Small Wars Journal

Why North Korea Seems to Be Pushing Trump Toward a Potential Crisis

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 9:09pm

Why North Korea Seems to Be Pushing Trump Toward a Potential Crisis

Ehsan M. Ahrari

Watching North Korea’s behavior from a distance, it feels like one is watching a cheap Hollywood thriller, except that this one is real and potentially perilous.  North Korea seems to be perfecting its longest-range missiles, known as KN-08 or Hwason-13.  According to a statement made in 2015 by General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the former commander of US forces in South Korea, North Korea has made a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop a missile.  But this report has not yet been confirmed by US intelligence.  Former President Barack Obama reportedly warned the then President-elect Donald Trump of how dangerous and unpredictable the North Korean leader really is.  Given Obama’s warning, Kim Jong-un’s decision to continue testing his ballistic missiles in the Sea of Japan is understandable.  But Kim also knows the highly-publicized impetuosity and impulsive nature of Donald Trump.  Given all that, the larger question is why does North Korea seem to be pushing him toward a potential crisis?

A starting point for answering this broader question is to ask what does Kim Jung-un want?  He knows that the United States is not going to accept his country’s status as a nuclear weapons state. 

It is possible that Kim is terribly annoyed with the US-South Korea-Japan joint naval exercises held during the Obama administration.  He envisions them as provocative and wants them stopped.  However, that is not likely to happen, because from the South Korean, Japanese, and American side, those exercises are carried out to remind North Korea how serious the United States is about protecting South Korea and Japan from a potential nuclear or missile attack from Pyongyang.  So, Kim might be using these missile tests as a bargaining chip for future negotiations with the new administration.  He might not be too far off the mark in regarding these missile tests as something important enough for the US to agree to stop conducting military exercises, as a quid pro quo for North Korea’s commitment to stop conducting missile tests.

It is also possible that Kim is in desperate need to start negotiations with the United States and its allies, hoping that, once started, they would create a momentum whereby he would end up getting some special concessions from the allied side in return for lowering his missile-related provocations.  That is also possible, because South Korea and Japan are not interested in ratchetting-up their conflict with North Korea.  Those two countries are concerned with the more important regional problem of dealing with China’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas.

However, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the greatest impediment to resolving the US-North Korea conflict.  The United States’ preference is that Kim dismantle them and unravel his nuclear weapons program; but he is not going to do that.  For Kim, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not only a guarantee of his regime survival but also a potential source of squeezing economic assistance from South Korea, Japan, and the United States.  And he has succeeded in getting economic assistance for promises to slow down his nuclear program in the past, but then reneged on those promises.  So, for any future negotiations to become fruitful, China must enter the process as a guarantor of Kim’s commitment to the specifics of those negotiations.  However, China is not likely to play that role.

In principle, China holds considerable sway over North Korea, but China also needs the sustenance of the North Korean regime because it keeps South Korea’s and America’s forces away from China’s borders.  As unhappy as China is about Kim’s impetuous behavior in firing missiles over the Sea of Japan and due to reports that he is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, China will do nothing to put exorbitant pressure on North Korea for the purpose of pushing it to the verge of collapse.

Another alternative is to persuade China to continue to play a meaningful role by eliciting Kim’s commitment for any deal his regime works out with South Korea and the United States.  However, China is not likely to cooperate with the United States because of the latter’s decision to move the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] system to South Korea.  THAAD is a ground-based defense missile system first developed during the 1991 Gulf War “to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during the terminal phase (i.e., when they are coming down).”  Even though THAAD is aimed at defending South Korea and Japan against North Korea’s missiles, China envisions that it “could be used to intercept Chinese ballistic missiles.”  In addition, the THAAD system has the capabilities “to track China’s own missile systems, potentially giving the United States a major advantage in any future conflict with China.”  So, instead of cooperating with the United States in defusing its conflict with North Korea, China has vowed to “take the necessary steps to safeguard our own security interests.”

So, instead of creating an environment of cooperation with China, the Trump administration’s deployment of the THAAD system is “pushing China and Russia closer to Pyongyang, as American officials acknowledge when speaking on the condition of anonymity.”

From Kim’s Jong-un’s perspective, these complications are quite welcome, because they would underscore to Washington the necessity of engaging his regime in a series of negotiations. 

However, there is also the potential that Donald Trump may decide to use the option of limited military action by bombing North Korea’s missile test sites.  But, before taking such an action, the new administration in Washington has to calculate China’s potential response.  That is one variable that Kim is counting on.  His side has a general understanding that, despite his bluster of being decisive in dealing with America’s adversaries, the highly inexperienced Trump and his equally novice team of advisers would decide not to bomb North Korea’s missile sites, since they could not count on China’s reaction.

Before the new Trump administration develops a sure footing regarding some hot-button global affairs issues, Kim may not risk escalating his ballistic missile tests.  He also is relying on the fact that, given the high prestige of China vis-à-vis the United States, and given that the PRC is perceived as capable of lowering North Korea’s apparent impetuosity, Kim is relying on China’s increased role in ensuring a de-escalation of the US-North Korea conflict.


Bill C.

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 11:56am

So let us look at the N. Korea problem from the standpoint of the broad -- and indeed international -- threat posed by the U.S./the West's" "expansionist" and "universalist" grand strategy:

Since World War II, the U.S/the West has pursued a grand strategy aimed at:

a. Overturning the international status quo by

b. Spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S./Western influence throughout the world.

