U.S. President Trump meets South Korean envoy Cheong Wa Dae

GIS Dossier: The North Korean opening

  • A U.S.-North Korea summit has something to offer all parties – except perhaps China
  • A preemptive strike by American military forces is by no means unthinkable
  • Kim Jong-un carefully prepared his peace offensive, in part by snubbing Beijing
  • Failure could bring trade wars, armed conflict and nuclear proliferation to East Asia

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to the crisis in North Korea, whose development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile systems needed to deliver them presents the world with perhaps its greatest threat of a major war.

The gravity of the Korean crisis goes beyond its nuclear dimension. In terms of geography, as GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein observed in March 2017, North Korea sits astride one of the world’s most sensitive geopolitical fault lines. The spheres of influence of the three leading nuclear powers – the United States, China and Russia ­– intersect in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. So do the vital interests of East Asia’s two leading regional powers – Japan and South Korea – both of which could quickly join the nuclear club if they decide the American security umbrella does not suffice.

North Korea itself – the world’s last surviving Stalinist dictatorship, and its only successful dynastic version – is notoriously secretive and unpredictable, even for insiders and longtime observers.

With so many moving parts, forecasting the results of sudden movements and policy shifts is hazardous at best. That tinges whatever optimism has been generated by North Korea’s recent peace offensive with an ominous undertone. Once things start to move along the 38th parallel, the world’s most heavily armed international border, no one really knows where they might go.


As GIS expert Dr. Junhua Zhang asked in a March 2018 report examining the current diplomatic breakthrough, what’s not to like?

For North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, a face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump “is an incredible victory in [his] quest to legitimize the regime.” Precisely for this reason, Mr. Kim has been unswerving in his commitment to the North Korean nuclear program, which he regards as the sole guarantee of survival if he is to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.

There is a long backstory to tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang, which Mr. Kim has not hesitated to exploit

For South Korea and its new president, Moon Jae-in, who will have his own summit meeting with Kim Jong-un later this month, the recent thaw has vindicated its soft diplomacy that aims for a rapprochement between the two Koreas. The Trump administration, meanwhile, can claim with some justification that the diplomatic opening was made possible by its tough line on Pyongyang and success in getting China to back United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

As Dr. Zhang noted, among the few losers of this sudden demarche is China – which Mr. Kim may have decided to bypass when he put his diplomatic feelers out. There is a long backstory to tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang, which Mr. Kim has not hesitated to exploit with growing confidence.

This comes mainly from his realization that China has no acceptable alternative to propping up his regime, since its collapse and Korean reunification under Seoul’s auspices is a prospect that Beijing abhors. Even Kim Jong-un’s surprise trip to Beijing on March 25-28, the North Korean leader’s first foreign visit since taking power, may have been more a tactical move by Mr. Kim – augmenting his negotiating leverage with South Korea and the U.S., while giving Chinese President Xi Jinping a chance to claim success and save face.

Military map of North Korean forces
The United States and South Korea have the operational intelligence and technology to decimate North Korea’s strategic forces in a preemptive strike (source: macpixxel for GIS)

‘Neutralization’ option

The flip side of possible nuclear disarmament talks is the growing risk of a shooting war. Senior security officials in the Trump administration, notably former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, had long warned that a nuclear-armed North Korea was an “imminent threat” and quietly examined the possibility of a preemptive military strike to remove it, as GIS expert Captain James E. Fanell noted in a March 2018 report.

General McMaster’s replacement, John Bolton, has been even more outspoken of this “neutralization” option – and recently argued that a summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump could “foreshorten that period” before U.S. military action, exposing North Korea’s insincerity about relinquishing its nuclear program.

As Capt. Fanell pointed out, a military strike to destroy North Korea’s offensive military capabilities – both nuclear and conventional – is by no means as unthinkable as most observers assume. Indeed, it builds on 50 years of combined military planning by the U.S. and South Korea, a “comprehensive and pervasive” intelligence network built up by both militaries, and an enormous strike capability, spearheaded by three U.S. carrier groups and a fleet of strategic bombers.

Confucian monarchy

Weighing the trade-offs is made more difficult by the nature of North Korea’s regime. While there is a strong view that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor with consistent long-term aims, the fact remains that “no other country in the world has a political system even remotely similar to North Korea’s,” as GIS expert Urs Schoettli noted in a March 2018 report. He defined it as a Confucian dynasty, founded by Mr. Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and a privileged party and military hierarchy, kept loyal by a Stalinist system of repression and the sect-like Juche ideology.

Kim Jong-un's actions are guided by 'a certain brutal logic and self-interest' that make them somewhat predictable

While media depictions of Mr. Kim tend to present him as a “cruel, mentally unbalanced and totally unpredictable despot,” his actions are consistently guided by “a certain brutal logic and self-interest” that make them somewhat predictable, Prince Michael noted in April 2017. His essential aim is to stay alive and in power, which means he “is very unlikely to use his nuclear power to attack.”

