Avoiding War with North Korea

photo credit: KCNA via Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise. Kim Jong-un has ramped North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing programs and US President Donald Trump has exacerbated the tensions with his tough talk.

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A war would be a losing proposition for everyone. It would be suicide for Kim Jong-un given the overwhelming power of the combined U.S.-ROK forces. It would be a deadly affair for South Korea, given the North Korean heavy artillery stationed along the border that can target Seoul. Japan would also be in the crosshairs, as would U.S. personnel in the region and beyond.

It is apparent that each side fundamentally misunderstands the other. The risk of misperception and miscalculation leading to accidental military conflict is higher than most realize. There are five main factors that play into the risk.

North Korea does not appear to understand the essence of U.S. foreign policy and strategic thinking. North Korea’s determination to develop ICBMs is motivated by the idea that it will serve as a deterrent against a U.S. invasion. But this is a mistake. The United States will surely not allow a situation where it can be targeted by a North Korean nuclear strike. North Korea must be made to realize that this calculation is flawed. The more success North Korea achieves in developing its ICBMs, the greater the probability that the United States will feel compelled to resort to military options.

The United States does not understand the North Korean national mindset. Historically, the Korean peninsula has been a geopolitical battleground and North Korea has felt threatened from all sides by more powerful nations. The North Korean propaganda machine characterizes the United States as an imperialist power bent on bringing down its government and reminds its citizens daily that the country must be prepared for total war at a moment’s notice. North Korea responds stubbornly to pressure and coercion with defiance and continues to routinely violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, despite overwhelming pressure from the international community.

Kim Jong-un needs to project an image of strength domestically. As a young leader with relatively little experience, he cannot rely solely on his family name. Missiles and nuclear weapons, as the symbols for demonstrating his strength, bolster his domestic political legitimacy.

Donald Trump’s domestic difficulties and foreign policy are interconnected. Trump is facing an array of problems unlike any other U.S. president in history, including his troubled relationship with Congress, his adversarial relationship with the media, the chaos within the White House, and allegations of collusion with Russia. This has made it tempting for him to consolidate his position with tough-talking nationalism as the most visible manifestation of his "America First" foreign policy.

The vast differences between the American and North Korean political systems and the absence of normal diplomatic relations increase the possibility of miscommunication and misperceptions. North Koreans lack an intricate understanding of the complex checks and balances of U.S. institutions. This is especially the case given the inconsistent messaging between Trump’s off-the-cuff tweets and ad-libbing on the one hand and the carefully prepared official administration statements on the other. By contrast, North Korea’s over-the-top propaganda is coordinated with totalitarian precision.

Unless the two countries establish a secret communications channel for frank discussions, the risk that they will misinterpret one another’s intentions increases the risk of accidental war.

The North Korean regime’s strategy of ensuring its survival by developing its nuclear weapons and missiles hinges on its ability to drive a wedge between the major players. But a coordinated response to its nuclear weapons program would force it to rethink its calculus. It is critical that any move to take a tougher line on North Korea be part of a broader strategy geared toward resolving the issue through a negotiated settlement that aims at complete denuclearization.

For that, three steps are needed.

China and North Korea must understand that if North Korea continues developing its missiles and nuclear weapons, its game of brinksmanship could prove fatal. If North Korea continues on its current course, there is a high probability that the United States will feel compelled to pursue a military option.

The U.N. Security Council’s new resolution on stringent economic sanctions, including a rigorously enforced oil embargo, must be tight enough to make North Korea realize it will not be able to survive if it continues with its nuclear and missile program.

Intensive consultations between the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan are needed in order to establish a common foundation for immediate management and ultimate settlement of the North Korean issue. The framework for this has already been delineated in the Six-Party Talks September 2005 agreement. This entails the denuclearization of North Korea, the establishment of a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, the normalization of North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, and the promotion of international economic and energy cooperation with North Korea. Without establishing such a common understanding it will be increasingly difficult for the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate the necessary sticks and carrots to achieve a negotiated settlement.

The danger of misperception and miscalculation leading to a devastating war in Northeast Asia is high. The need for quick and decisive action to reach a comprehensive negotiated settlement with North Korea has never been more urgent.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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