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Avoiding Nuclear War: Why Kim Jong-Un’s Strategy Makes Sense
<https://www.strategic-culture.org/authors/federico-pieraccini.html> |
11.08.2017 | WORLD <https://www.strategic-culture.org/rubrics/politics.html>

*Looking at the recent North Korean testing of two intercontinental
missiles, it may seem that Pyongyang wishes to increase tensions in the
region. A more careful analysis, however, shows how the DPRK is
implementing a strategy that will likely succeed in averting a disastrous
war on the peninsula.*
In the last four weeks, North Korea seems to have implemented the second
phase of its strategy against South Korea, China and the United States. The
North Korean nuclear program seems to have reached an important juncture,
with two tests carried out at the beginning and end of July. Both missiles
seem capable of hitting the American mainland, although doubts still remain
over Pyongyang's ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount it on an
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). However, the direction in which
North Korea’s nuclear program is headed ensures an important regional
deterrent against Japan and South Korea, and in some respects against the
United States, which is the main reason for North Korea’s development of
ICBMs. Recent history has repeatedly demonstrated the folly of trusting the
West (the fate of Gaddafi remains fresh in our minds) and suggests instead
the building up of an arsenal that poses a serious deterrence to US
It is not a mystery that from 2009 to date, North Korea's nuclear capacity
has increased in direct proportion to the level of distrust visited on
Pyongyang by the West. Since 2009, the six-party talks concluded, Kim
Jong-un has come to realize that the continuing threats, practices, and
arms sales of the United States to Japan and South Korea needed to be
thwarted in some way in the interests of defending the sovereignty of the
DPRK. Faced with infinitely lower spending capacity than the three nations
mentioned, Pyongyang chose a twofold strategy: to pursue nuclear weapons as
an explicit deterrence measure; and to strengthen its conventional forces
keeping in mind that Seoul is only a stone’s throw away from North Korean
This twofold strategy has, in little more than eight years, greatly
strengthened the ability of the DPRK to resist infringement of its
sovereignty. In contrast to the idea commonly promoted in the Western
media, Pyongyang has promised not to use nuclear weapons first, reserving
their use only in response to aggression against itself. In the same way, a
pre-emptive attack on Seoul using traditional artillery would be seen as
intolerable aggression, dragging Pyongyang into a devastating war. Kim
Jong-un’s determination in developing conventional and nuclear deterrence
has succeeded in establishing a balance of power that helps avoid a
regional war and, in so doing, contributes to the strengthening of overall
security in the region, contrary to what many believe.
The reason the United States continues to raise tensions with Pyongyang and
threaten a conflict is not out of a concern for the protection of her
Japanese or South Korean allies, as one may initially be led to think. The
United States in the region has a central objective that does not concern
Kim Jong-un or his nuclear weapons. Rather, it is driven by the perennial
necessity to increase forces in the region for the purposes of maintaining
a balance of military force (Asian Pivot) and ultimately trying to contain
the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC). One might even argue that
this strategy poses dangers not only to the entire region but, in the case
of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing, the entire planet, given
the nuclear arsenal possessed by the United States and the People's
Republic of China.
In this respect, the triangular relationship between China, North Korea and
South Korea takes on another aspect. As always, every action is accompanied
with a reaction. The statement that Beijing would prefer to get rid of the
DPRK leadership is without foundation. Central in the minds of Chinese
policy makers is the threat of a US containment that could undermine the
country's economic growth. This strategic planning is well known in
Pyongyang, and explains in part why the DPRK leadership still proceeds with
actions that are not viewed well by Beijing. From the North Korean point of
view, Beijing derives an advantage from sharing a border with the DPRK,
which offers a friendly leadership not hostile to Beijing. Pyongyang is
aware of the economic, political, and military burden of this situation,
but tolerates it, receiving the necessary resources from Beijing to survive
and develop the country.
This complex relationship leads the DPRK to carry out missile tests in the
hope of gaining many benefits. First of all, it hopes to gain a regional,
and possibly a global, deterrence against any surprise attacks. Secondly,
it forces South Korea to have a symmetrical response to DPRK missile tests,
and this strategy, coming from North Korea diplomacy, is far from
improvised or incongruous. In recent years, South Korea’s response has come
in the form of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system,
designed to intercept missiles. As repeatedly explained, it is useless
against North Korean rockets, but poses a serious threat to the Chinese
nuclear arsenal, as its powerful radars are able to scout much of China's
territory, also being ideally positioned to intercept (at least in theory)
a responsive nuclear strike from China. In a nutshell, THAAD is a deadly
threat <https://www.rt.com/news/355016-defensive-thaad-seoul-china/> to
China's strategic nuclear parity.