As with traditional dynastic rulers, observed Prince Michael, the biggest threat to Mr. Kim comes from his own family – which explains his decision to execute his powerful uncle, Chang Song-thaek, in 2013 and murder his half brother with a nerve agent last year. Both had close ties to China, and it was reported that Beijing had considered the possibility of installing the more amenable Kim Jong-nam as North Korean leader in place of his younger brother.

To serve the same ends, Kim Jong-un has repeatedly purged the ranks of senior army and party officials, on the principle that “plucking up evil by the roots” is the best way to deal with dissent, as GIS expert Kati Kang noted in a September 2015 report.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leads the world’s only Confucian-Stalinist monarchy
For Kim Jong-un, getting the world’s attention is all about personal survival (source: dpa)

My ally, my enemy

Abroad, Kim Jong-un’s survival strategy involves playing off the outside powers to prevent himself from being cornered. This especially applies to his closest ally and sponsor, China, which must not be allowed to gain too much influence. As the purges within his own family show, Mr. Kim knows that China is the only foreign power with the ability to impose regime change through nonmilitary means – either by engineering a “low-cost, high-reward” coup d’etat, or by cutting off the trade and covert economic assistance upon which the North Korean economy depends.

As a result, Pyongyang has pursued a “hard-knuckle” policy of calculated affronts and belligerence toward Beijing, on the assumption that “if the globe’s most populous country accepts their harsh tactics, the rest of the world will not stand up to them,” as Ms. Kang wrote in an August 2016 report. After Beijing gave cautious backing to the United Nations’ economic sanctions against North Korea, and less than a week after China hosted the September 2016 G20 summit, North Korea conducted another nuclear test close to the Manchurian border.

Tensions between Pyongyang and Beijing grew late last year, as Chinese President Xi Jinping cemented his long-term power at the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress. In a deliberate snub, Mr. Kim did not find time to receive a Chinese delegation headed by a mid-level party official – which Beijing had intended to show its displeasure at its increasingly burdensome protege.

Sister gambit

In retrospect, the North Korean decision to escalate tensions with China may have been in preparation for its unexpected diplomatic opening. Mr. Kim’s decision to send his sister to the 18th Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, followed by an invitation for an inter-Korean summit with President Moon and a direct meeting with U.S. President Trump, was made stronger by Pyongyang’s clear message that China would be “merely a bystander,” in the words of Dr. Zhang.

Pyongyang's peace offensive splits the two most dangerous combinations against the regime

This neatly countered the Trump administration’s favored strategy of cajoling and pressuring Beijing (in part through the threat of protectionist trade policies) to discipline its North Korean ally. It was also designed to cater to Donald Trump’s weakness for personal deal-making.

Mr. Kim’s peace offensive – undertaken just as his nuclear missile development program was reaching fruition – splits the two most dangerous combinations against his regime. It makes China and the U.S. less likely to agree on an economic blockade or military action to bring down the regime, and meets South Korea’s preference for soft diplomacy to avoid the immense civilian casualties that could be triggered by a U.S.-led preemptive strike.

Nervous neighbors

The prime concern of the government in Seoul, whose 25 million inhabitants are within easy range of massed North Korean artillery, has always been to defuse tensions. As Mr. Schoettli noted, the first South Korean president to visit North Korea, Kim Dae-jung (in 2000), won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But the results were not encouraging, leading critics to question whether South Korean’s current liberal government is being too weak.

President Moon has made no secret of his reservations about the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, which has drawn protests from the public. Beijing is just as nervous about the system’s radar capabilities to spy deep into its territory, along with its possible threat to the Chinese nuclear deterrent, as GIS contributor Joseph Dobbs noted in January 2017.

In response to the THAAD deployment, Beijing slapped unofficial sanctions on South Korean firms, including the Lotte conglomerate, while virtually cutting off tourism. The incident was an example of how trade issues and security intertwine in East Asia, which we discuss at greater length below.

Map of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests
After overflights by North Korean missiles and Pyongyang’s threats to “sink the useless Japanese archipelago,” Tokyo may no longer be entirely sure of the U.S. security umbrella (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Chain reaction

The implications of simply granting North Korea a place in the nuclear club are alarming. As Mr. Schoettli wrote in March 2018, “Beijing keeps advocating a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula knowing full well that North Korea’s acceptance as a nuclear state would over time motivate South Korea and Japan to acquire their own nuclear capabilities." While the South Korean public wants no part of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed on their soil, public opinion polls show that between half and two-thirds of South Koreans favor developing their own nuclear deterrent.

Japan’s dilemma is different. It is on the front lines as China climbs back to its old position as a global power, and after repeated overflights by North Korean missiles and Pyongyang’s threats to “sink the useless Japanese archipelago,” may not be entirely sure of the U.S. security umbrella. As Mr. Schoettli pointed out in a November 2017 report, “One question stands out but is rarely discussed: will the U.S. risk the destruction of Los Angeles, for example, to avenge a North Korean attack on Japan?”

