Small Wars Journal

North Korea: Geopolitics and War

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North Korea: Geopolitics and War

Aaron Farley

The North Korean conflict has been one of the most intractable – and opaque – issues on the international stage for decades. Analysts attempt to read into every new development like a haruspex interpreting so many chicken entrails. The internal politics of the regime are only dimly grasped, and the occasional glimpses the world receive into its inner workings often raise as many questions as they answer. North Korea can – and does – exploit its reputation for unpredictability. Renewed armed conflict with “the hermit kingdom” is a daunting prospect, and policymakers often go to great lengths to minimize this risk.

Due to the closed nature of the regime, it is extremely difficult to make precise assessments about its intentions in any given instance. Nonetheless, enough information is available to make broad guesses about the factors driving North Korean behavior and that of its neighbors. Although nothing is certain, some contingencies are significantly more likely than others. Every major actor in the conflict is constrained by certain geopolitical imperatives which nudge its decision-making in particular directions. These imperatives are significant enough that it is possible to calculate the most likely circumstances under which renewed war is likely, and, to some degree, what the most likely outcome of that war would be.

This analysis is written under the assumption that all parties to the conflict are rational actors. Rational actor is a term whose definition is not always clear. For purposes of this paper, a rational actor is defined as someone whose decision-making is driven by the desire for self-perpetuation i.e. to maintain, and if possible, increase, their own wealth, power, status, etc.

It is common in some schools of thought to treat the unit-of-analysis as the nation state and to assume that they, as corporate entities, are rational actors. The extent to which this applies to most nation-states is debatable. In the case of North Korea, it clearly does not. The internal politics of North Korea are characterized by paranoia and occasionally violent factional infighting.[i] In this environment, national interest in the abstract necessarily comes second to personal interest. The brutally competitive arena of regime politics does not reward high-minded patriotism. The parties involved are rational actors at the personal level, not necessarily at the state level. This distinction between state and individual-level rationality is key to understanding the circumstances under which a general war is most likely to break out.

Although the United States and South Korea have shifted from a hard to a soft line, and back again, on North Korea over the years, the status quo has remained largely intact. In spite of the protests of a vocal minority within the ROK populace, the United States has maintained a significant troop presence on the peninsula for decades – even when juggling the manpower demands of other conflicts. In spite of occasional friction, the US-ROK alliance remains one of the most enduring partnerships on the world stage, having survived multiple coups, falls of government, and the years of unrest in both countries.

Regardless of changes in administrations, the United States and its allies are unlikely to initiate a general war, for the simple reason that they have much to lose and little to gain. The United States, South Korea, and Japan are all prosperous, stable nation-states, whose wealth dwarfs that of North Korea by an order of magnitude.[ii] They have enjoyed decades of peace and steady economic growth. A war with North Korea, even if they were the ultimate victors, would be enormously costly. Korea, whose capital lies within a day’s drive of the DMZ, would face a death toll ranging from the tens of thousands to millions.[iii] Japan, in spite of attempts to re-establish a military capability, is facing an ongoing demographic crisis[iv] which makes it unlikely it will resume an aggressive or expansionist foreign policy in the foreseeable future.

Likewise, the United States, though it is both more powerful and less exposed to risk than either Korea or Japan, is not eager for a full war.[v] Being a global superpower requires a significant commitment of resources across a wide range of potential and actual theaters.[vi] The United States does not want to tie up significant forces in waging a conventional war in south-east Asia, anymore than it did during the Truman administration. 

Nor are any of North Korea’s allies, such as they are, likely to find a general war in their interest. For China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, North Korea is a like an aggressive and unpredictable guard dog. As long as everyone in the neighborhood remains frightened of it, it remains a useful asset. As soon as it slips its leash and actually bites someone, it becomes a liability which will have to be put down. 

Russia, which is working as best it can to re-establish its traditional European buffer zone, benefits from the distraction North Korea creates for American foreign policy. The more attention and resources Washington focuses on south-east Asia, the more freedom of maneuver Russia enjoys. China, even more than Russia, benefits from North Korea’s reputation for bellicosity and un-predictability. It’s status as North Korea’s “Big Brother” allows it to play the role of privileged intermediary, extracting favors from all parties.[vii] For the United States and its allies, China is often the only actor able to exert significant influence on North Korea, while for North Korea, China is the only major power that treats it seriously.

