With Russia and Syria taking center stage in the American media, it is easy to forget about the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-Un has been making threats for years, and many have come to see them as nothing more than comically over the top rhetoric without any real credibility. Unfortunately, the Korean Peninsula is arguably the most dangerous region in the world today. It is far riskier than Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, or even the Middle East because it is defined by two extremely dangerous dynamics: brinksmanship and many great powers in close proximity. As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I am generally sanguine about the international system and American power. North Korea is the exception to this rule, however, and it seems to me that many Americans are severely underestimating the threat posed by Kim. This needs to change.
Since coming to power, Kim Jong-Un has massively boosted state support for the North Korean nuclear weapons program. North Korea has commensurately increased its testing of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missile systems, and its long-term goal is to acquire a nuclear delivery system with the range and reliability to strike targets in the United States. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a “spring season full of North Korean activity” is highly likely. Continued North Korean provocations risk undermining regional stability even further in the coming months. And Trump’s aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy is not helping the situation, as his mercurial foreign policy pronouncements are exacerbating North Korean paranoia. Indeed, North Korean state media used recent strikes on Syria to justify their acquisition of nuclear weapons. With U.S.-R.O.K military exercises ongoing and the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group being deployed to the Sea of Japan, the region is truly primed for a tragic conflict.
Unfortunately, there are no good solutions to the problem. And in fairness to Trump, this debacle is not really his fault. North Korea policy started to fall apart during the late Clinton and early Bush years, after all, and the Obama administration did little to improve the situation. It’s also not clear that Trump’s actions toward North Korea are incorrect. Sending a clear message that the United States has the means and will to comprehensively defeat the Hermit Kingdom might be an effective approach. The problem is that many hawkish policymakers and voters seem to forget the potential downsides to a more aggressive posture toward North Korea. For example, some recent news reports suggested that Trump is looking at preemptive invasion plans and decapitation strikes against Kim. This is the traditional American approach to warfare: Utilize America’s comparative advantage in air power to degrade command and control networks and eliminate key decision makers in order to sow chaos on the battlefield before sending in large maneuver formations. However, this approach has severe risks when applied to cases like North Korea. Specifically, it encourages North Korea to strike first so as to avoid the risk of losing their command net. It also makes it more likely that the regime gives nuclear launch authority to lower level commanders, as this would mitigate the risk of upper-level leadership being eliminated. The result is a more aggressive, less-constrained state in which many people have the authority to deploy nuclear weapons without any kind of oversight. It doesn’t take a member of the JCS to know that this would severely increase the risk of an accidental and devastating conflict.
What is particularly concerning are the ways in which a conflict in Korea could drag in other powers. Obviously South Korea and the United States would be involved, but it is highly likely that Japan, China, and possibly even Russia would get dragged in as well. Given that many of these states possess nuclear arsenals, the situation could rapidly devolve into a horrific and costly war. No country wants a nuclear conflict in the region: It would wreck both the regional and global economy, create massive refugee flows that would put immense strains on the Chinese and South Korean governments, and likely lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Despite the clear costs of a conflict, no country seems to be able to de-escalate the situation. North Korea will never give up its nukes because they are the only thing guaranteeing that the U.S. doesn’t attempt regime change. China wants to reign in Kim, but it is worried that fully enforcing sanctions will lead to economic collapse in the North, thus precipitating a humanitarian crisis and increasing the risk of war. South Korea and Japan are in North Korea’s crosshairs, and given that they lack nuclear deterrents of their own, they must rely on the United States for help. In other words, there are no clear solutions to the crisis, and every country that can influence the peninsula faces severe constraints. Showing strength now increases the risk of miscalculation and makes it likely that North Korea will adopt an even more dangerous nuclear force posture. Inaction and concessions embolden Kim and beget further North Korean intransigence. And because different countries hold different views on how best to contain Kim, actions taken by the U.S. to deter Kim – such as the deployment of THAAD in South Korea – often create fissures that undermine multilateral strategies against the Hermit Kingdom.
If there are any good ways to end this perpetual and dangerous standoff, I’m not smart enough to come up with them. Thus, I’m hesitant to be too critical of policymakers trying to find an effective solution. I would, however, caution those favoring an excessively aggressive course of action. North Korea already has a relatively robust, if small, nuclear weapons arsenal. It possesses an enormous, if outdated, military. And its leaders have no incentive to surrender, so a war would be extremely bloody.
The potential magnitude of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula means that Trump and his staff should tread carefully. If they want to embrace a more aggressive posture vis-a-vis Kim, that is certainly their prerogative. They should be careful to avoid overly provocative actions, though, and be as clear and predictable as possible while still maintaining strategic flexibility. The unpredictable foreign policy style Trump endorsed on the campaign trail will only further Kim’s paranoia, increasing the risk of miscalculation and war. And war in Korea is something that we should try to avoid at all costs.