What makes Japan most nervous is the prospect of U.S. disengagement from Asia

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already committed to revoking Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which curbs its ability to wage war beyond its shores. He is engaged in a serious military buildup while seeking closer cooperation with India and Australia. What makes him most nervous is the prospect of U.S. disengagement from Asia, leaving him one-on-one with an expanding China, or the sudden outbreak of a major war on his doorstep due to American recklessness.

That is why Mr. Abe, who takes pride in his ability to “handle” President Trump, will make another visit to Mar-a-Lago before the American leader departs for his summit with Mr. Kim. Japan is also reportedly considering a separate summit with North Korea, along with a regularly scheduled trilateral summit with China and South Korea in early May.

Russia again

Another concern is Russia, which as its tensions with the U.S. have sharpened, is playing an “elaborate double game” in North Korea, GIS expert Professor Stefan Hedlund noted in a January 2018 report. Though it is no longer Pyongyang’s main sponsor, Moscow is equally determined to prevent the U.S. from engineering regime change.

The Kremlin is well-situated to provide Mr. Kim with useful lifelines, including minor assistance in routing North Korean internet traffic through Russian companies or providing badly needed energy supplies. President Trump has already expressed concerns that Russia “may be making up the difference” after China reduced its financial and trade ties with North Korea. A more chilling concern is whether Russia has helped North Korea acquire technology for its powerful new rocket engines.

Trade wars

Another distinct feature of the Korean crisis is how it has become entangled with the Trump administration’s focus on foreign trade. This goes against the traditional diplomatic impulse to separate trade and security issues, especially in crisis-management situations.

Yet just as he accepted the invitation to a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, President Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports aimed at China, while suggesting he might delay implementing a revised free trade deal with South Korea. The idea of using trade policy as a geopolitical bargaining chip matches Mr. Trump’s business background and negotiating style, along with his determination to show the world that the U.S. is “playing by new rules,” as GIS expert Professor Enrico Colombatto observed in April 2017.

The U.S. and its allies are trying to contain China along a 6,000-kilometer arc
North Korea sits astride the world’s most sensitive geopolitical fault lines (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Yet while the U.S. administration may see trade pressure as useful leverage with its main diplomatic (China) and military (South Korea) partners in dealing with North Korea, the resulting conflicts could actually diminish U.S. influence. This was the danger foreseen by GIS expert Walter Lohman in April 2017, when he argued that “unilateral pressure … is more likely to alienate” America’s partners than win their compliance. The result would be a “precipitous decline in U.S. influence,” which, in the worst case, could see East Asia’s mercantilist competition degenerate into an armed conflict.

Shadow of war

East Asia’s combination of economic misalignments, an emerging world power and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea have all increased the odds of a major war, even though its outbreak is far from inevitable, Prince Michael wrote in March 2018. Nine months earlier, GIS’s founder sketched out a scenario in which miscalculations by both sides could result in a shooting war that nobody wants.

How Donald Trump handles the North Korean crisis over the next two months could be the defining moment of his presidency. The flurry of key decisions taken in March 2018 – to meet Mr. Kim, to impose tariffs on China, to reshuffle his national security team – were taken by the president personally, often in defiance of the policy establishment.

By breaking the mold, President Trump's personal diplomacy could bring startling results

As GIS expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich noted in a January 2018 report, this system of dominance “without strong institutional checks” dismantles traditional foreign policy and makes the U.S. more unpredictable for its allies and adversaries. Yet by breaking the mold, it could bring startling results.

‘Manageable crises’

The question is whether startling results are desirable.

Certainly, a successful Kim-Trump summit could result in the sort of deal described by Dr. Zhang: “Mr. Kim will stay in power and the regime will be secured through aid and investment from outside, while North Korea’s nuclear program will be frozen, reduced and possibly eliminated.” But unless Kim Jong-un really gives up his strategic arsenal (a possibility that is vanishingly small), this amounts to little more than acknowledging the current situation – and North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.

That may not give President Trump the win he wants, but probably would be acceptable to every power involved. As GIS expert Dr. James Jay Carafano noted in a January 2018 report, the U.S. has developed effective ways to contain North Korean nuclear threat through “missile defenses, strategic and conventional deterrence and heavy sanctioning.”

What that leaves is what Mr. Schoettli called “manageable crises,” with China, South Korea and Japan working together with the U.S. to prevent the regional security situation from boiling over:

Bearing in mind the complexity of the security issues in the Far East, nobody should expect radical or even substantial moves. The best hope is for an incremental easing of tension. Pyongyang is a keen and competent observer of security concerns and political shifts in the region and beyond. The possible gains from greater predictability and a longer-term view emerging from consolidation of political power in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing may not be entirely lost on Pyongyang, too.

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