The Other Side of the North Korea Threat

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Washington, DC – Limiting or eliminating the potential North Korea nuclear threat to the United States is a key aspect of US strategy. It is important to remember, however, that it is only part of America’s vital strategic interests in Asia. The US must also compete with China and seek to move it away from a posture of competition to one of cooperation. It must deal with every aspect of the threats posed by North Korea, it must restore the readiness and capability of its own forces in Asia, and it must strengthen and revitalize its strategic partnerships in Asia.

The US cannot implement its strategy by focusing on only one aspect of the North Korean threat, particularly at the cost of increasing the threat to South Korea and Japan. It must be seen as giving equal priority to the security of its strategic partners and do its best to secure two states whose export and imports are critical to US trade and other Asian states.

America’s strategic partners throughout the world will judge the US and its new emphasis on “America first” by how it treats South Korea. Japan’s pivotal position in US strategy in Asia and the Pacific will be at risk the moment the US is perceived as sacrificing its position in Northeast Asia for its own domestic security.

US Strategy Must Consider China in All its Dealings with North Korea

Any US actions which undercut the credibility and capability of US forces to aid South Korea in defending against North Korea will fundamentally undercut the new national strategy issued by the Trump Administration. It not only will give North Korea added leverage over South Korea, it will do the same for China, raises China’s status relative to the US throughout Asia, and raise questions about the US commitment to Japan.

There are good reasons why the President’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) issued in December 2017 sees Russia and China as the two most serious threats the US now faces.  The NSS notes that, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” It emphasizes this need to compete with China throughout various parts of the document, and its analysis of Chia as a regional threat states that,

China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations., Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific. States throughout the region are calling for sustained US leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.

The Secretary of Defense’s new National Defense Strategy (NDS) reinforces these points. It describes China’s role as one of the key threats to the US as follows, “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors. As well, North Korea’s outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric continue despite United Nation’s censure and sanctions.”

The NDS warns that, “China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. This is why the strategy document states that, “the most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”

The reasons for these assessments are laid in detail in the Department of Defense’s annual report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of Chinaand in reports like the Burke Chair study on China’s Emerging Power: Cooperation, Competition, or Conflict? They make it clear that any U.S. action which weakens the credibility, capability, and willingness of the US to defend South Korea will enhance Asian perceptions of China’s power relative to that of the US and its allies. This will be particularly true in the case of South Korea and Japan – two of America’s leading trading partners that made up 9.3% and 17.0% of the total volume of US trade at the start of 2018. It is also US bases in Japan that become the cornerstone of the US strategic position in the Pacific.

An agreement that truly shifts North Korea away from an arms race and military confrontation, and does so without weakening US capability or South Korean defense is one thing. An agreement that at best limits the North Korean threat to the US at the expense of U.S. capability to defend its South Korean partner not only gives North Korea more leverage over South Korea, it makes the US appear weak and self-centered in ways that give China strategic leverage over the United States.

The US also has good recent reason for caution. Kim Jong Un has had one recent highly political meeting with President Trump and three far less transparent meetings with the leader of China, Xi Jinping. North Korea does have much to gain over time from U.S. trade and aid. It now, however, is almost totally dependent on China for trade, investment, and aid – as well as its ultimate military guarantees. China, not the US, has strategic leverage over North Korea, and China is the emerging superpower in Asia.

The Impact of North Korea on US Strategy

The US National Defense Strategy makes it equally clear that the threat from North Korea goes far beyond the nuclear dimension. The NSS ranks North Korea and Iran together as a third set of threats that are of equal importance to China and Russia. It states that,

In Northeast Asia, the North Korean regime is rapidly accelerating its cyber, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs. North Korea’s pursuit of these weapons poses a global threat that requires a global response. Continued provocations by North Korea will prompt neighboring countries and the United States to further strengthen security bonds and take additional measures to protect themselves. And a nuclear- armed North Korea could lead to the proliferation of the world’s most destructive weapons across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. US allies are critical to responding to mutual threats, such as North Korea, and preserving our mutual interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Our alliance and friendship with South Korea, forged by the trials of history, is stronger than ever. We welcome, and support the strong leadership role of our critical ally, Japan.

