It all sounds like a bad TV show: a small boy grows up in the shadow of his powerful, militarily inclined father and all he wants is to become a rocket man, appreciated by the world for his strategic prowess.
But coming out of the Twitter account of President Donald Trump, the title “Rocket Man” no longer sounds so great.
U.S.-North Korean nuclear escalation has become, more than anything, a war of words. Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have made unprecedented parries of rhetorical violence, with Mr. Trump threatening to completely obliterate the other country and Kim making a rare statement in his own name that he would “tame the mentally deranged US dotard.”
Relations with North Korea have never been easy for the United States, but they’ve also never been this hard. The end of the Cold War was a devastating blow to Pyongyang, which, according to Yale Professor of Political Science Nuno Monteiro, had relied heavily on joint security guarantees from Moscow and Beijing. But now, Monteiro comments, “The Soviet Union is gone and the Chinese are now on very good terms with the U.S. compared with the past.” The North Koreans now find themselves on precarious terms with old allies and squeezed between two far greater powers: the Chinese above the Yalu River and the U.S.-South Korean alliance below the 38th parallel.
The attitude towards the South and the U.S. has also crossed the line of cordiality: Edward Wittenstein, Director of Yale’s Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy, notes that “the rhetoric has been extreme for a long period of time on the North Korean side, and it has certainly escalated further with the passing of Kim Jong Il. Part of the rhetoric [from] the North may be due to the fact that the younger Kim Jong Un, in particular, feels the need to sort of demonstrate control of the government in this transition from his father to him.”
The U.S. didn’t shy away from harsh rhetoric, either. In a joint news conference with President Kim Yong-sam of South Korea in 1993, former President Clinton threatened that were the North to strike, “they would pay a price so great that the nation would probably not survive as it is known today.”
But there’s a drastic difference between threatening retaliation and violent name-calling from an unpredictable Twitter account.
The question then becomes whether rhetoric has real-world consequences. Scott Snyder, Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees U.S. actions as largely independent from its talk: the “rhetorical escalation is really on a separate track from the level of military tension that exists on a day to day basis.”
Monteiro isn’t convinced: “Do I think Secretary [of Defense James] Matthis would tell his top military brass to start a war? I doubt it.” But can Trump make the call unilaterally? Yes. “And anyone who disobeys [can be tried for] treason.”
Regardless of U.S. action though, all that’s needed for conflict is North Korean paranoia.
Wittenstein, however, argues that “the North Koreans are very sensitive to the rhetoric because it’s different than what they’ve heard from Americans before. So it does create the potential for miscalculation and misperception.”
The likelihood of miscalculation is heightened by two factors unique to the North Korean predicament: the “green”-ness, in the words of Monteiro, and thus technologically shakier nature of its arsenal, and its need to keep its arsenal locked and loaded. According to Monteiro: “They know fully well that if we were to find out that their arsenal was not ready, we would probably strike.” North Korea barely even has automatic safety measures because it hasn’t collaborated with other countries on technology. It primarily relies on humans to prevent any accidents.
None of this is to indicate that the U.S. hasn’t been trying: Snyder identifies that the United States has followed a tactic of coercive diplomacy. Robert Jervis, the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia, highlights the main components of this strategy in a Winter 2013 article on Iranian sanctions: primarily, coercive diplomacy is that which tips the calculus for adversarial parties in a beneficial direction via soft power or the threat of hard power.
The coercer toes a fine line. On the one hand, too little pressure indicates a lack of resolve and will encourage its adversary to flout any imposition. On the other, too much pressure could indicate that inflicting the pressure is so easy that Country 1 may continue even after Country 2 relents, or could scare Country 2 into escalating its own protection.
The U.S. is leaning dangerously close to the far side of the line. Within the past year, North Korea has faced two especially large on-the-ground pressures.
The first is that the Trump administration implemented an additional type of anti-missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in March to add to its cornucopia of protection over South Korea. But the official Chinese news agency, Xinhuanet, cautioned that adding new shields could add to the security dilemma already in the region and encourage both North Korean and Chinese nuclear development. Simply put: if North Korea relies on their nuclear weapons for survival and THAAD reduces their capability to do so, they’ll just build more weapons.
