Why you should care
North Korea has the power to mess with its southern neighbor like never before. And with more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there, Seoul’s problem is Washington’s problem, too.
No one’s foolish enough to expect Asia’s bad boy — North Korea — to suddenly turn good. But these days, as Pyongyang makes obvious preparations for a fourth nuclear weapons test, it’s turning downright scary.
Are the neighbors, including the United States, ready for it? Experts are concluding: maybe not.
As Dr. Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security writes in a new report, the risks of conflict on the Korean peninsula “have not been this significant since the early 1990s.”
Increased activity at North Korea’s main nuclear site has raised expectations that the communist regime’s fourth nuclear test since 2006 will come in the weeks or months ahead. And it’s likely to show off even more sophisticated technology that puts it closer to a delivery capability within range of South Korea, and eventually farther away.
Pyongyang won’t simply drop a bomb on Seoul. But the improved weaponry has raised fears that the North’s paranoid leadership may think it can get more respect when it acts brazenly in provoking the South — and its American ally. If they don’t get this desired respect, what happens then?
That has people scared. How will all of the parties — North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and China — act with the changed balance of military power? Squabbling among themselves over other issues, can they stop long enough to focus on the most immediate threat to regional stability?
Several factors worry the experts:
The unstable and unpredictable leadership of the young Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father in 2011
A potential economic downturn after Kim abruptly executed his uncle and senior advisor last year — the regime’s main connection to China’s all-important business world
Fears of growing internal pressure as global communication and information seep into even this most sealed-off, suppressed society of 25 million
South Korea’s new tough line: It has promised to respond to provocations, when in the past they showed restraint. How this would play out in Pyongyang is anyone’s guess.
But most worrisome is Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear mastery, which outside powers have consistently underestimated.
Originally, North Korea relied on plutonium to produce the crude nuclear device it tested in 2006. But in recent years it has revealed an advanced program to enrich mass quantities of uranium. That suggests a far more advanced infrastructure for building a bomb than many outside the opaque regime had realized.
Pyongyang has also been developing delivery systems: testing missiles and miniaturizing a bomb to fit on them.
North Korean leaders promise new tests and more advanced weapons revelations this year. ”North Koreans have the habit of bluffing and blustering,” says Han Sung-Joo, South Korea’s former foreign minister, at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) last week, but “…they usually do what they announce that they would do,” although ”maybe not exactly in the same way that they project.”
While the West is watching, Cronin says there remain serious gaps between how United States, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo would react in the case of a North Korean assault — be it live fire, cyber or nuclear — raising the risk of miscommunication and escalation. It doesn’t help that relations between South Korea, Japan and China have all soured of late, making it harder to work together.
As Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, observed last week at the CFR, ”The prospect that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons has become sort of the No. 1 fire alarm in the world.” North Korea, on the other hand, has nuclear weapons, and yet ”we kind of proceed, I wouldn’t say with indifference — we express a lot of outrage about it — but we don’t seem to do much.”
Maybe it’s just hard to take seriously an impoverished country led by a 31-year-old with a bad ’90s hairdo who inveighs absurdly against ”the U.S. and South Korean war maniacs,” and talks of ushering in ”a great heyday in the revolution” in 2014.
But given what’s at stake, policymakers might want to give it a rethink.
The United States’ military partnership with the South and the deterrent presence of 28,000 U.S. troops mean that the U.S. would be involved in any conflict between the Koreas from the first moment. No need for White House deliberations. Authority to conduct war was supposed to be transferred to Seoul in 2015, but during President Obama’s visit to South Korea last week, the two countries announced they were reviewing that time line. Truth is, the South’s not ready.
The United States remains the big kid on the block. You’d like to think Pyongyang would know better than to tangle with American armed forces, but who knows what they really think?
As Bosworth put it: ”I’m always … bemused by people who can tell me with great certainty what North Korea is doing and why, because I don’t think we really know very much, and never have.”
“Know your enemy,” said the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago.
Worry if you don’t.