Small Wars Journal

02/14/2021 News & Commentary - Korea

Sun, 02/14/2021 - 11:26am

News and Commentary by Dave Maxwell. Edited and Published by Riley Murray.


1. What North Korea’s Party Congress means for Biden and the world

2. Defector Tae Yong-ho: ‘A very small spark could topple Kim Jong Un’

3. Kim Jong Un Might Be Toppled By ‘A Very Small Spark’ Due To Worsening Crisis In North Korea

4. Fresh North Korea nuclear crisis 'biggest risk to world' in 2021, experts warn

5. S. Korea, U.S. preparing to stage combined exercise in mid-March: sources

6. State Dept. says North’s denuclearization still matters

7. The OpCon Transfer Reality: Facts and Fantasy. by GEN (Ret) USArmy B B Bell

8. North Korea looms as next big test for China-US relations

9. Kim Jong-un lashes out about economic policy

10. Joint exercise with U.S. to start March 8 (combined training in Korea)


1. What North Korea’s Party Congress means for Biden and the world – Duyeon Kim - February 12, 2021

Very good and useful analysis from Duyeon Kim. I think the two most important assessments coming out of the 8th Party Congress is as she describes: Tightening Control and Masking Weakness. I think Kim is facing enormous internal pressure as a result of his multiple personal failures from unsuccessfully playing Moon and Trump to get sanctions relief for the past two years, to his policy decisions in response to the natural dsiasters, COVID, and sanctions. COVID has been a double edged sword for him - it is likely an existential threat to the north that he must defend against but it is also a perfect opportunity to implement the draconian population and control measures to exert greater control. As Duyeon points out, the shows (in October and January) of relative military strength are designed to mask regime weakness. But the tightening control and masking of weakness means we need to be very observant to the indications and warnings of internal instability (the conditions which unfortunately could lead to catastrophic decisions by KJU).

But I really want to highlight this paragraph as there is a lot to unpack here.

It would be a mistake for North Korea to test a weapon before the Biden administration formulates its team and policy on Korea and before direct talks between the two countries are given a chance. Even so, Pyongyang may see US-South Korean annual military exercises in March as an opportunity to test. For that reason, the Moon government will want to scale the drills down further to prevent aggravating Pyongyang. But the defensive military exercises to prepare for a potential North Korean attack will not be the cause, if North Korea decides to test weapons; they are merely handy excuses Pyongyang uses to justify the weapons tests it needs to refine its technology.

I hope people can grasp the nuance here. Yes it would be Kim's mistake to conduct a test before the Biden administration announces its new policies. But Duyeon is correct that it is very possible that Kim could conduct a provocation around the annual ROK/US combined training in March. But here is the key point we must not miss. The Moon administration may try to force the scaling back of the training both to prevent provocation and to improve north-South engagement opportunities. That would be a significant strategic mistake because not only will that impact readiness and the OPCON transition process, it will not prevent the regime from conducting a provocation. Again as Duyeon very correctly notes the combined training will not be the cause of a regime provocation. Kim will test or conduct some provocation because he assesses it is to his advantage to do so (either for messaging, internal and/or external, and for advancing his military programs and capabilities).. It will not be because of his displeasure with the combined training or that he somehow feels threatened by the defensive training that is conducted to prepare for a potential north Korean attack. And he certainly will not refrain from testing or a provocation because the Moon administration is successful in forcing the reduction in the scale of the training. It would be a huge mistake for the ROK/US alliance to operate under the misguided assumption that Kim's behavior can be positively influenced by making concessions in terms of combined training (when we make concessions it only emboldens the regime and will cause KJU to double down on blackmail diplomacy). The ROK/US military forces must sustain their combined training and not be subject to decisions made by policy makers who are operating under erroneous assumptions (and a lack of understanding of the nature and objectives of the Kim family regime). we need to deal with KJU as he really is and not as we would wish him to be.


2. Defector Tae Yong-ho: ‘A very small spark could topple Kim Jong Un’

Financial Times · by Edward White · February 12, 2021

I make no predictions on if and when something will happen as a result of a "spark" except to say that what happens could very well be catastrophic for the South, the region, the Alliance and. the international community.

Tae's warning/recommendation to the Biden Administration:

But now that Tae is in Seoul he wants to keep using his newfound freedom of speech to send a message back to Pyongyang — an endeavour made easier by the platform given to him in the National Assembly seat he won easily in April. “My real mission as a politician is that I want to tell the North Korean elite that there could be an alternative for their future,” he says.

Following the polite intervention of Tae’s patient parliamentary aide, we wipe our hands and ready our masks.

Tae has a parting message for the new Biden administration: do not strike an Iran-style nuclear deal because it would essentially legitimise Kim Jong Un and justify his policies. Instead, he wants the US to keep enforcing tough sanctions. Ultimately, Tae doesn’t discount Kim’s strength. But with enough pressure he believes the dictator’s downfall is a possibility — a prospect that might come about much more swiftly were China ever to enforce sanctions properly.

“A very small spark” is all that it would take, “like what happened at the Arab Spring.” As we step out into the snowy streets of democratic South Korea, I wonder whether anyone in communist North Korea, barely 50km away, is listening.

