The Trump administration has recently declared an end to “strategic patience,” i.e., the reliance on sanctions and multilateral efforts in order to bring about a turn away from, or at least a mitigation of, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. Furthermore, President Trump has asserted his willingness to “solve” the North Korean problem on his own, if China is unwilling or unable to act in concert with the U.S. The recent U.S. missile strikes against Syrian military targets, the dropping of a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, dubbed “Mother of All Bombs”) on an ISIS tunnel system in Afghanistan, together with the dispatch of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group to the Korean Peninsula area, all point to a more muscular American resolve. Vice President Pence warned that America’s “sword stands ready” while visiting troops stationed in Japan as a way to signal America’s commitment to stand by its South Korean and Japanese allies and to deter North Korea.
North Korea’s most recent failed missile test in mid-April should give the world little relief. Despite several failures, international condemnations, and economic sanctions, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have only intensified and improved since the detonation of the country’s first nuclear weapon in 2006. Two of the five nuclear tests were conducted in 2016 alone, prompting UN Security Council Resolutions 2270 and 2321, which imposed further sanctions. By February 2017, the Pukguksong (Polaris)-2, a solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile that is easier to fuel and hide, had a successful test launch. Diplomatic efforts thus far, including the on-and-off six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, have not prevented North Korea from becoming more of a security threat. South Korea and Japan have lived under the shadow of North Korean missiles for years. In fact, Seoul, South Korea’s capital and the home to half of the population of the world’s 11th largest economy, lies within artillery range of North Korean forces.
While it is in possession of nuclear weapons, North Korea is not known to have mastered the technical aspects of miniaturizing them and putting them on missiles that have a long enough range to hit the United States. At the moment, therefore, the continental United States is still beyond the striking distance of North Korean missiles. Given the determination of the North Korean leadership headed by Kim Jong-un, however, it appears to be a matter of time before that truly threatening combination of North Korean capabilities will materialize: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads that are able to reach the United States. This deadly fusion of destructive power, long-range capability, and reliable delivery is not expected to be achieved soon, but there is no doubt that North Korea is hard at work in putting the requisite elements together.
It is doubtful that sanctions can dissuade any determined government that is willing to pay just about any price from its pursuit of missile technology and nuclear weapons, perhaps least of all North Korea, which has weathered economic sanctions, political pressure, major famines, and pariah status on the world stage in order to develop those programs. The foreign interventions and regime changes in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, potentially, Syria, have seemed only to stiffen North Korea’s drive to attain what it sees as its ultimate insurance against a similar fate. Pyongyang’s stop-and-go negotiating tactic over the past twenty years has meant that it is inching closer to that strategic goal, but this tactic has also boxed in the leadership since it has lost much of its credibility should it ever choose to turn again to diplomacy. Furthermore, the vigorous testing program that has been put in place serves multiple functions for the regime: to bolster its songun (“military first”) policy, to cement the party-state-military hold onto power, and to blame the economy’s ills on the international—especially American-led—sanctions.
Given the current parameters, there is perhaps little that can be done to prevent the eventuality of a nuclear North Korea armed with ICBMs short of an internally generated or externally induced regime change or a foreign invasion. (The multiple, hidden locations of nuclear and missile sites protected by surface-to-air missiles render surgical air strikes ineffective and incomplete). Neither of these options should be considered lightly, for the risk of escalation into a regional conflict involving China, South Korea, Russia, and/or Japan, or into a nuclear war is too horrendous to contemplate and perhaps too great to accept. The South Koreans are among the first to urge a de-escalation of the current crisis, knowing full well what an escalation into either a conventional or unconventional war might mean for them.
China’s position is a major factor. Perhaps Beijing has more leverage over North Korea than what it acknowledges, but less leverage than what the U.S. thinks it has. On the one hand, being the main trade partner of the small and isolated North Korean economy, China does have a measure of leverage and influence. In short, it can possibly help bring about Pyongyang’s economic collapse and be able to use this terrible prospect to get Pyongyang in line. Recently, in February, China announced that it would stop importing coal from its troublesome neighbor for 2017, but its overall stance and effect remain to be seen. On the other hand, China’s overriding concern appears to be that of maintaining a stable buffer that keeps the U.S. military well short of the Chinese border—the very same concern that brought China into the Korean War in 1950. Bringing down its neighbor indirectly through economic strangulation, something which China presumably could do, would undermine that objective, push erratic North Korea into a corner, and destabilize the region, not to mention the refugee crisis that would ensue. Moreover, North Korea, despite being economically dependent on China, has long been defiantly independent. In some ways, the leverage goes both ways in that North Korea has wide latitude to act, knowing that China can assert control only at the risk of jeopardizing its strategic buffer.
North Korea’s security policy has long been described as unpredictable though not irrational by policy-makers and international relations scholars, in contrast with the reasoned and measured responses given by successive American presidents over the last twenty years. With President Trump and his own aura of calculated unpredictability, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become what one may call a two-way enigma, where strategic patience ends and where strategic ambiguity begins.