Even if war is averted, the aftermath of the current crisis will likely see America devote much more attention and resources to northeast Asia on a permanent basis, or risk the erosion of its strategic position in the region. In any scenario, global stability and international security will be diminished.
In the current North Korean crisis there are essentially only two alternatives: war or a continued form of peace. An intermediate option short of all-out war, in the form of a “limited strike” by the U.S. – either preventive, aiming solely to disable the North’s nuclear arsenal, or reactive, in response to some reckless step by Kim Jong-un, such as firing at Guam or even at Alaska – does not exist. Pyongyang is certain to answer any form of attack on itself in a way that would make escalation to a general war inevitable.
The North Korean situation today sits in a completely different paradigm than previous crises pitting America against rogue regimes. From President Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986, through Clinton’s use of Tomahawks in the Balkans and Iraq in the 1990s, to the Trump-ordered attack on Bashar al-Assad’s Shayrat airbase in Syria earlier this year, limited stand-off strikes have become something of a “standard practice” in attempting to punish or rein in dictators or deal with specific threats.
But none of these cases had a nuclear dimension, nor did they involve an opponent like Kim Jong-un who could unleash a swift, devastating military response against a close U.S. ally. Where nuclear programmes were involved – Iraq in the 1980s, Syria and Iran in the 2000s – the United States refrained from military action, for two main reasons. Firstly, it had a regional ally – Israel – willing and able to take the lead in eliminating the threat; this is not the case today in northeast Asia with South Korea, let alone Japan. Secondly, none of the three Middle Eastern dictatorships had actually acquired nuclear weapons; North Korea has. This takes us back to the first point, which is that there is effectively no historical precedent for the present crisis, and attempting to apply “lessons” from the past is extremely dangerous in these circumstances. What is required is to understand very clearly the outlines of this new paradigm, starting with the meaning of war and peace in this context.
It is fairly easy to agree on what war would mean. It would be catastrophic in material and geopolitical terms, with incalculable evolutions and consequences. But even in the best-case scenario – where China remains neutral throughout, the conflict is contained, and military operations (ultimately) go America’s way – this would at best be a Pyrrhic victory. The conflagration would deplete America’s spare capacity in hard power and geopolitical capital – leaving it unable to decisively challenge further Russian or Iranian moves – and unlike in 1945 or 1953 the United States will not be able to shape the post-war environment in northeast Asia from a position of strength.
The North Korean nuclear threat – and even the regime – might be removed in the end, but a “unification” of Korea under Seoul would be virtually impossible to achieve on satisfactory terms unless America underwrote it with vast military and financial investments. Most importantly, the U.S. would find it extremely hard to continue opposing Chinese assertiveness in East Asia unless it were willing to fight another regional war in quick succession. America’s own allies are likely to withhold political support for such an action, before the military calculus even enters into consideration. In the end, a U.S.- North Korean war would only clear the way for China to assert itself in the medium-long term as the dominant power in a traumatised region. America would win the war but lose the peace – and this is, again, in the context of a best-case scenario.
Some of these considerations must be apparent to all sides, which partly accounts for China’s equivocation, D.P.R.K.’s temerity, and America’s restraint. Despite the escalating rhetoric, the likelihood of any kind of American first-strike (with Seoul’s blessing) remains low. China is likely to ultimately facilitate a short-term exit from the current crisis which doubles as a test for its regional authority. Beijing’s “peaceful rise” strategy is incompatible with war in its vicinity, even though the Chinese aim remains to erode and eject American influence from the region. Meanwhile, North Korea is on a winning path in its quest to fully join the intercontinental nuclear powers club and does not need to trigger a war at this stage.
That moment of greatest peril will come when Pyongyang will have built a powerful nuclear deterrent complete with battlefield nukes that will counter-balance the U.S. nuclear umbrella covering R.O.K. and Japan. At that point the Korean situation will become somewhat similar to the Cold War-era standoff in Central Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the North would be in a position to contemplate a successful invasion across the 38th parallel. Deterrence kept the peace in Europe, but the U.S.-led alliance in northeast Asia is not NATO and Kim could well be much less reluctant than Soviet leaders to actually push his luck.
In these circumstances, if war – including a “limited” U.S. strike – does not ensue, the key question is: how would continued peace look like, once the immediate crisis is passed, as it already seems to be?
