How to Deal with Bellicose North Korea

By Peter Kang

Since the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on March 7 that carries stiff penalties against North Korea for a missile launch in December and its third nuclear test in February, the Kim Jong-un regime has kept the world nervous through increasingly belligerent provocations, including threats to attack South Korea and the United States with nuclear weapons.

In response to these threats, the U.S. government has been putting emphasis on surveillance activities to figure out when and what types of kinetic provocation the North might take, and on revamping missile defense systems in Guam, Alaska, and other locations to shoot down any oncoming missiles. While these defensive measures are important, it is wiser and more urgent to take a proactive step to prevent North Korea from carrying out a military action, rather than reacting after it occurs.

To prevent another war in Korea, the United States needs to send a clear message to the North that if it attacks the United States or South Korea, the retaliation could be so profound that it will or could end the Pyongyang regime. A counterattack would target not only North Korean military and nuclear facilities, but also leadership locations.

We must also make North Korean leaders understand that, if they do follow through on one of their threat, and launch a medium range Musudan missile in our direction, regardless of whether by intent or by technical error, we have the will and capability not just to shoot it down but to conduct strikes deep inside North Korea.

The South Korean government, in addition to similar guarantees of swift and strong military action, should warn that the next military attack from the North will be avenged by a government-supported expansion of the “balloon project,” which sends propaganda leaflets into North Korea via wind-carried balloons. This program currently run by North Korean defectors is severely angering the North Korean government, proof of its effectiveness. However the activity has often been obstructed by South Korean police because of the fear of North Korean retaliation.  

The recent Key Resolve joint United States-South Korea military exercises and the display of U.S. military hardware around the Korean peninsula—including B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 fighter jets, and a nuclear launch capable submarine—have helped in restraining North Korea from carrying out the threatened attacks. But its leaders may not be convinced as to how quickly and to what extent the United States will actually use these powerful weapons in a real war—unless we convey our intentions in advance.

In the past, there were many similar joint military trainings and displays of American weaponry. Nevertheless, North Korea attacked the South Korean Navy several times, bombed down a South Korean airliner in flight, assassinated South Korean officials in Burma, and captured American navy ship Pueblo— in addition to many other truce violations— because North Korean leaders hoped, and believed, that the punishment from the war-fearing United States would not materialize. And each time their hope was fulfilled.

When a torpedo from a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan in March 2010 killing 46 seamen, then President Lee Myung Bak initially promised to penalize the North in several ways, notably the military-operated loudspeaker and FM radio propaganda broadcasts to be directed across the DMZ toward North Korean soldiers and residents. However when this program barely got underway, Pyongyang threatened to not only strike the broadcast towers but also “turn Seoul into a sea of fire” if the activity were continued. Partly dissuaded by the United States’ advice against a wider war, Lee gave up all of his retaliatory measures, except for sending a few north-bound artillery shells.

Seoul’s failure to avenge the Cheonan incident of March energized Pyongyang to come back to shell a civilian village on Yonpyong Island in November of the same year. But this time the new defense minister Kim Kwan Jin—who took over for his predecessor after the latter resigned taking the blame for the double defeats in one year—vowed that, if the North strikes again, the new “self-defense rule” would be used in the retaliation, which means that the return strike will be many times heavier than the initial attack, and that the South would strike not only the military base from which the attack came, but also the leadership commands. North Korea paid attention, and peace prevailed on the peninsula for more than two full years until the current standoff.

Kim, who is continuing as defense minister under President Park Geun Hye, has become North Korea’s most dreaded enemy. North Korean propaganda videos on state TV have shown portraits of Kim being used for military target practices and his effigy being mauled by military dogs.

Before conducting its rocket launch and nuclear test that eventually led to the present tension, Pyongyang had broadly announced its intentions to the world. Pyongyang wanted to get a feel for the level of punishment that might come from the outside, especially the United States.

Leaders in Washington and Seoul, instead of warning Pyongyang with aggressive punishment plans, merely issued a series of unimpressive statements, such as: “[The rocket launch and the nuclear test] would violate the previous U.N. resolution”; “the rocket launch will be dealt with as a provocation against the international community”; “North Korea will only be further isolated”; and “through bellicose behavior, North Korea will have nothing to gain.” In the absence of a substantive warning from our side, Pyongyang carried through the two provocative acts, to which our belated response was the U.N. resolution.