It pledges that,

In Northeast Asia, the North Korean regime is rapidly accelerating its cyber, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs. North Korea’s pursuit of these weapons poses a global threat that requires a global response. Continued provocations by North Korea will prompt neighboring countries and the United States to further strengthen security bonds and take additional measures to protect themselves. And a nuclear-armed North Korea could lead to the proliferation of the world’s most destructive weapons across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. US allies are critical to responding to mutual threats, such as North Korea, and preserving our mutual interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Our alliance and friendship with South Korea, forged by the trials of history, is stronger than ever. We welcome and support the strong leadership role of our critical ally, Japan

… We will maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary. We will strengthen our long-standing military relationships and encourage the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners. For example, we will cooperate on missile defense with Japan and South Korea to move toward an area defense capability. We remain ready to respond with overwhelming force to North Korean aggression and will improve options to compel denuclearization of the peninsula.

The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) also sees the full range of North Korean threats as critical, and highlights the need for US strategic partnerships to include every element of the threat to our partners, as well as ourselves,

North Korea’s outlaw actions and reckless rhetoric continue despite United Nation’s censure and sanctions… Rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran are destabilizing regions through their pursuit of nuclear weapons or sponsorship of terrorism. North Korea seeks to guarantee regime survival and increased leverage by seeking a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons and a growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

…We will strengthen and evolve our alliances and partnerships into an extended network capable of deterring or decisively acting to meet the shared challenges of our time… We will provide allies and partners with a clear and consistent message to encourage alliance and coalition commitment, greater defense cooperation, and military investment.

…Each ally and partner is unique. Combined forces able to act together coherently and effectively to achieve military objectives requires interoperability. Interoperability is a priority for operational concepts, modular force elements, communications, information sharing, and equipment. In consultation with Congress and the Department of State, the Department of Defense will prioritize requests for US military equipment sales, accelerating foreign partner modernization and ability to integrate with US forces…We will train to high-end combat missions in our alliance, bilateral, and multinational exercises. Enduring coalitions and long-term security partnerships, underpinned by our bedrock alliances and reinforced by our allies’ own webs of security relationships, remain a priority.

President Trump reinforced these points on June 22nd, some ten days after his meeting with Kim Jong Un, when he issued a statement that continued the US economic restriction on North Korea, citing an “unusual and extraordinary threat,” and that,

The existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula; the actions and policies of the Government of North Korea that destabilize the Korean Peninsula and imperil United States Armed Forces, allies, and trading partners in the region, including its pursuit of nuclear and missile programs; and other provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea continue to constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.

Once again, the scale of the different threats North Korea poses to South Korea, Japan, and the United States is described in detail in an annual Department of Defense report – this time entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and a series of CSIS reports on the military balance in the Koreas – the latest of which is The Korean Civil-Military Balance, May 24, 2018.

“Don’t Trust and Do Verify:” Setting a Higher Standard for A Nuclear Agreement with North Korea than with Iran

The US should not reject any opportunity to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed missile programs. The politics of the President’s June 13th meeting with Kim Jong Un lent themselves to the political spin in one of the President’s tweets immediately after the meeting: “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office” … “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea…Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea,” he added. “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!”

The fact remains. however, that nothing about the history of North Korea, or of Kim Jong Il merits any more tolerance or latitude in any agreement with North Korea than the Trump Administration insisted on in canceling its participation in the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. President Reagan famously quoted a Russian proverb – “Trust but verify” – in his meeting with Russia’s Secretary General Gorbachev to sign the INF Treaty on December 8, 1987. He did so before stressing that the Treaty was based on ” extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the treaty,” and the proverb became the motto of the On Site Inspection Agency set up to secure full compliance in meeting the terms of the treaty.

As of June 22nd, the President had made a number of other statements that either imply far more progress than the evidence yet justifies or that can only be sustained with fully verifiable agreements:

  • “They’ve stopped the sending of missiles, including ballistic missiles.”
  • “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”
  • “They’re destroying their engine site. They’re blowing it up.”
  • “They’ve already blown up one of their big test sites. In fact, it was actually four of their big test sites.”
  • “It will be a total denuclearization, which is already starting.”
  • “They’ve already sent back, or are in the process of sending back, the remains of our great heroes who died in North Korea during the war.”
  • “Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!”