The Chinese, too, see THAAD as limiting their nuclear deterrent. And though the Chinese and the U.S. have started to work together on stabilizing North Korea, the two are still wary of each other. Monteiro argues that, “the Chinese have a relatively small nuclear deterrent because they understand that if they start producing higher numbers of weapons they will prompt” a domino effect of nuclearization that could affect Japan, South Korea, and even reach as far as India, then Pakistan, then Saudi Arabia. “It’s a nightmare. The potential for instability in [this] very large region is very serious.”
Even given all nuclear anti-missile systems in place, Monteiro “put[s] the odds of a bomb reaching LA between the defenses we have and the trouble they’re having with their program–although they’re getting so much better recently–at 20%.”
The second major move against North Korea has been a series United Nations sanctions, which China agreed to join earlier this month. China’s recent involvement was hailed as a turning point by some pundits because, as Monteiro explains, “Chinese sanctions are much worse for North Korea than U.S. sanctions because they don’t trade with us. So we can sanction whatever we want, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.” While the sanctions are lauded by some for their comprehensiveness, they don’t target Pyongyang’s pressure point. Wittenstein commented that because “the North has a very low degree of care for the economic well-being of its people,” the only type of sanctions that will really be effective are those which target leaders. He explains that “one of the main instigators of the initial Six Party Talks [diplomatic dialogue between the US, both Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia between 2003 and 2008] was the freezing of [a regime] bank account at a bank in Macau. It caused a disproportional reaction because of who it benefited and what it signified.”
In the current climate, though, this pressure may be too much. Monteiro expressed concern that they may pass the proverbial coercive diplomacy line, which would lead North Korea to “gamble for resurrection.”
In fact, since May (when much of the U.S. escalation discussed above began) North Korea has been ramping up their production of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) with which they are threatening the U.S.
The threat of ICBMs is making Mr. Trump’s calculus increasingly more myopic. The United States can wait until there is a clear and present danger or they can strike now, neutralizing the threat to the contiguous states but putting our regional allies in jeopardy.
“President Trump seems to be re-engaging in a debate we had in ‘94 with President Clinton, which is ‘I was elected to protect Americans lives, not Korean lives. We have a treaty that requires that we protect Korean lives but first and foremost I should protect American lives,’” explains Monteiro. Essentially, Monteiro summarizes Trump’s message: “I may be willing to pay 800,000 Korean casualties in the South to avoid this.”
We have been led into a national reckoning in which we must choose whether to honor our alliances. In asking this question, the current administration overlooks the strategical value of alliances for American power.
According to Wittenstein, we simply could not defend ourselves in Northeast Asia without the support of our allies. U.S. allies provide a strong foothold in the region that we can exploit to put (the appropriate amount of) pressure on the North. Not to mention ignoring allies significantly reduces the credibility of any military threat or diplomatic outreach. Monteiro comments that the lesson learned from these terrifying weeks is that “the worst situation the US can be in is a situation in which our population is not motivated to defend allies to which we are committed by treaty.”
At this point, anything short of dialogue is unlikely to work. Because North Korea is significantly weaker than the U.S., they acknowledge that it’s dangerous to strike first. However, as Monteiro says, they would be willing to do so if they knew the U.S. was planning an imminent strike. If the U.S. strikes first, North Korea stands little chance of long term survival and so they have to be on edge about preemption. The more discussion we promote, the more we reduce that chance of misunderstanding. Snyder says that “the stakes are high enough that one side or the other should reach out directly so that they at least talk with each other to make sure they’re not miscalculating.”
No matter what, someone will have to lose some face.
The continued rhetorical ratcheting up does not allow for peaceful resolution. “Both sides,” according to Snyder, “are trying to achieve the desired results of negotiations before sitting down. Both sides are looking for renegotiation concessions that essentially are tantamount to declaring victory.” Snyder argues that we need to provide an “exit ramp,” a way that North Korea can reduce their aggression without seeing such a move as an existential loss. The U.S. is already in the more strategic and legitimate position. We will survive unscathed if we pivot to other issues; Pyongyang will not.
It’s time to take the long view and extend an olive branch. It won’t solve all regional problems, or even most, but it would turn us away from the likelihood of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives lost.