By sparking tensions in angry reaction to the U.N. ruling and the subsequent U.S. flexing of military muscle, Pyongyang has reaped many tactical victories despite the United States and South Korean leaders saying that bellicosity will not be rewarded. For example:

  • The United States, South Korea, and the United Nations have stepped back from aggressively executing the resolution as they became desperate to ease the tension when they should have continued to concentrate on punishing Pyongyang.
  • Opinion surveys conducted in South Korea in March and April have consistently indicated that reopening the dialogue with the North, instead of a strong policy, was uppermost in the people’s minds. Along this line, President Park has said that she would no longer insist on “denuclearization first” policy and would start negotiation with the North without preconditions on the nuclear issue.  
  • The opposition Democratic United Party has pressed Park to send a special envoy to North Korea to diffuse the current tension.
  • On April 13, a planned balloon launch project was dispersed by South Korean police at the urging of the residents residing near the launch site after the North threatened that it would strike the town.
  • Donald Gregg, former U.S. CIA station chief in Seoul and later ambassador to Korea, said on April 2 that the United States should not pressure Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons arguing that “it will lead to greater tension.” He also urged the United States to start negotiating the peace treaty with North Korea, which has been the North’s long-standing demand as a means of removing U.S. troops from Korea.
  • The U.S. military has postponed for a month the test of a Minuteman-3 ICBM originally scheduled for mid-April.  

Pyongyang’s gains can be best summed up by noting that, through war threats, it has succeeded in increasing fear among its adversaries, thereby forcing them to back off and become anxious for dialogue.   In fact dialogue is North Korea’s standard method of winning concessions from the opponents and making promises only to be violated later. Past U.S. policies of shifting between pressure and dialogue have made one step forward canceled by one step backward, thus allowing decades of time for North Korea to build nuclear bombs.

Perhaps the United States and South Korean leaders are fearful of Kim, thinking that he might be irrational and start a war out of anger or miscalculation. Pyongyang’s perceived recklessness and unpredictability—along with its pretension that it is capable of nuclear attack against U.S. mainland— is a deception designed to create fear in us and tie down our hands. North Korean leaders cannot be so foolish as to start a war knowing it is suicidal.  

If a proactive and sustained pressure backed by our deterrence power can suppress Pyongyang’s appetite for a military gamble, then the same approach can certainly thrust open a new door to denuclearization and even convince Kim Jong Un to embrace reform—which could lead to a peaceful reunification—to avoid a tragic end of North Korea, which nobody wants.

But time is of the essence. If we don’t act now, the situation will rapidly deteriorate until North Korea attains the well-tested capability to send a miniaturized nuclear bomb mounted on a long range missile, at which point the U.S. ability to control the regime will have disappeared.

The highest priority now for the United States-South Korea alliance is to continue persuading Pyongyang to come out of isolation and become a responsible member of the international community while at the same time maintaining constant pressure to denuclearize North Korea. Reducing tension should not be our primary goal if its main consequence is granting additional time for Pyongyang’s nuclear advancement. 

In early April North Korea suspended the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the last remaining symbol of North-South cooperation, by pulling out 53,000 North Korean laborers who were working for 123 South Korean companies. As of April 28, except for seven South Koreans held behind for sorting out a dispute over what the North claims to be unpaid wages and taxes, the Park government has withdrawn all of Southern personnel who had been waiting in vain at the Complex for Pyongyang’s last minute change of mind for a restart. While many South Koreans are anxious to begin negotiations in order to revive what they consider a “gateway to peace” and eventually to a unified Korea, others are asking, “How long more will South Korea subject itself to be manipulated by an untrustworthy regime?” 

While Park has been promoting her policy of “trust-politik,” a policy based on deterrence combined with engagement with North Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed what appears to be a harder line, saying that the United States would not enter into negotiation with North Korea until it has taken tangible steps to demonstrate that it was serious about denuclearization.  Meanwhile Ed Royce, chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee is drawing up a bill aimed at freezing North Korea’s overseas financial assets to prevent their diversion to the nuclear program, over and above the sanctions stipulated in the recent U.N. resolution.

It is hoped that movement in Washington such as these will evolve into a major adjustment of U.S. policy for building a stronger United States-South Korea alliance, which North Korea can dare not manipulate any more with brinkmanship and deception.



Peter Kang is president of the Korean Freedom Alliance.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.]

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