If a general war broke out, the benefits China and Russia accrue from the status quo would evaporate. A war would endanger China’s south-eastern border, both by creating large numbers of refugees and potentially bringing US and ROK troops close to their frontier.[viii]

In the event of a general war, the United States would be forced to commit vast quantities of troops and material in order to defeat North Korea. Although North Korea has one of the most militarized populations on the planet, its manpower edge is offset by its weakness in logistics and hardware.[ix] The DPRK military is fundamentally built around light infantry and aging artillery pieces; their air and naval forces are unlikely to significantly threaten US forces. Additionally, North Korea’s relative economic weakness[x] and the shortages of hard currency mean that North Korea would have difficulty sustaining combined-arms operations for any extended period. The net effect of these disparities is that the Korean Peoples Army is too underequipped to actually defeat the combined strength of the United States and its allies, yet simultaneously too large to counter with a minimally-sized “peacekeeping force.”

Nor is it remotely likely that the United States would not come to South Korea’s aid in the event of war. Due to the presence of 2nd Infantry Division, many U.S. soldiers would likely be killed in the opening salvo of the war.[xi] Even if the United State were to adopt a significantly less interventionist foreign policy than it currently maintains, as long as United States troops remain on the peninsula, there will be a casus belli. Likewise, whatever rifts exist between the United States and its regional allies would rapidly close in the face of such a threat.

Under what circumstances then, would a general war break out? The key to understanding this question is to differentiate between national and personal self-interest. A general war would likely be catastrophic for North Korea. However, the North Korean regime derives much of its legitimacy from militant nationalist posturing. Its founders earned their spurs as fighters against the occupying Japanese and their successors have co-opted this imagery. As the generation which actually engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese empire has receded into the past, the ruling class has been ever more strident in their attempts to claim that legitimacy for themselves.[xii] The regime positions itself as the one true defender of the Korean people, and it engages in periodic highly-publicized saber-rattling in order to uphold this image. It is safe to assume that the ritualized displays of aggression will remain a feature of North Korean policy for the foreseeable future.

The saber-rattling, however, is not purely for internal consumption. North Koreas command economy suffers from persistent structural weakness. The standard of living remains persistently low for all but a small percentage of the regime’s elite. At times, shortages have been so desperate that regime implosion has seemed a real danger.[xiii] In these desperate moments, North Korea has, historically, turned to other countries for aid.

Various countries, principally China and the United States, have provided North Korea with billions dollars of aid over the past several decades. Much of the aid was in the form of food; a significant portion was dedicated to infrastructure improvement, in particular in the energy sector.[xiv] Aid donors were undoubtedly motivated by humanitarian concerns; they were also motivated by fear of regime collapse. As discussed above, although not many parties could be described as “happy” with the status quo, most of them fear the alternative. In effect, the North Korean regime blackmailed other nations into propping it up.

And it is likely that North Korea will rely on foreign countries for aid in the future. Under severe pressure from the shortages described above, the government went so far as to relax some of the restrictions on private entrepreneurship, resulting in a small but increasingly vibrant market economy.[xv] Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, the regime has made strides towards modernization. Various organs of government propaganda have also increasingly stressed economic goals in their rhetoric.[xvi] Clearly, North Korea has ambitions of self sufficiency and prosperity.

China has demonstrated that is possible for a country modernize economically while still maintaining an authoritarian government. It has also demonstrated the political unrest that transition can bring.[xvii] Popular expectation of reform can outpace reality, leading to unrest, leading in turn to a crackdown by government forces. Crackdowns, skillfully planned and executed, can reduce unrest or, if handled badly, increase it. Economic modernization not only inflates popular expectations, it threatens entrenched interest groups. Bureaucrats who hold a monopoly on any given sector are unlikely to welcome free-market competition.  Accordingly, what is likely to emerge is a hybrid crony-capitalist system, not unlike that which prevails in Russia or China. This in turn, can exacerbate popular discontent, leading to the cycle discussed above.  

All of this is to say that North Korea’s modernization and reform efforts are likely to proceed in fits and starts, piece by piece. At one point or another in the modernization campaign, the regime will find itself vulnerable. A global economic downturn will slow growth, or the regime will decide that reforms have become too disruptive of the established structure, and will attempt to slow or turn back changes. The conflict between rising expectations and regime intransigence would be a period of heightened fragility for the North Korean state. Such moments are ripe with the potential for rash decisions.

Another trend which tends to aggravate instability are generational changes in leadership. The founders of North Korea enjoyed a degree of popular legitimacy based on their reputation as successful military leaders and Korean nationalists. Moreover, they were bound together by shared experiences and common history. But North Korea is on its third generation of leadership. As the gerontocrats which occupy the highest levels of the regime gradually die off, they will be replaced with young princelings who lack both the popular legitimacy and the group cohesion of the founding generation. Their power struggles amidst a North Korea disrupted by modernization will likely be far more pronounced and destabilizing than their predecessors.