I have given this a little bit of thought over the past 25+ years and it is something we must be ready for but we must acknowledge that the conditions that cause such a "spark" could lead to a decision by KJU to execute his campaign plan as the only option he has left to attempt to ensure the survival the Kim family regime. And of course the regime could continue to "muddle through" as it has for decades. 


“The Catastrophic Collapse of North Korea: Implications for the U.S. Military” 

School of Advanced Military Studies 


"Should The United States Support Korean Unification And If So, How? 

International Journal of Korean Studies ·Vol. XVIII, No. 1 


"Unification Options and Scenarios: Assisting A Resistance"

International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 

Vol. 24, No. 2, 2015, 127–152 


"Beyond the Nuclear Crisis: A Strategy for the Korean Peninsula"

National Defense University


“When North Korea Falls 

The furor over Kim Jong Il’s missile tests and nuclear brinksmanship obscures the real threat: the prospect of North Korea’s catastrophic collapse. How the regime ends could determine the balance of power in Asia for decades. The likely winner? China” 





Defector Tae Yong-ho: ‘A very small spark could topple Kim Jong Un’

Financial Times · by Edward White · February 12, 2021


3. Kim Jong Un Might Be Toppled By ‘A Very Small Spark’ Due To Worsening Crisis In North Korea · by Anna Harnes · February 13, 2021

A bit more perspective based on Tae Yong-ho's interview with the Financial Times.


4. Fresh North Korea nuclear crisis 'biggest risk to world' in 2021, experts warn · by James Caven · February 14, 2021

A warning based on analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations and Scott Snyder and Paul Stares. I sent the CFR report last month but it can be accessed here:


5. S. Korea, U.S. preparing to stage combined exercise in mid-March: sources · by 최수향 · February 14, 2021

We need to conduct robust training to ensure readiness and continue the OPCON transition process. Policy makers and civilian decision makers must not be swayed by the misguided assumption that scaling back exercises will result in a positive change in north Korean behavior. the security of the ROK and the ROK/US alliance must be the priority and robust combined training is necessary to ensure that security.


6.  State Dept. says North’s denuclearization still matters

This could be an indication of the broad strokes of the policy direction.

Price elaborated on the U.S. approach. “When it comes to our strategic goals, we’ll focus on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people,” he said. “And again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”  


7.  The OpCon Transfer Reality: Facts and Fantasy. by GEN (Ret) USArmy B B Bell

I do not think the genie can put back in the lamp or the toothpaste back in the tube.

I think if we try to stop the OPCON transition position it could break the alliance. I think there are ways to make it work but it will take strong leadership on both the ROK and US sides to make it happen in a way that enhances the security of the ROK and the Alliance.


8. North Korea looms as next big test for China-US relations - Laura Zhao and Eduardo Baptisa

Patience. Let's give the Biden administration some time to formulate sound policy and an executable strategy.

And yes China will play a key role but we should not assume that China will help the ROK and US solve their security problems.

And we should pay attention to Dr Jung Pak and not Moon Chung-in. We should not be influenced by the mischaracterization of US officials by Moon. He attacks any american who advocates sustaining pressure on the regime (for myriad reasons) by saying “Regime change through maximum pressure won’t work.” We should note that the mainstream thinking in Washington does desire a diplomatic solution. But Moon's diplomacy is about appeasing the north with concessions while many in DC wil advocate for a deft combination of diplomacy with pressure.


According to Moon Chung-in, one of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s closest foreign policy advisers, Wang expressed support for Seoul’s strategy of an “incremental, phased approach based on simultaneous exchanges, action for action” during his visit to South Korea in November.

A first step would involve the verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility and the declaring of all the country’s hidden nuclear facilities, in return for a pursuit by the US of selective sanctions relief and other measures to ease Pyongyang’s fear of regime change, the adviser said.

However, he also expressed concern at the influence on the Biden administration of “mainstream thinking in Washington” and “hardliner” North Korea analysts like Jung Pak, Biden’s pick for deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

“Regime change through maximum pressure won’t work,” said Moon, referring to Jung’s hawkish stance on North Korean denuclearisation. “The only solution is a negotiated settlement through diplomacy.”


9. Kim Jong-un lashes out about economic policy

So I guess all the new economic team needs to do is set low expectations and goals:

“In the field of agriculture, the goal for grain production has been set [too] high […] irrespective of present situation where farming condition is unfavorable and the state is unable to supply enough farming materials,” KCNA reported Friday in English, paraphrasing what Kim said during the session. 


10. Joint exercise with U.S. to start March 8 (combined training in Korea)



"We rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” 

- Judge Learned Hand


"It is no weakness for the wisest man to learn when he is wrong." 

- Sophocles


“You must allow everyone the right to exist in accordance with the character he has, whatever it turns out to be: and all you should strive to do is to make use of this character in such a way as its kind of nature permits, rather than to hope for any alteration in it, or to condemn it offhand for what it is. This is the true sense of the maxim—Live and let live…. To become indignant at [people’s] conduct is as foolish as to be angry with a stone because it rolls into your path. And with many people the wisest thing you can do, is to resolve to make use of those whom you cannot alter." 

- Arthur Schopenhauer 

Categories: News