Today, the only alternative to war with North Korea – unless they attack first – is an American policy decision to: (1) effectively accept “living with” a fully-nuclear D.P.R.K. (rolling back or freezing its programme via negotiations is unrealistic); and (2) rely on America’s own nuclear deterrent and missile defence to mitigate the direct threat to the U.S. mainland. Strictly from the point of view of America’s national security, the North Korean “A-bomb” is arguably manageable, and the situation is set to improve as new missile defence technologies – such as the new SM Block II interceptors – come online.
The problem is with America’s strategic position in northeast Asia. Pyongyang’s recently-reported breakthrough in miniaturising atomic bombs to create nuclear warheads for its missiles means that now-on the D.P.R.K. has the ability to build an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons – including tactical, or battlefield, nukes. Once it matures, this North Korean capability will severely complicate the allied calculus for the defence of the South in a war situation, and could offset much of Seoul’s front-line advantage in conventional military technology.
We are witnessing a game-changing development that will radically transform the strategic balance on and around the peninsula. In response, regardless what else happens, one thing that is certain from this point onwards is that the United States will be obliged to take significant new steps to reinforce its military capabilities around Korea if its position in the region is to remain undiminished in the long term.
One counter-measure to the North’s growing nuclear clout, a redeployment to R.O.K. of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, is likely to become a military necessity. Mere “nuclear-tailoring” of America’s regional nuclear posture and coordination with Seoul and Tokyo, without the addition of hard new assets, is unlikely to make an impression in Pyongyang or decisively alter its strategy.
The politics of this “tactical nuclear surge” are more complicated, however. South Korean right-wing politicians have been calling for this step for years, but President Moon, a doveish centre-left Democrat, is likely to continue to oppose it both on principle and on political grounds. His stance on defence matters presents a marked contrast with the hardline outlook of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Moreover, the Chinese reaction to U.S. nukes on the peninsula would likewise be orders of magnitude more severe than in the case of the THAAD missile defence system deployment.
In any case – and particularly if North Korea’s nuclear build-up on the peninsula will not be answered with the same coin – the fact remains that to continue deterring Pyongyang and maintaining an effective defence of South Korea and Japan, the U.S. will need to significantly enhance its conventional presence in northeast Asia. Whether this will happen is another matter, but failure to do so would implicitly impact South Korea’s national security and would very likely allow the hawks in Tokyo to win the domestic argument for an independent Japanese nuclear deterrent.
A higher conventional presence does not mean more U.S. boots on the peninsula, but primarily more naval, air and missile defence resources available in the region on a permanent basis. Again, the best parallel here is the situation along the old Iron Curtain in Germany. One reason is that in an actual future war, mutual nuclear deterrence – driven primarily by restraint on the allied side at Seoul’s behest – could mean that the conflict is fought conventionally, or with much fewer nuclear blows than allied planning has hitherto assumed.
As the D.P.R.K. vaults into a different military league, there will inevitably be increasing pressure on Washington to “do more” to reassure its allies – and to protect its own forces stationed in Korea and Japan – but also to ensure it has sufficient firepower available in-theatre or nearby to quickly take out Pyongyang’s nukes in case of war. This latter requirement is set to become increasingly onerous for the U.S. military as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal multiplies and grows more sophisticated in the years ahead.
This situation, which will become permanent, is exactly the opposite of what President Trump wants and stands for – and this is the heart of the North Korean dilemma. The U.S. is being locked into an increasingly expensive military commitment and very likely sucked into an ugly, never-ending crisis which the astute Chinese-North Korean duo will keep just under the threshold of war. Moreover, Trump’s own aggressive rhetoric, which does not distinguish between the North Korean people and the regime, only serves to push the former into the hands of the latter, diminishing the already-remote chances of a future internal coup against Kim.
In this context, it is not inconceivable that China might well see an opportunity here of ridding its periphery of American influence by breaking U.S. policy’s back on the North Korean nuclear anvil, if the Trump administration does choose to uphold its growing defence commitments in northeast Asia to the full. If it does not, and allows Pyongyang’s nukes to gradually shift the strategic balance, America’s position in the region will likely deteriorate just as well, in the years to come.
Finally, the wider context must be kept in view: this crisis and D.P.R.K.’s nuclear status come at a time when American power is already overstretched. As H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s National Security Adviser said in an address at Policy Exchange this January, “the North Korean problem cannot be overstated”. It will inevitably require an injection of extra U.S. resources and attention, which in turn will likely weaken U.S. posture elsewhere. After the North Korean crisis, world order will not be quite the same again.