Today making good on its threats the North Koreans cancelled the 1953 armistice ending the Korean war. It has also threatened a nuclear attack against the United States.
Despite the strong language, analysts say North Korea is years away from having the technology necessary to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and aim it accurately at a target.
And, analysts say, North Korea is unlikely to seek a direct military conflict with the United States, preferring instead to try to gain traction through threats and the buildup of its military deterrent.
What if the analysts are wrong?
A 2006 article in the Asia Times states North Korea has some of the most developed missile systems in the world. According to a 2009 report by the International Crisis Group, North Korea has 6-12 nuclear weapons. Experts remain divided as to whether North Korea has the capability of weaponizing these nuclear warheads, or fitting them to a missile. This is a nice way of saying 50% of experts believe the North has this capability.
The truth is the Hermit Kingdom is living up to its moniker and our intelligence there isn’t very good. The Chinese have the best intelligence, but they aren’t willing to share it with us. But Chinese support of new sanctions says a lot. If the Chinese know the North is bluffing again, they would have resisted additional UN pressure because a belligerent North suits their foreign policy interests. If they know that North Korea has both the weapons and the means to deliver them and is considering attacking the US and its allies, supporting sanctions would be the final act in the hopes of leashing the regime before sending in Chinese troops and taking the country over. By supporting the sanctions China may be giving a sign that the regime is serious, and the danger it presents is real.
There are three likely targets if North Korea used a nuke. The first is Seoul, South Korea. Being only 60 km from the border with the North attacking this city would be the easiest. It is well within range of its missiles, and the short flight time and low trajectory would make shooting down the missile more difficult. The downside of such an attack is that it would pretty much guarantee a conventional invasion from the South as well as invite a retaliatory response from the US. In such a case it’s unlikely the Chinese would come to the aid of the North Koreans, and the North Koreans probably know that. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans also would not go down well in the North either, and would shock the regime internally increasing the likelihood of an internal coup, possibly one backed by Chinese intelligence and special forces units.
The North Korean regime would really like to hurt the United States. An attack on the US would contain the element of surprise, and is ideologically the best target. But it’s also the hardest to hit. The continental US is over 9000 km away, meaning the North would have to rely upon its longest range missile to fly in a suborbital trajectory, providing ample time for the US to determine its trajectory and likely target and to employ its anti-missile defense systems. It has tested such a missile twice, and neither test was a complete success as far as our intelligence has learned, so not only would the missile have to survive US countermeasures, it would also have to avoid falling apart.
If the North Koreans are rational even in their apparent craziness, the only target is Japan – likely a sprawling metropolis such as the Kanto containing Tokyo and Yokohama or the Kansai area where Nara, Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka sit. These areas would not require precision guidance systems beyond current North Korean capabilities and fall well within range of its Taepodong 1 missile that North Korea fired over Japan in 1998. An attack on Japan would temper the response by both China and South Korea: China would be hard pressed to punish the regime for attacking a foe China itself is threatening war against over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and both North and South Koreas hold deep historical animosities towards Japan for its treatment as a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945.
If Japan was nuked by North Korea it cannot retaliate. It lacks nuclear weapons and its conventional forces do not have the capability for an invasion. Japan would therefore have to rely upon the United States. Would the US launch a nuclear attack against North Korea on Japan’s behalf? It’s not a given, and such uncertainty increases the risk of an attack on Japan.
How would the United States respond, and more importantly, how do the North Koreans believe the United States would respond? Unfortunately it’s impossible to know what the decisionmakers in the regime are thinking about the Obama administration, but monolithic regimes tend to see the world much differently than those living and working in Democracies. The arguments and contrasting opinions within a Democratic government tend to be ignored by those living under democracy or discounted as “coalition building” or “policy formulation.” A North Korean general, having never lived under such a regime and seen any dissenting opinions end in front of a firing squad, cannot understand how such behavior could present anything but the inherent weakness of Democratic regime. Like a large stone riven with cracks and fissures, a single, solid blow can reduce it to a pile of gravel. It wouldn’t be the first time an authoritarian regime misunderstood the United States; Japan made the same mistake at Pearl Harbor, believing a single decisive strike that destroyed the Pacific fleet would fracture the will of Americans and force it out of the Pacific. While we in the United States have been taught the lesson of History that this was a grave miscalculation by the Japanese and the attack united Americans behind the war effort, a North Korean general likely sees the history of World War 2 very differently.
It is the job the State Department to translate these cultural differences that could encourage North Korean bellicosity into ideas and language that the North Korean leadership can understand. The way to do that is to provide a simple, clear and consistent message to the North Koreans: any attack on South Korea, Japan or the United States will mean the end of the North Korean regime. Period. Have the North Koreans gotten that message?
Perceptions are reality in diplomacy and the perception in East Asia is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received a cool reception in Washington DC last month by an administration displeased with Abe’s hawkish behavior towards China. Such perception could contribute to a belief in North Korea that an attack against Japan would not trigger immediate retaliation by the United States, and without retaliation North Korea has nothing to lose by attacking Japan. The US held back the South Koreans from retaliating for North Korea shelling of Yeonpyeong Island near the border, and a year earlier the loss of the South Korean warship Cheonan killing 46 crewmen. Such patience shows as weakness to an authoritarian regime and encourages it to undertake more extreme action.
If Japan were struck with a nuclear weapon, would the US retaliate on its behalf? What if China said doing so would result in war between the US and China? Would President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel risk a wider war over the deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese? Retaliation would kill hundreds of thousands of North Korean civilians, people who are too weak from starvation to overthrow their dictator and innocent of his crimes. Would the Obama Administration countenance such a retaliatory attack knowing that even more would suffer needlessly? To a North Korean general, it is quite possible that the regime could indeed get away with it and the Obama administration would not retaliate for fear of igniting a wider war with China or killing innocent civilians.
A successful attack on Japan would boost North Korean credibility in China. It would undermine the arguments voiced recently within China that North Korea was more of a liability than asset to China. It would also force the United States to take its threats seriously, something that decades of making them without action have taught otherwise. Internally it would also raise the popularity of those who backed such aggressive action at the expense of those who supported more of an accommodation with the West. And the pain felt by Japan would also be felt in South Korea, making its neighbors much more antagonistic towards US imperialism in the region. It may be easy for us to see the exact opposite happening, but we have to place ourselves in the ill-fitting shoes of the North Korean general to understand the world from his perspective, and such a perspective would likely include a bold military gesture that would leave America and its allies reeling.
It is difficult for anyone in the West who has paid attention to the bombast coming out of Pyongyang for decades to take recent threats seriously. Like Aesop’s Fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” Pyongyang has cried “wolf!” so many times that ignoring the new threats seem the only sensible move. But it’s worth remembering that in the fable in the end a wolf does appear.