The US should exploit every opportunity to make real progress towards security and peace, and US political rhetoric can continue to be friendly or optimistic – but only if events justify such an approach to diplomacy. From this point forward, the substance on any nuclear agreement must become real. It must be based on the principle “don’t trust and constantly verify,” and have clear measures to take if North Korea does not fully comply, and act immediately if North Korea violates both the letter and spirit of the agreement.

The logic behind the Trump Administrations rejection of US participation in the JCPOA must take full account of the fact it is now dealing with a far more directly aggressive and threatening regime. It is not enough to get pro forma or even dismantlement of the existing North Korea nuclear weapons effort, and the agreement cannot simply be a de facto bilateral one between the US and North Korea.

The US must insist that North Korea not only formally sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but agree to full comply with all of the advanced inspection, monitoring, and verification provisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If the agreement only limits further North Korean nuclear efforts or calls for phased dismantlement, the U.S. must apply strict limits to any reduction in sanctions or other economic penalties, and to any sustained cut in US forward military deployments and exercise activity.

The US must also find a real-world solution to limit North Korea missile development, tests, and deployment – not the fantasy solution that was included in the UN resolutions on Iran which banned any missile that could carry a nuclear warhead – terms which banned every missile in the world that could carry a meaningful conventional warhead. There must be a credible definition of what North Korean missile development and deployments are banned and some kind of separate verification regime.

Any bilateral agreement that offers US aid and improved relations must have clear snap back provisions that make it clear the US will come immediately to the aid of South Korea – both in terms of extended nuclear deterrence and building up a US missile defense and conventional presence and exercise regime.

The Conventional Dimension of a Korean Nuclear Agreement

Equally important, the U.S. cannot ignore any of the other aspects of the North Korean threat. This is not simply a matter of preserving American credibility with South Korea, Japan, and all our other Strategic Partners.

A nuclear and missile agreement with North Korea differs critically from a nuclear agreement with Iran in one critical respect. Iran can pose an asymmetric missile, naval, and IRGC/Al Quds Force threat to its neighbors but it has third rate conventional forces – most of whose weapons are obsolete or obsolescent and/or worn by eight years of fighting in the Iran-Iraq War and cannot hope to pose a major immediate threat to US or Arab Gulf forces. It is extremely vulnerable to precision air strikes, major water barriers exist between Iran and the southern Gulf states, and Iran does not train effectively for either offensive amphibious operations or to project its land forces in offensive operations significantly beyond its borders.

In contrast, the CSIS report on the military balance in the Koreas – The Korean Civil-Military Balance – shows that North Korea’s military posture is structured so that it can initiate any type of conflict from a token threat to a major conflict with little or no strategic warning. Moreover, North Korea has a long history of reversing its movements towards peace, better relations, and or denuclearization.

There are many chronologies of such North Korean actions, but one of the most readily available is present on Wikipedia and is entitled List of border incidents involving North and South Korea. It covers the period from the 1950s to the present, and involves more than 80 incidents, many of which occurred near to De-Militarized Zone or DMZ that divides North Korea from South Korea.

The DMZ is some 160 miles long, and most estimates agree that North Korea – which has 1.2 million active military that include some 200,000 special forces – deploys some 70 percent of ground forces and 50 percent of air and naval forces within sixty miles of the DMZ. As the report on the The Korean Civil-Military Balance shows, North Korea also has dug tunnels across the DMZ, and set up a massive number of sheltered artillery and rocket positions near the DMZ, a substantial number of which can fire into South Korea’s capitol of Seoul – a city which is the core of South Korea’s modern economy and holds much of its total population.

Moreover, South Korea’s development into a modern economy has turned it into a state with one of the largest urbanized populations in the world and whose people are concentrated in a few major cities with little dispersal capability and is critically dependent on the constant secure flow of exports and imports for its economic existence.

A combination of US and South Korean forces provides a far more modern and advanced strike and defense capability than North Korea can muster, but few states in the world are more vulnerable to attacks across their border, and to threats and intimidation if they do not have the support of an ally like the United States.

While South Korea could spend more on defense –and some of its leaders have talked about figures like 3% of its GDP – it already spends over 2.6% of its GDP – far higher than the NATO goal of 2% and far more than most NATO powers actually spend. Moreover, no amount of additional South Korean spending could possibly substitute for U.S. land/naval/air power projection capabilities and extended nuclear deterrence. More “burden-sharing” has only the most marginal value compared to an effective strategic partnership with the US.

