreign policy. He will believe, not unreasonably, that having a nuclear capability will guarantee his regime’s survival, but using it would spell its end. While he will want to avoid the latter outcome, Jong-un has already demonstrated that he is comfortable using violence against his enemies. This suggests that, with his back to the wall, he may choose to ‘go down fighting’, a scenario the international community must work hard to avoid.

Despite the gravity of the situation, options to peacefully resolve current tensions remain. South Korea’s newly elected President Moon Jae-in – a liberal former human rights lawyer and son of North Korean refugees – is making the right noises. In his first speech, President Moon said that, under the right circumstances, he would be willing to visit Pyongyang if it would help bring peace to the peninsula.

Donald Trump has also expressed a willingness to meet with Jong-un “under the right circumstances”, although this could prove to be a double-edged sword. Previous attempts at multilateral negotiations – the six-party talks (comprising North Korea, South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia) broke down in 2009 – could be revived in some format. Further, ‘track two’ (unofficial diplomatic interaction) meetings between the US and North Korea resumed in Oslo in May 2017 after a six-month hiatus. These talks allow both sides to explore a potential framework for formal negotiations.

If North Korea were given assurances that issues such as regime change and the timing of possible reunification would be avoided, negotiations on how to manage denuclearisation are plausible. If, however, Kim Jong-un is able to deliver the nuclear capability he has promised, the outlook is far from clear. It is possible that, having achieved his nuclear objective, Jong-un would then be able to focus on the other half of his ‘parallel development policy’ – the economy – in which the West and China can play an active role. Alternatively, the confidence of possessing a deliverable threat could make North Korea yet more belligerent, perhaps leading it to develop a maritime launch capability. The US and its international partners hope to avoid such uncertainty – and potential military conflict – through a negotiated solution. 


Michael Swaine

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