The United States has several thousand operational nuclear missiles. It has a large fleet of strategic bombers, an enormous navy, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and marines. The US could bomb, blockade, and invade North Korea if it chose to incur the cost.
Yet North Korea is threatening to fire missiles at Guam, a US island territory in the Western Pacific where a substantial portion of the American strategic forces are now stationed. The North Koreans are also insisting that they intend to complete intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the US.
This seems to be irrational behavior.
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But if North Korea was an irrational regime, how has this same regime, founded by the current leader’s grandfather, survived since 1948? It survived a devastating war, managed to stay nimble during the Sino-Soviet confrontation, and endured the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China, starvation in the 1990s, and confrontation with the United States.
So the question is, what are seeing now?
South Korea May Oppose an American Attack
At root, the North Koreans don’t believe that the United States will attack them. Yet they have spent years creating a nonnuclear but devastating response to an American attack. It’s this artillery along the Seoul border that can cause a massive number of South Korean casualties.
The South Koreans actually fear the North’s artillery more than they fear a nuclear strike. North Korea faces the risk that the fallout of a nuclear strike might reach their soil and devastate them as well. But the North’s artillery could wreak havoc.
The artillery emplacements are both well-defended by anti-air missiles and widely spread, so that it would take many airstrikes or a bloody invasion from the South to destroy them—a process that would take days at least.
Therefore, the North believes that the South will oppose an American attack (albeit quietly), which might cause military problems for the US—and certainly political ones.
North Korea Is Threatening to Nuke Guam If the US Attacks
Moreover, the US is not fully certain that North Korea doesn’t have nuclear weapons already. The North Korean threat to hit Guam with missiles acts as a deterrent.
Authorities in Guam have even briefed the public on how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. The point isn’t that North Korea intends a first strike—that would open the door to North Korea’s destruction.
But the US must be open to the possibility that in a war North Korea could knock out Guam and then use the delay to complete (if they don’t have it already) a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the American mainland.
The Risk of China's Confrontation
Finally, an extended war could draw in China.
The Chinese have been playing their own game. North Korea doesn’t trust China for reasons going back to the Korean War. The Chinese allowed the North Korean military to be ravaged and only intervened when they felt threatened.
The North Koreans view China as an unreliable but powerful neighbor, not a trustworthy partner. On the other hand, they know that the United States has no appetite for a war with China on the Asian mainland.
The US can’t rule out the possibility that China would intervene. And that further raises the risks of an American attack.
Betting on History
These are the reasons that the North Koreans have a high degree of confidence that the US won’t go to war.
They also believe that, once they have nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US, they will not only be able to deter any action against them, but they will also be on their way to becoming a regional power.
It isn’t only the US—China, Japan or Russia would be no more likely to risk inviting a nuclear response from North Korea. Equipped with nukes, North Korea, always the weaker of the two Koreas because of the South’s economy, may be able to change the peninsular balance of power.
The North Korean regime intends not only to survive but also to have the ability to reshape relationships with its neighbors.
It thinks it has the Americans blocked. In fact, it’s so confident that it is willing to place an existential bet on it. The North Koreans have been living on the edge of disaster for so long. They are emboldened by history.
They’re strange from the American point of view, but North Korea’s elites are far from irrational. And this is a disadvantage that they have. If others think they are irrational, then they are unpredictable.
But if they are rational, then their actions can be predicted. And if their actions are to a degree predictable, then it exposes the weakness of their plan.
The North Koreans think they have the Americans backed into a corner. The US is now grappling with the question of whether a nuclear North Korea is more or less dangerous than an attack on the North. The North Koreans are betting that, based on past performance, the US will choose not to attack.
The decision now is up to the Americans, and no decision is itself a decision. In many ways, this is less about what North Korea is doing (that part is fairly obvious) and is instead about what the Americans are thinking.
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