North Korea’s Exaggerated Threat
Concerns have continued to rise due to multiple North Korean missiles tests in past months. These missile tests continue to show the growth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) ballistic program. With the nuclear program’s last successful test in September 2016, global leaders and policy-makers have shown growing interest in pursuing a solution. There is continued cause for concern, based on the despotic regime and success of these programs. The greatest risk, however, is exaggerating the DPRK threat.
Nation-states pursue aggressive war policies for two main reasons. Either the nation has everything to gain or nothing to lose. In the North Korean context, the Kim regime has neither. First, in either a conventional or nuclear war with South Korea, North Korea will ultimately lose. A surprise, conventional attack by the DPRK may drive them into the peninsula’s deep south, but American forces will build-up and retaliate. This would inevitably cost the Kim regime their control. Second, North Korea loses nothing by maintaining the status quo. The Republic of Korea (ROK) nor the United States will preemptively act against the DPRK. Pyongyang realizes this and will not act conventionally. However, the regime will continue to exhibit feats of strength such as missile or nuclear tests to demonstrate their power.
The DPRK will not employ the nuclear option, given the United States’ nuclear umbrella. Mirroring the above reasons for conventional aggression, the North would lose if it pursued first strike policies. Pundits regularly cite the North’s lack of delivery capabilities as to why the North has not employed a nuclear weapon against the South. The DPRK has proven multiple times that the Hwasong and Nodong ballistic missiles are reliable enough to hit an intended target within 1,000 miles. If they were willing to deploy nuclear weapons against South Korea, they could have effectively destroyed Seoul, Busan, and other major South Korean urban areas over ten years ago.
With the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, the DPRK’s current ballistic capabilities will no longer be able to strike South Korea. The North is out of nuclear options. This prevention helps ensure that the Kim regime will not irrationally use nuclear weapons against the ROK. Before THAAD deployment, the odds of North Korean nuclear attack were already infinitesimally small. Now, a nuclear strike would be impossible.
Another argument that inflates North Korea’s threat is the idea of Chinese intervention in either a conventional or nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula. In 1961, China and North Korea signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty where China promised to aid North Korea if war broke out on the peninsula. At the time, the treaty was a sufficient deterrent to prevent South Korean or U.S. action against North Korea. Presently, China would not likely protect North Korea if Pyongyang initiated a conflict. China still prefers the Kim regime in North Korea as a buffer against the United States, but if the time came for Chinese intervention in a DPRK-U.S. conflict, China would be noticeably absent. Over the past several years, tensions have mounted as Pyongyang continues to act erratically. China has employed short term sanctions to deter North Korean nuclear and ballistic demonstrations. China would not waste Chinese lives and treasure in a fruitless exhibition of North Korean aggression.
The Kim regime wants to maintain their firm grip on North Korea. Kim Jong-un will not undertake militaristic actions that could undermine his control. The DPRK military apparatus understands their options are limited to shows of force, not conventional or nuclear warfare. Pundits argue that Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor due to his brutal and violent means of killing North Koreans that disagree with him. They argue these facts point to his likelihood in ignoring Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine. While viscerally alarming, these actions do not indicate the likelihood of North Korean conventional or nuclear aggression.
Ultimately, the Kim regime will maintain the status quo on the peninsula. Conventional or nuclear aggression is not in their best interest. It would cause deterioration or destruction of the DPRK’s tenuous regime. The best path forward to dealing with the Hermit Kingdom resides in time. The world must wait to free North Korea from the Kim regime. Exaggerating the threat from North Korea will not speed up the collapse of the DPRK. Increasingly aggressive policies based on threat inflation against North Korea may even force Kim Jong-un into a corner where he feels he has nothing to lose. That would be the greatest threat to the United States and its allies with potentially catastrophic results.