The most likely scenario for a general war is that at such a time, when the regime feels itself endangered by some combination of elite-internal power competition and popular discontent, the North Koreans overplay their hand. In an attempt to extract economic concessions and shore up their nationalist credentials, they engage in another bout of saber-rattling and misjudge, ever so slightly. Korea has engaged in a number of provocations over the year, from the hijacking of civilian aircraft to the shelling of South Korean military facilities. Each time, an all-out war has been avoided. But there is no guarantee that it will always be so. Every fresh round of provocations is an opportunity for someone to choose escalation over de-escalation. After North Korea shelled South Korean artillery positions, the South Korean defense minister resigned due to the perception that South Korea’s military response was too timid.[xviii] A different mix of personalities in positions of authority and internal political pressures could have easily led to a more dramatic outcome. As long as North Korea continues its pattern of provocation, every incident will be one more chance for a “perfect storm”. Over a sufficiently large sample space, the improbable becomes probable.  

How would the battle-lines in a general war be drawn? It is reasonable to guess that the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and their other allies would form one bloc. Whatever ups and downs the relationship between the United States and these two countries has experienced, or will experience, they remain bound together by cultural, political, and military ties. An openly aggressive North Korea would only bind them more tightly to each other. It is difficult to foresee what wedge North Korea could drive between these nations, as much as it might wish to.

Russia and China’s position, in the scenario we have envisioned, is considerably more ambiguous. On the one hand, they will have no desire to see the United States and its allies control the entire Korean Penninsula. US troops in the north would not only remove a valuable buffer state from their flanks, it would give America access to considerable unexploited natural resource reserves.[xix] On the other hand, a direct confrontation with a nuclear power would be courting disaster. It is likely that they would provide some measure of qualified support to North Korea in the form of intelligence and logistics, and arms. Their interests align closely enough with Korea itself to ensure some measure of compliance.

Due to the vast disparity between North Korea’s overall military and economic strength and that of its adversaries, it can have little hope of ultimate victory. It does not have the strength of arms to take the entire Korean peninsula, and even objectives within its reach are probably too valuable for its adversaries to allow it to retain them (i.e. Seoul). North Koreas greatest, perhaps sole, military advantage lies in the fact that it has by far the largest standing army, mostly deployed close to the 38th parallel.[xx] It will thus be able to mobilize and apply combat power significantly more quickly than its rivals. This advantage creates a window of opportunity in which they will probably exercise military dominance and the coalition forces will be on the defensive.

Because of the vast disparity between North Korea and its adversaries, a war would in some sense be a contest of wills. North Korea’s goals will be to prolong the conflict as long as it can to attrite the coalition’s will-to-fight while trying to maximize its bargaining power for a favorable peace settlement. Traditional military objectives will likely be bypassed in favor of various forms of hostage-taking – both in the traditional and the broader strategic sense.

Precisely for this reason, North Korea will likely exercise some measure of strategic restraint, particularly in the context of its weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear weapons greatest utility is largely as a bargaining chip. Using nuclear weapons against a country such as the United States, whose arsenal dwarfs that of North Korea by an order of magnitude would be an invitation to overwhelming retaliation. The threat of using a nuclear weapon, on the other hand may help the North Korean regime establish favorable terms for a post-war settlement. In fact, to ensure their own safety, elements of the North Korean leadership may go so far as to create a dead-man’s switch, in the form of kamikaze operatives ordered to attack previously designated targets unless they receive stand-down orders within a previously established time-frame.

How would such a war conclude? To understand this question, we must return to the question of Russian and Chinese interests. Neither of these powers wants a direct confrontation with the United States, but neither do they want an American army on their doorstep. China, of course, has gone so far as direct military intervention to prevent precisely this scenario. Undoubtedly, North Korea will do its utmost to drag it’s “big brother” into the war on its side, through fair means or foul. Every fear will be played on and every hint of American hostility will be played up for maximum effect.

There is a potential solution to this dilemma, one which satisfies China and Russia’s geopolitical imperatives while allowing America to eliminate the threat posed by the rogue regime in Pyongyang. That is to divide North Korea’s corpse with them. America will need to achieve at least a partial victory, for reasons of both national pride and credibility on the world stage. It is unlikely that they would be willing to accept any settlement which left North Korea’s leadership in place, no matter how much desperately the Kim family clings to power. At the same time, the logistics of fully conquering and occupying the peninsula are a formidable challenge, even for so great a power as the United States. Anything which eases that burden will have a strong appeal. China and Russia likewise would feel little real responsibility to a regime which attempted to drag them into an unprofitable war. Perhaps in an earlier era, when the creed of international communism still commanded some faith, ideological solidarity might have swayed them, but in the era of realpolitik, self-interest will trump platitudes.

The United States then, should seek to open back-channels to Russia and China, to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically, and to a achieve a separate peace with North Korea’s erstwhile allies. This arrangement will undoubtedly entail some concessions. China, in particular will want to maintain a buffer zone along its Korean border, to ensure continued strategic depth. It is likely that some form of North Korean rump state – stripped of nuclear weapons and under new and more stable leadership – will remain in place.

