“The U.S. position is that a strike will take place if diplomacy fails, but also that a conflict with North Korea would be difficult, dangerous and potentially devastating to allies. Thus, the U.S. is postponing such an action as long as possible”
The narrative about North Korea, a narrative I believe to be true and have since early March, is simple: The North Koreans have reached a point in their nuclear and missile programmes where they could soon have the capability to strike the United States. The U.S. isn’t prepared to let itself be vulnerable to the whims of what is seen as a dangerously unpredictable regime in Pyongyang. Therefore, the U.S. is prepared to strike at North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.
At the same time, the U.S. is extremely reluctant to attack. The nuclear programme sites are dispersed and hardened, making airstrikes difficult, and North Korean artillery concentrated near the demilitarised zone could devastate Seoul. So as it considers not just whether a strike should be made, but whether one is even possible, the U.S. has been trying to motivate China to use its influence in North Korea to get Pyongyang to halt its weapons development. The U.S. position is that a strike will take place if diplomacy fails, but also that a conflict with North Korea would be difficult, dangerous and potentially devastating to allies. Thus, the U.S. is postponing such an action as long as possible.
As time passes, it is i mportant to re-examine old assessments. The United States didn’t suddenly in the last few months conclude that an attack on North Korea was dangerous. The Americans had to have known the North Korean nuclear development programme was dispersed and hardened, and they have publicly spoken about the artillery threat to Seoul. But they might have been galvanised by indications that the North Koreans had a miniaturised and ruggedised warhead and were close to having an intercontinental delivery capability. Given the degree of U.S. focus on North Korea, however, the appearance of sudden apprehension is odd.
One way to look at this is that the North Koreans were also aware of the hurdles involved in attacking them and knew that the U.S. would hesitate. They therefore decided to rush forward to complete a weapon that would threaten and deter the United States at a time when U.S. relations with Russia and China were unstable and the new American president hadn’t yet settled in. They saw an opening they could push through to complete their weapon and hold the United States at bay.
The problem with this theory is that North Korea didn’t really need to keep the U.S. at bay. The U.S. has no real interest in North Korea. It has no desire to overthrow the regime, to reform it, to trade with it or to visit it. The idea that a nuclear weapon would make North Korea safer was dubious, and the regime must have known that. Since 1953 and the armistice, the U.S. was formally hostile and practically indifferent toward North Korea. On the surface, it would seem that North Korea had more to fear from actually threatening the United States.
In thinking about this, I have begun to reconsider a model that I had used to explain U.S.-North Korea relations since the 1990s until this past March and the beginning of this crisis. That model is what I call North Korea’s “ferocious, weak and crazy” posture.
This strategy emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China from a nation hostile to the United States into one that depended on it for trade. North Korea found itself in an extraordinarily dangerous position. Japan and South Korea were seen as hostile toward it, if passive. Russia was incapable of protecting it, and China had bigger fish to fry. The U.S. was emerging as a global power, no longer challenged by other great powers. North Korea was isolated, and in its mind, the U.S. was rampaging and toppling regimes of which it didn’t approve. There was no reason for it to think North Korea wouldn’t be a target. Pyongyang’s goal was regime survival, and guaranteeing that was enormously different.
The solution was to position itself, at least in perception, as something not to be disturbed. First, the North Koreans sought to appear ferocious. At the beginning, they accomplished this with their massive military (however poorly armed) and by zeroing their artillery in on Seoul. True, they had limited resources, but the fanatical nature of the regime and its forces made the country appear dangerous and powerful beyond its means. Fanaticism was its force multiplier. No one wants to mess with a fanatic unless they have to, and no one had to.
The second element of the plan, paradoxically, was to look weak. The famines of the 1990s were real, but they also made outsiders believe that the regime had only months to live. The regime knew better. It knew that the internal ferocity could be sustained and that unrest would not turn into an uprising. But from the outside, it appeared that the regime was tottering. If the regime were on the verge of collapse, why should anyone take the trouble of bringing it down? Weakness was a deterrent.
Finally, the North Koreans said things that made them appear insane. They acted as if they could destroy the world, threatened the U.S. with annihilation, and occasionally sank a ship or blew up a group of South Korea diplomats. Ferocious as they were, why take the risk of engaging them?