Rushing the Fences: Canceling US Exercises and Cutting the US Presence in Korea

The vulnerabilities are also good reasons to be careful about cutting the U.S. presence in South Korea and canceling exercises before there is a real nuclear agreement, and a matching detente and serious reduction in military tensions between North and South Korea.

The US presence in South Korea is already very limited. The IISS Military Balance from 2018 shows that only the following US forces are now deployed:

  • US Pacific Command: 28,500 uniformed personnel
  • US Army 19,200: uniformed personnel 
    • 1 HQ (8th Army) at Seoul; 1 division HQ (2nd Inf) located at Tongduchon; 1 armored brigade; 1 (combat aviation) helicopter brigade; 1 MRL brigade; 1 AD brigade; 1 SAM battery with THAAD; M1 Abrams; M2/M3 Bradley; M109; M270 MLRS; AH-64 Apache; OH-58D Kiowa Warrior; CH-47 Chinook; UH-60, Black Hawk; MIM-104 Patriot/FIM-92A Avenger; 1 (APS) armored brigade equipment set
  • US Navy: 250 uniformed personnel
  • USAF: 8,800 uniformed personnel
    • 1 (AF) HQ (7th Air Force) at Osan AB; 1 fighter wing at Osan AB with (1 fighter squadron with 20 F-16C/D Fighting Falcon;1 attack squadron with 24 A-10C Thunderbolt II); 1 fighter wing at Kunsan AB with (2 fighter squadrons with 20 F-16C/D Fighting Falcon); 1 ISR squadron at Osan AB with U-2S
  • USMC 250: uniformed personnel

This is little more than a limited quick reaction and reception force with a total land strength well under one division, no major naval forces (they are deployed in Japan), some four full squadron equivalents, and no Marine combat presence. It already is a level which raises questions about how well it can support a rapid deployment of major US power projections forces and ensure something approaching real-world immediate interoperability between South Korean forces reacting under the pressure of an urgent real-world threat and deployments from the US and the rest of Asia.  It appears to be more of a deterrent than an active defense.

The small size of existing U.S. forces is also a key reason why it may have been premature to cancel US exercises like Ulchi Freedom Guardian with South Korean forces and other exercises with South Korean Marine forces. President Trump justified this in a Tweet saying that, “Holding back the ‘war games’ during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation. Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!”

This sets a dangerous precedent both in terms of rhetoric and action. Freedom Guardian already was already more a command post than a field exercise. In 2017 involved 17,500 American troops and more than 50,000 South Korean troops, including 3,000 troops from the US, but it was conducted more through computerized simulations than field exercises.

It also could mean the cancellation of the other two major exercises the US normally holds. These include Foal Eagle – field maneuvers with about 11,500 US troops and 290,000 South Koreans typically participating – and Key Resolve – a command-and-control exercise that relies on computer simulation, involving about 12,000 US troops and 10,000 South Koreans. Foal Eagle also already had been pushed back to avoid tension during the winter Olympics.

The marginal cost of such exercises seems to have been exaggerated in the reporting to the President, as has their defensive character. They have always been tests of defense capability and never been designed to invade North Korea.  Moreover, military history provides lesson after lesson about the need for real world exercises that stress the forces involved and force them to test every aspect of reinforcement and operations in real world terms.

No amount of simulation and command post exercises can substitute for such experience, and US Army efforts to rapidly deploy reinforcements with no prior exercise experience in the form of Task Force Smith early in the Korean War are a text book warning of the risks involved. Military history also demonstrates all too clearly just how high the added cost of not be properly trained and prepared can be if a crisis requires actual military action.

Arms Control as an Extension of War by Other Means?

Clausewitz is famous for declaring that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. In practice, the opposite is often just as true. Peace negotiations and arms control become substitutes for war fighting, but are just as adversarial. The US and the Trump Administration need to realize this, particularly in dealing with a leader and regime with a past as extreme as Kim Jong Il and North Korea and with such a history of literally using nuclear arms control as an extension of war by other means.

The US should not leave any opportunity to bring more peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula, but such efforts have many major risks, and the Trump Administration must not ignore its own strategy and the all too serious risks involved. Above all, the US must be careful to show the world – strategic partners, neutrals and enemies alike – that America first means a revitalization of American leadership, not isolationism or sacrifice allies for its own interests.

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman
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Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

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