On Jan. 29, I wrote a piece that described North Korea’s strategy as a combination of ferocious, weak and crazy. In the weeks since then, three events have exemplified each facet of that strategy. Pyongyang showed its ferocity Feb. 12, when it detonated a nuclear device underground. The country’s only significant ally, China, voted against Pyongyang in the U.N. Security Council on March 7, demonstrating North Korea’s weakness. Finally, North Korea announced it would suspend the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, implying that that war would resume and that U.S. cities would be turned into “seas of fire.” To me, that fulfills the crazy element.
My argument was that the three tenets — ferocity, weakness and insanity — form a coherent strategy. North Korea’s primary goal is regime preservation. Demonstrating ferocity — appearing to be close to being nuclear capable — makes other countries cautious. Weakness, such as being completely isolated from the world generally and from China particularly, prevents other countries from taking drastic action if they believe North Korea will soon fall. The pretense of insanity — threatening to attack the United States, for example — makes North Korea appear completely unpredictable, forcing everyone to be cautious. The three work together to limit the actions of other nations.
So far, North Korea is acting well within the parameters of this strategy. It has detonated nuclear devices before. It has appeared to disgust China before, and it has threatened to suspend the cease-fire. Even more severe past actions, such as sinking a South Korean ship in 2010, were not altogether inconsistent with its strategy. As provocative as that incident was, it did not change the strategic balance in any meaningful way.
Normally North Korea has a reason for instigating such a crisis. One reason for the current provocation is that it has a new leader, Kim Jong Un. The son of former leader Kim Jong Il and the grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un is only 30 years old, and many outside North Korea doubt his ability to lead (many inside North Korea may doubt his ability, too). One way to announce his presence with authority is to orchestrate an international crisis that draws the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea into negotiations with North Korea — especially negotiations that Pyongyang can walk away from.
The North Korean regime understands the limits of its strategy and has been very sure-footed in exercising it. Moreover, despite the fact that a 30-year-old formally rules the country, the regime is a complex collection of institutions and individuals — the ruling party and the military — that presumably has the ability to shape and control the leader’s behavior.
It follows that little will change. U.S. analysts of North Korea will emphasize the potential ferocity and the need for extreme vigilance. The Chinese will understand that the North Koreans are weak and will signal, as their foreign minister did March 9, that in spite of their vote at the United Nations, they remain committed to North Korea’s survival. And most people will disregard Pyongyang’s threat to resume the Korean War.
Indeed, resuming the Korean War probably is not something that anyone really wants. But because there are some analysts who think that such a resumption is plausible, I think it is worth considering the possibility that Pyongyang does want to restart the war. It is always worth examining an analysis based on the assumption that a given framework will not hold. For the record, I think the framework will hold, but I am simply examining the following hypothetical: This time, North Korea is serious.
To assess Pyongyang’s sincerity, let’s begin with two untested assumptions. First, assume North Korea has determined that it is unable to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon within a meaningful time frame. Either there are problems with constructing the device or its missiles are unreliable. Alternatively, assume it has decided that any further development of weapons will likely lead to attacks by the United States against its nuclear facilities. In other words, assume it expects to lose its nuclear capability because it cannot move forward or because moving forward will invite attacks against nuclear facilities.
The second assumption, more likely accurate, is that North Korea has realized that the strategy it has followed since the 1990s is no longer working. The strategy has lost its effectiveness, and North Korean ferocity, weakness and insanity no longer impress anyone. Rather than generating financial and other concessions, the strategy has simply marginalized North Korea, so that apart from sanctions, there will be no talks, no frightened neighbors, no U.S. threats. Kim Jong Un would not announce himself with authority, but with a whimper.
An Unlikely Scenario
Taken together, these assumptions constitute a threat to regime survival. Unless its neighbors bought into the three premises of its strategy, North Korea could be susceptible to covert or overt foreign involvement, which would put the regime on the defensive and reveal its weakness. For the regime, this would be a direct threat, one that would require pre-emptive action.
It would be a worst-case scenario for Pyongyang. We consider it highly unlikely. But assume North Korea deems it more likely than we do, or assume that, despite the scenario’s improbability, the consequences would be so devastating that the risk could not be borne.
It is a scenario that could take form if the North Korean nuclear threat were no longer effective in establishing the country’s ferocity. It would also take form if North Korea’s occasional and incomprehensible attacks were no longer unpredictable and thus were no longer effective in establishing the country’s insanity. In this scenario, Pyongyang would have to re-establish credibility and unpredictability by taking concrete steps.
These concrete steps would represent a dramatic departure from the framework under which North Korea has long operated. They would obviously involve demands for a cease-fire from all players. There would have to be a cease-fire before major force could be brought to bear on North Korea. Last, they would have to involve the assumption that the United States would at least take the opportunity to bomb North Korean nuclear facilities — which is why the assumptions on its nuclear capability are critical for this to work. Airstrikes against other targets in North Korea would be likely. Therefore, the key would be an action so severe that everyone would accept a rapid cease-fire and would limit counteraction against North Korea to targets that the North Koreans were prepared to sacrifice.
The obvious move by North Korea would be the one that has been historically regarded as the likeliest scenario: massive artillery fire on Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The assumption has always been that over a longer period of time, U.S. air power would devastate North Korean artillery. But Seoul would meanwhile be damaged severely, something South Korea would not tolerate. Therefore, North Korea would bet that South Korea would demand a cease-fire, thereby bringing the United States along in its demand, before U.S. airstrikes could inflict overwhelming damage on North Korea and silence its guns. This would take a few days.
Under this scenario, North