Over and Under Estimating the North Korean Threat
In the span of one week we have seen North Korea test four missiles, evidence of U.S. attempts to sabotage North Korea’s missile program with cyber capabilities, the deployment of the controversial THAAD missile defense system to South Korea, and China proposing that the U.S. give up joint military drills with South Korea in return for North Korea pausing its nuclear and missile programs. The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards spoke with North Korea expert Jim Walsh to understand how all these events are related and what could happen next.
The Cipher Brief: This week we saw the simultaneous launch of four missiles. It coincided not only with the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills but also the opening of China’s National People’s Congress. What does this tell us about North Korea’s technical capabilities and was there any symbolism in the timing of this test?
Jim Walsh: It’s going to be another week or longer before we know a bit more about what was tested. The Japanese navy will fish some parts out of the ocean, and then we’ll put that together with satellite and other forms of intelligence to try to figure out what precisely happened.
By way of background, I’ll say that it’s typical of North Korean behavior, although occurring at an atypical moment. Because as you suggest, they have a regular testing program. They tested more than 20 times last year. It’s no surprise that they are testing, and they are often inclined to do something—tests or take other actions in response to the annually held U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises which they object to.
Of course, being provocative at a moment when your enemy is marshalling its forces off your coast never struck me as a very good idea, but, nevertheless that’s what they tend to do. So, you have all of that going on before the question of the Chinese legislative meeting, or any of the other motivations. When it comes to North Korea, we know so little at any given moment. But I think the bottom line is that it’s not a surprise they test and we should expect that they’ll continue to test, and whether it’s because of some anniversary or some political reason—the election in South Korea or whatever—they will find a reason to test.
Now, what is the contribution of this particular test to their missile development? I think it’s way too early to tell. They have lots of different types of missiles, and they seem to have made more progress in some areas than others. They seem to have moved from liquid fuels to solid fuels in some of their missiles. They seem to have developed a capacity for submarine launched ballistic missiles. It’s slow and steady here. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps backward, but they continue to learn. And even when tests fail, they learn from that.
TCB: You’ve had the opportunity to travel to North Korea and speak with North Korean officials regarding the nuclear and missile programs throughout your career. In that time, North Korea has expanded its nuclear and missile arsenals. How do we address the North Korean threat today? What are the options? Is there any necessity for preemptive action?
JW: The first thing I’d say—almost by way of joking—if I was planning a preemptive action, I would stop talking about it in public. We should cease and desist on stories coming out of the South Korean and the U.S. governments about drills and training for “decapitation.” That doesn’t help anyone. Maybe it helps someone’s poll numbers, but it doesn’t help us deal with the situation on the ground.
So let’s walk through your questions. Obviously the North Korean problem has been around for a long time, and there are a set of limited policy tools that administrations have used. The sort of traditional approach, by Republican and Democratic alike, has been to try to sanction North Korea, both for the purposes of interdiction and as a way to try to coerce the leaders into changing their behavior. My partner John Park, who’s at Harvard, and I wrote a study last year that documented that this isn’t going so well. This was affirmed by the UN panel of experts’ report this month, suggesting that the North Koreans are able to evade sanctions because they innovate. When we tend to do something one time and then stop, they respond and try to evolve and try to develop countermeasures.
Another policy has been to try to cajole, lecture, and threaten China to pressure North Korea. You hear this quite often on Capitol Hill, from the president, and from others. I think that represents a fundamental misreading of the situation. China doesn’t like these tests. It makes life difficult for China, and it emboldens pro-nuclear advocates in Japan and South Korea. It’s a threat to their own territory. It draws the U.S. closer in as it tries to reassure its allies. It’s just bad news. The Chinese have expressed to the DPRK that they shouldn’t test, and North Korean President Kim has ignored them, making them look weak. So there’s nothing in this for them.
We’ve argued that we need to cooperate. We have some shared interests, not identical, but shared interests, and we need to get on the same page. We should encourage the Chinese, for example, to use their own domestic laws to break up DPRK procurement channels. A lot of the DPRK procurement happens in China, and what happens is the North Koreans hire private Chinese middlemen. Some company—a European company that is set up in China or some Chinese company making some widget—thinks it’s selling to a Chinese company, but it’s really selling to the North Koreans. So, China can do more with their domestic law, their anti-counterfeiting law, and their corruption campaign. These are laws they’re already committed to and can use those laws towards breaking up what we call North Korea, INC. But we need to be cooperative on this.
What we’ve been doing instead is wagging our finger and of course pushing THAAD, the ballistic missile defense system, which the Chinese today, in no vague terms, warned would precipitate an arms race, because they see the THAAD system as being directed not only at North Korea, but at them as well. Hectoring and threatening China is probably not a good idea if you’re trying to solve the problem.
You hear voices out of the White House about a more muscular policy that would include perhaps repositioning tactical or other nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. I don’t hear the South Koreans asking for that—of course they didn’t ask for THAAD either, and we’ve sort of forced that down their throats. But let’s say the South Koreans were clamoring for reintroducing nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, and let’s pretend that China and Russia would welcome that—wouldn’t care, wouldn’t see that as provocative—we’ll just set all that aside. Would it stop North Korea from conducting tests? I think the answer is no. What will that policy accomplish?
Obviously, all presidents, and even President Trump who is more of a maverick than the others, have also adopted a policy of reassurance. We’re supposed to reach out to our allies, South Korea and Japan, and we tell them we’ve got their back, we tell them don’t worry. That’s why we do these military exercises, that’s why the secretary of defense and officials march out to the region every once and awhile to show that we stand with them, and that’s why there are thousands and thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Japan and South Korea as a form of reassurance.