Today, this such -- enduring -- U.S./Western "expansionist"/"universalist" grand strategy:

a. Stokes fear N. Korea, Russia, China, Iran -- and, indeed, in non-western/less-western states and societies throughout the entire world. This,

b. Causing these states and societies to adopt variously familiar strategies (for example: "containment" and "roll back") and variously familiar ways and means (for example: political warfare, hybrid warfare, nuclear ambition, insurgency, terrorism, etc.) to (1) secure their alternative interests in (2) the face of these such U.S./Western "expansionist"/"universalist" grand strategic threats.

Seen in this "U.S./Western grand strategy threatening the entire Rest of the World" light, do we actually think that China will work with the U.S./the West to cause N. Korea to, shall we say, "stand down?"

(Note: The U.S./Western grand strategy, noted above, this obviously threatens -- not only the current N. Korean regime -- but also the current Chinese regime, the current Russian regime, the current Iranian regime and various Islamic and/or Greater Middle Eastern regimes/interests also. This being the case, should we not expect that -- in the future as appears to be the case now -- these such entities will [a] continue to work more together to overcome this U.S./Western "expansionist"/"universalist" grand strategy threat; this, rather than [b] working against each other -- a move which would appear to play more directly into the U.S./the West's "expansionist"/"universalist" grand strategic hand?)

Outlaw 09

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 3:45am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

BTW...the constant Trump and his merry band of nationalists bent on isolating the US...their bashing of NATO/EU....and even managing to affront Australia... needs in the case of a serious Korean problem..."allies"....which can no longer be guaranteed with the Trump WH...

When European populations as a whole basically are rejecting US leadership under Trump by large polling numbers do not expect then their leaders to come running when the US needs assistance for to go against their populations would result in a "political death"....

When over 90% of Germans on the whole reject anything Trump and his merry band stand not expect instant German assistance....

In some ways when the Germans refused to assist the US in Iraq and if one reads their reasons....years later they were actually very correct in their assumptions as to the outcome...Bush 2 should have listened intently to the Germans but did not...

Outlaw 09

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 3:38am

Here is the core long as China is not part and parcel of any settlement on the NK we are simply spinning our wheels in a very small and getting smaller circle.

As someone who has exercised in a strategic and global missile exercise where THADD was does in fact threaten the Chinese second strike capacity which they feel is critical to their own survival against what they perceived a coming conflict with the US....

Until that is addressed and cleanly addressed you will not get Chinese buy-in on anything on NK...

By the Trump over response to the latest NK provocations and sending in THADD now you have "awaken the giant" and shown him a direct threat to his survival...which one could see if one really took the time to read the Chinese responses....

The West and particular the US does in fact have a valid beef over the South China Sea which China is using actually in a very similar fashion as did the Japanese in WW2...using it to defend the motherland and to secure critical sea lanes for their imports and exports...AND oil and gas China is a country in need of extensive and long term raw resources to support the well being of a 3B plus population and guarantee the survival of the CCP...

What is worrying though is that the latest missile firings were not simply "tests" but rather they followed the NK war doctrine n their firings.....

We in the US really do need to fully understand the implications of a war between NK/SK....and what we expect our own loses to be acceptable.

Ask anyone who has participated in any of the war exercises in the defense of SK...just what happens in the first 72 hrs and from what starting point the US starts at...

And we do not have the same military of say 1993 as we do now in 2017...where it takes literally weeks to move a then the war will be basically over and what will remain is the next question??

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 11:24pm

This is the most important two sentences in the author's essay:

QUOTE For Kim, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not only a guarantee of his regime survival but also a potential source of squeezing economic assistance from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. And he has succeeded in getting economic assistance for promises to slow down his nuclear program in the past, but then reneged on those promises.

His ideas on China are merely wishful thinking. I also think that the author and Kim Jong-un could be misreading the Trump administration.

Unless we understand the following we will never be able to deal with north Korea.

1. The single vital national interest is survival of the Kim Family Regime (KFR), not the nation-state and not the Korean people living in the north.
2. The single strategic aim is reunification under the control of the north to ensure survival of the KFR.
3. The condition to achieve the strategic aim is the removal of US forces from the peninsula (splitting the ROK/US Alliance) the north will have superior correlation of forces to be able to execute its campaign plan to reunify the peninsula.
4. The foundation for the above strategy rests on blackmail diplomacy - the use of provocations to gain political and economic concessions and erode the ROK/US Alliance.

Only by understanding these four points that are non-negotiable for the regime (and included as non-negotiable are the regime's nuclear and missile programs) can we develop a holistic strategy that will address the "Big 5:"

1. War - must deter, and if attacked defend, fight and win.
2. Regime Collapse - must prepare for the real possibility and understand it could lead to war and both war and regime collapse could result in resistance within the north.
3. Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity - must focus on as it is a threat to the Kim Family Regime and undermines domestic legitimacy - and it is a moral imperative.
4. Asymmetric threats (provocations, nuclear program, missile, cyber and SOF) and global illicit activities.
5. Unification - the biggest challenge and the solution.

The bottom line is that the only way we are going to see an end the nuclear program and threats and to the crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim Family Regime is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a United Republic of Korea(UROK) that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people.