>From the point of view of the four nations involved in the region, each has
different aims. For the United States, there are many advantages in
deploying the THAAD: in increases pressure on China, as well as concludes
an arms sale that is always welcomed by the military-industrial complex; it
also gives the impression of addressing the DPRK nuclear problem
adequately. South Korea, however, finds itself in a special situation, with
the former president now under arrest
corruption. The new president, Moon Jae-in, would prefer dialogue rather
than the deployment of new THAAD batteries. In any case, after the latest
ICBM test, Moon required an additional THAAD system
<https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-thaad-idUSKBN1AD2ES> in
the Republic of Korea, in addition to the launchers already there. With no
particular options available to conduct a diplomatic negotiation, Seoul is
following Washington in a spiral of escalation that certainly does not
benefit the peninsula's economic growth. Ultimately, the PRC sees an
increase in the number of THAAD carriers close to the country, and the DPRK
is growing in its determination to pursue a nuclear deterrent. Indeed, the
strategy of the Pyongyang is working: on the one hand, they are developing
a nuclear weapon to deter external enemies; on the other, they are
obligating the PRC to adopt a particularly hostile attitude towards South
Korea’s deployment of THAAD. In this sense, the numerous economic actions
Beijing towards Seoul can be explained as a response to the deployment of
the THAAD batteries. China is the main economic partner of South Korea, and
this trade and tourism limitation is quite damaging to South Korea’s
This tactic has been used by North Korea for the last several years, and
the results, in addition to the recent economic crunch between the PRC and
South Korea have indirectly
<http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-election-idUSKBN18425S> led
to the end of the reign of the corrupt leader Park Geun-hye, an
ever-present puppet in American hands. The pressure that the DPRK applies
to bilateral relations between China and South Korea increases with each
launch of an ICBM carrier, which is the logic behind these missile tests.
Pyongyang feels justified in urging its main ally, China, to step up
actions against Seoul to force it to compromise in a diplomatic negotiation
with Pyongyang without the overbearing presence of its American ally
pushing for war.
The main problem in the relations between South Korea, China and North
Korea is represented by American influence and the need to prevent a
rapprochement between these parties. As already stated, the United States
needs the DPRK to justify its presence in the region, aiming in reality at
Chinese containment. Pyongyang has been isolated and sanctioned for almost
50 years, yet serves to secure China’s southern border in the form of a
protected friend rather than an enemy. This situation, more than any United
Nations sanction to which the PRC adheres, guarantees a lasting
relationship between the countries. Beijing is well aware of the weight of
isolationism and economic burden on North Korea, which is why Beijing is
symmetrically increasing pressure on South Korea to negotiate.
In this situation, the United States tries to remain relevant in the
regional dispute, while not having the capacity to influence the Chinese
decisions that clearly rely on other tactics, specifically putting pressure
on South Korea. In military terms, as explained above, Washington can not
start any military confrontation against the DPRK. The consequences, in
addition to millions of deaths, would lead Seoul to break relations with
Washington and seek an immediate armistice, cutting off the United States
from negotiations and likely expelling US troops from its territory.
Ultimately, there is no South Korean ability to influence the political
process in the North while they continue to be flanked by the United States
in terms of warfare (very aggressive joint exercises). The influence
Washington can exert on Pyongyang is zero, having fired all cartridges with
over half a century of sanctions.
The bottom line is that the United States cannot afford to attack the DPRK.
Pyongyang will continue to develop its own nuclear arsenal, with Beijing's
covert blessing in spite of its officially continuing to condemn these
developments. At the same time, South Korea is likely to persevere with a
hostile attitude, especially in regard to the deployment of new THAAD
batteries. Sooner or later, Seoul will come to a breaking point as a result
of further restrictions on trade between China and South Korea. As long as
Seoul is able to absorb
sanctions, little will change.
What will lead to a major change in the region will be the economic effect
of these restrictions that will eventually oblige Seoul to consider its
role in the region and its future. Seoul's leadership is aware of three
situations that will hardly change, namely: Pyongyang will never attack
first; Beijing will continue to support North Korea rather than accept the
United States on its border; and Washington is not able to bring solutions
but only greater chaos and a worsening global economic situation to the
region. In the light of this scenario, time is all on the side of Beijing
and Pyongyang. Eventually the economic situation for Seoul will become
unbearable, bringing it to the negotiating table with a weakened and
certainly precarious position. Beijing and Pyongyang have a long-term
common goal, which is to break the bond of submission between South Korea
and the United States, freeing Seoul from Washington's neo-conservative
programs to contain China (on a Russia containment model).
Indirectly coordinated work between Beijing and Pyongyang is hardly
understandable to Western analysts, but examining every aspect, especially
with regard to cause-and-effect relationships, these decisions are not so
incomprehensible and even more rational in a broader viewing of the region
and its balance of power. On the one hand, Seoul sees the DPRK offering
peace, stability and prosperity based on a framework agreement between
Seoul, Pyongyang and Beijing. This would also particularly benefit South
Korean trade with China, eventually returning to normal relationships
between countries, with important economic benefits.
The alternative is an alliance with Washington that would completely
eliminate the economic benefits of a healthy relationship with Beijing.
This could even potentially lead to a war involving millions of deaths,
fought on South Korean soil and not in the United States. The United States
does not offer any solutions to South Korea, either in the short or long
term. The only thing Washington is offering is a fixed presence in the
country, together with a stubborn anti-Chinese policy that would have
serious economic consequences for Seoul. As paradoxical as it may seem, Kim
Jong-un's rockets are much less of a threat than is Seoul’s partnership
with Washington in the region, and in fact seem to offer Seoul the ultimate
solution to the crisis in the peninsula.

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