“South Korea has developed into one of Asia’s most affluent countries since partition in 1948. The Communist North has slipped into totalitarianism and poverty.”
– “South Korea country profile: Overview” (8 September 2015), BBC News, United Kingdom.
North Korea keeps testing more and more powerful missiles, and Kim Jong Un claims to be ready to annihilate America and its allies. Pyongyang seems more and more prepared to back those claims if need be. The Trump administration, like its three predecessors, rightly opposes a nuclear North Korea, the chance of a military confrontation or incident is growing.
Meanwhile, America’s strongest ally in the region– China has cut off almost all trade relations with its “client state” North Korea. This new development and stronger sanctions may impair the ability of leaders on both sides to manage the growing crisis of a possible war. Still, an actual war between an American-led coalition and North Korea seems far-fetched: The stakes are too high, and the disputes not severe enough, to prompt leaders of either country to start a conflict outright.
There are two main reasons for this. First, North Korea would never survive a nuclear exchange with the U.S. Second, the survival of his regime is the one thing Kim seems to care about the most.
North Korea seems to be following another more compelling model: Pakistan. As soon as Pakistan gained nuclear weapons in 1975, the world treated Pakistan with more respect.
North Korea has a long history of escalating and de-escalating tensions over the last 60 years. Pyongyang does this game of cat and mouse to broker deals of economic aid and concessions of U.N. sanctions.
This leaves the U.S. and its allies in a tricky position. Most diplomatic situations call for a carrot or stick approach. Unfortunately, with North Korea, neither the aid in the form of a carrot or stick in the form of sanctions has worked in the last decade.
Yet there is danger in complacency about the risk of war between the U.S. and North Korea, owing to the growing likelihood of crises along with advances in threats and rhetoric on both sides of the issue of a nuclear North Korea. These arguments can cause “crisis instability.”
With improved long-range missiles, North Korea can target and strike the United States. In a crisis, the inhibition and danger of war could give way to the impulse for Kim to gain advantage by striking first, even pre-emptively, before being taken down by the U.S. Thus, the real test is not whether barriers against a war with North Korea are strong enough in peacetime but whether those barriers will hold up in time of growing tension and crisis.
Of course, North Korean and American leaders could instantly intervene to stop a conflict before it got out of hand and went nuclear. But here, too, complacency would be a big mistake. Because both North Korea and the U.S. have increasingly potent but vulnerable strike forces. For North Korea, it would be the end of the Kim regime (more important to Kim than his citizens), and for the U.S., it would be the instant death of millions of innocent South Koreans well within strike range of North Korean missiles and artillery. Once war begins there is an motivation to “use ’em or lose ’em.” A war could escalate fast and become even harder to stop.
A recent study done by the RAND Corporation indicates that a significant fraction of U.S. forces involved in a war with North Korea, including aircraft carriers, would destroy North Korean military forces within hours of a spiraling armed conflict. The American response would be like the Iraq invasion of 2003 or the 100-hour war of Desert Storm, except now the weapons are better and American military leaders have extensive combat experience from a decade and a half of war. North Korea would be destroyed, but not without a significant loss of life– millions of innocent North and South Koreans.
How ready is the U.S. for a war with North Korea?
The military balance in the western Pacific favors the U.S., but this is shifting with a growing Chinese presence with its island building campaign in the South China Sea. But for now, the crisis with North Korea has the U.S. and China as allies.
The U.S. does have impressive military capabilities that are far greater than North Korea. North Korea only has to concentrate on missile development and trying to maintain its starving army. The U.S. faces other threats, such as China and Russia, a growing nuclear Iran (all quasi-allies of North Korea) and the ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Although North Korea’s military disadvantage is shrinking as its country starves, it would suffer immense harm– much more than the U.S.– in the event of a war. A Second Korean War could harm bilateral trade and damage the world economy. Virtually all of South Korea’s, China’s and Japan’s trade is seaborne, would be disrupted by a U.S.- North Korea war in the Pacific.
The U.S. gross domestic product could fall by 4 to 12 percent in the first year of a Second Korean War, the Pacific (South Korea, Japan, and China) could drop by 25 percent or more. Because Kim’s regime’s legitimacy depends on strong economic performance and a cult of personality, political unrest could follow hardship. Millions of North Korean refugees could flood South Korea (has a 200-mile border with North Korea), China (an 850-mile border with North Korea) and Russia (a 12-mile border with North Korea). This development would be the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
What should American policymakers do about this?
Simply letting North Korea gain control over the Sea of Japan with the threat of nuclear weapons is unacceptable because of the vital importance of those waters, some 25 percent of world seaborne trade passes through them in a month. Also, U.S. allies (mainly Japan and South Korea) and in the Pacific would lose confidence if the U.S. doesn’t stand up to a nuclear North Korea.
The U.S. cannot threaten its way out this crisis. An arms race in the western Pacific favors North Korea because of its ability to concentrate on using medium-range missiles to strike allies in the region, and its capabilities can target U.S. forces in the Sea of Japan and South Korea.
But there are steps the U.S. take to reduce the danger. The Pentagon could deploy less vulnerable forces, such as submarines and drone carriers. Of course, this will take years to transform U.S. forces in the western Pacific. The problem with North Korea is urgent and now.
Meanwhile, given how perilous a North Korea-U.S. crisis is, U.S. leaders should continue to engage with their North Korean counterparts in search of a way to satisfy the interests of both powers, and others, especially China. This agenda would be hard, take time and not necessarily succeed, given that North Korea is unwilling to give its nukes.
What must be done now is to ensure that Washington and Pyongyang have a direct and active channel between North Korean and American leaders to defuse a crisis before the logic of striking first kicks in and causes the unthinkable. This direct channel must remain open not only in a crisis but to prevent escalation if hostilities were to erupt.
What are the options?
Ever stronger sanctions. The downfall of the Kim regime or military confrontation risks enormous casualties. Doing nothing is dangerous especially considering Kim’s erratic behavior. Kim has executed top advisors including his own uncle. As long as Kim is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.
North Korea faces its greatest crisis since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Kim Jong Un faces the defining choice of the future of his nation: compromise, collapse or possible nuclear war. One way or the other, his time is running out.
Lastly, American and allied leaders should insist that their military commanders have options to respond, if necessary, to early and escalating strikes in the event of a war with North Korea.