One policy that hasn’t been used in a while, that I think is worth revisiting, is diplomacy and negotiation. On average, the North Koreans tend to better behave when they’re in the room talking than those periods of time when they’re out of the room throwing stones at the school building. And we’ve had some success, people argue, over this. I think the Agreed Framework that was arrived at in the 90s, while much maligned, had the effect of freezing North Korea’s nuclear program and long range missile tests for a period of eight years. I would love to freeze that program right now rather than having it progress.
There are some weak indications that the North Koreans might be prepared to engage in negotiations. The goal of that should be, not so much immediate denuclearization, but finding some way to freeze and cap the program on a road to eventual dismantlement. But, I don’t hear a lot of talk out of Mr. Trump, even though he is the “negotiator in chief,” I don’t hear much discussion. I hear mostly that we’re going to respond to this by deterrent threats, such as flights over the Korean peninsula with nuclear bombers, or official statements promising swift retaliation, and moving military assets. I don’t see that changing the North Korean testing regimen at all. They’re just going to keep on doing it.
TCB: You touched on THAAD and how that’s finally come to pass. The first pieces have been delivered to South Korea. Is there anything else you would like to add about the consequences of this deployment in terms of the U.S. seeking the cooperation of China?
JW: Let me talk about THAAD for a minute, and I have a different view from many people in Washington. First of all, the thing that seems most noteworthy about THAAD is that the South Koreans aren’t clamoring for this. They aren’t grabbing us by the shirt and saying, “We want THAAD! We want THAAD!” We’re telling them to take THAAD. So THAAD is not ally reassurance because the ally ain’t asking for it. How does that make any sense?
And certainly there is a feeling in Beijing that the system is aimed at them. When you have emails—I don’t know if they were authentic or fake emails released during the presidential campaign from the alleged hacking—talking about ringing China with missiles as a way to coerce them, it’s not surprising that Beijing would look at this with suspicion.
Missile defense is a funny thing. I think people put a lot of faith in it technically, and much of that has yet to be tested. It’s not clear to me how effective these systems will be, but they do make countries feel better about the threats that they face. But for the Chinese—we say, “This is for crude Scud missiles and doesn’t affect your intercontinental ballistic missiles at all. It’s way too rudimentary a system. Don’t worry about it.” I think that’s a bit tone deaf. They worry about it because, sure, its THAAD today. It’s going to be THAAD 2.0 tomorrow, it’s going to be something else in the future. And once you have radar and associated systems set up for missile defense, who knows what there will be 10, 15, or 20 years down the line.
Secondly, those radars are eyes that are watching every Chinese sea launched ballistic missile test, every other missile test, looking for signatures, looking for other information. If you’re a Chinese official and you’re already skeptical of U.S. intentions and you’re already drinking the Kool-Aid that the U.S. objective is to encircle China and contain it, ringing missile defenses around China certainly looks consistent with that narrative. So at a political level, all you’re doing is alienating the single most important partner you could have if you are serious about getting something done with North Korea. There is no solving the North Korean problem without the Chinese.
Now we have what has to be the pinnacle of difficulty, which is threatening a country in order to force it to cooperate with us. That seems like a really far bridge to traverse. That policy isn’t going anywhere, and I think given the very weird regional political context we have, we’re throwing away an opportunity.
The North Koreans are in the process of alienating the Chinese. The Chinese have announced a cap on the sale of coal pursuant to the UN security resolution. They’re angry at the north Koreans for testing, they’re angry at the North Koreans for killing Kim Jong Nam who was under Chinese protection. If these two countries are feeling some division, to take advantage of that division and to pull China closer to our side, to our point of view, would help us. You like to divide your adversaries if you can, but rather than using this tension between North Korea and China to our advantage, we’re sort of throwing it away by adding our own criticism to China even as North Korea criticizes China.
TCB: Is there anything else you think our readers should know about the North Korea threat?
JW: There is one thing I would say that the public may not get. I think there is a misfocus on defining the North Korean threat as, “Do they have an ICBM capability or not?” That is a frequent question in media interviews and discussions on Capitol Hill. If they don’t have an ICBM that can reach the U.S. homeland, when are they going to have it? Are they going to have it a month from now? A year from now? Five years from now? There is all this discussion about the ICBMs because the threat is looked at through the lens of, “Well, when can they hit the U.S. homeland?” And I think that is a flawed notion. It overestimates the threat and underestimates the threat at the same time.
It overestimates the threat because I think the North Koreans are quite some distance from having an ICBM. We’ve had all sorts of predictions—U.S. military predictions that they would have that by 2015. But 2015 has come and gone. They have yet to flight test a reentry vehicle. So this sort of overemphasizes it.
But it also underemphasizes it because the threat is here already. We should not wait until North Korea has an ICBM to think that this is a big deal. I say that because we have 20-thousand plus U.S. troops in South Korea and thousands more in Japan. Certainly North Korea, if it wanted to, could find a way to lob a nuclear weapon towards South Korea. That would kill thousands and thousands of U.S. troops. I’m pretty sure that’s the equivalent of an attack on the U.S. homeland. That’s today, that already exists. We have treaty alliances with both of those countries that oblige us politically to consider an attack on their territory the equivalent of an attack on the United States. That’s why we have those troops there to show them we’re serious about it. I don’t know why we’re talking about an ICBM hitting the U.S. homeland when the reality is right now, in March of 2017, U.S. troops are within striking distance of a North Korean nuclear weapon. So that future is now, and that’s what we should be focusing on.