The biggest obstacle to such an arrangement would likely be the South Koreans themselves. As a matter of policy, the South Korean government continues to pursue a united Korean peninsula.[xxi] But attitudes are changing. Every year, those who can remember a unified peninsula in their lifetime comprise a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. The two countries have evolved along different lines since partition, and younger Koreans increasingly perceive it as a foreign country.[xxii] As a unified Korea recedes ever further into the past, the current ROK government will be more willing to concede to this settlement.

In conclusion, there are three main points to my analysis. First: A general war is most likely to be result of provocative actions by the North Korean leadership in response to a perceived crisis of legitimacy. Such a crisis is particularly likely to occur during a period of economic difficulties. Second: Once such a war has begun, the North Korean leadership’s best strategy will be to attrite the political will of its adversaries. Military operations are likely to be conducted with a view towards giving the regime leverage to negotiate a settlement, rather than simply destroying their enemy’s war-making capacity. Third and last: Internationally, the regime will do everything they can to draw China into the conflict, whether it be false-flag operations or “black” propaganda. The United States and its allies should work to achieve a separate peace with China (and possibly, grant territorial concessions) in exchange for support against the prevailing regime in Pyongyang. Demographic trends make this an increasingly feasible course of action.

End Notes


[i] Gause, Ken E. North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-Un. Washington D.C: The Committee For Human Rights in North Korea, 2015

[ii] No Author. “GDP by Country 2019” Retrieved from: http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-gdp/

[iii] Zagurek, Michael J. “A Hypothetical Nuclear Attack on Seoul and Tokyo: The Human Cost of War on The Korean Pennisula” Retrieved from: https://www.38north.org/2017/10/mzagurek100417/

[iv] Ingber, Sasha (2018, December) “Japan’s Population is in Rapid Decline”. NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2018/12/21/679103541/japans-population-is-in-rapid-decline

[v] Carden, James (2018, January) “A New Poll Shows the Public is Overwhelming Opposed to Endless US Military Intervention”. The Nation. Retrieved from: https://www.thenation.com/article/new-poll-shows-public-overwhelmingly-opposed-to-endless-us-military-interventions/

[vi] Bialik, Kristin (2017, August) “US active-duty military presence overseas is at its smallest in decades.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/22/u-s-active-duty-military-presence-overseas-is-at-its-smallest-in-decades/

[vii]Albert, Eleanor (2019, March) “The China-North Korea Relationship.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship

[viii] Bennet, Bruce (2018) “Paths to Korean Unification.” The RAND Corporation. Pg 24

[ix] No Author. CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

[x] Brown, William. (2018, March). Special Report: North Korea’s Shackled Economy. The National Committee on North Korea. Washington, DC. 

[xi] Dreazen, Yochi (2018, February). “Here’s what war with North Korea would look like.” Vox. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/world/2018/2/7/16974772/north-korea-war-trump-kim-nuclear-weapon

[xii] No author (2013, December) “Kim Jong-un within Songun legacy politics”. SINO-NK. Retrieved from: https://sinonk.com/2013/12/20/kim-jong-un-within-songun-legacy-politics/

[xiii] Brown, William. (2018, March). Special Report: North Korea’s Shackled Economy. The National Committee on North Korea. Washington, DC.  Pg 7

[xiv] Manyin, Mark E and Mary Beth Nitkin (2014, April) “Foreign Assistance to North Korea”. Congressional Research Service. Washington, DC

[xv] Brown, William. (2018, March). Special Report: North Korea’s Shackled Economy. The National Committee on North Korea. Washington, DC.  Pg 4

[xvi] Ruediger, Frank (2018, August). “North Korea’s Economic Policy in 2018 and Beyond: Reforms Inevitable, Delays Possible.” 38North. Retrieved from: https://www.38north.org/2018/08/rfrank080818/

[xvii] Szczepanski, Kallie (2019, January) “The Tianamen Square Massacre, 1989”. Thoughtco. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tiananmen-square-massacre-195216

[xviii] Branigan, Tana (2010, November). “South Korean Defence Minister Resigns as response to North Korean Shelling condemned”. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/25/south-korean-defence-minister-resigns  

[xix]No author “What are the major natural resources of North Korea”. Retrieved from:  https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-major-natural-resources-of-north-korea.html

[xx] No Author. (2013) “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.” Department of Defense.

[xxii] Work, Clint (2018, February). “What Do Younger South Koreans Think of North Korea.” The Diplomat. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/what-do-younger-south-koreans-think-of-north-korea/

About the Author(s)

CPT Aaron M. Farley, U.S. Army, is a battalion S2 officer stationed at Ft. Knox.