Escalation Control on the Korean Peninsula

I’ve written two essays in the last two weeks warning about both the possibility of North Korean nuclear atmospheric testing and how there is little the US and its Northeast Asian allies could do to deter such a test. Each essay was rejected by different major international relations magazines, both saying they were flooded with North Korean pieces. Because I think the issue is important, I’m releasing the final version on my blog for free.

The first version was more focused on the risks of atmospheric testing and why there is a logical reason Pyongyang might try one. It began with a paragraph imagining what it would be like to learn through social media that a full-range ICBM + nuclear test had taken place:

The North Korea watchers first noticed leaks to journalists indicating that North Korea had launched another ballistic missile. Like the recent Hwasong-14 test, the reports were blowing up in the small open source intelligence (OSINT) community on Twitter while the missile was still in flight. There was a brief panic that they might be ‘bracketing’ Guam when unofficial reports suggested the missile was tracked as it flew near, and then past, Okinawa. It took Pacific Command (PACCOM) almost two hours to confirm the rumors that were exploding all over social media: the missile had a live nuclear warhead. There was 200-300 kiloton air burst explosion about three hundred miles east of the largest island in the Philippines. OSINT analysts looked at the reported range and apogee (how high it flew) and concluded that the missile would have flown more than 10,000 km – enough to reach most American cities – had it flown at a lower angle.

The final version of the essay reads:

North Korea has repeatedly proven itself one of the most difficult geopolitical and diplomatic challenges of the post-Cold War-era. Lacking other options, the US government continues pushing for tighter sanctions after tests without any clear sense of what the sanctions are meant to accomplish or review of their effectiveness in stopping missile and nuclear tests. As the US pushes for an oil embargo, we should head the CIA’s 1991 warning about their destabilizing effects should sanctions “threatened their basic survival.”

Each provocation almost seems designed to prove that nobody can tell Pyongyang what to do. Despite a parade of neo-con pundits saying that the United States cannot accept North Korean capabilities that put the continental United States at risk, the conventional and growing nuclear deterrence north of the 38th parallel makes these options almost unthinkable. North Korea hawks never mention seventy thousand US soldiers stationed in South Korea, Japan, and Guam that are already within range of North Korean missiles.

There is an emerging consensus that negotiations should resume and that preconditions – or even expectations – of denuclearization will go nowhere. Instead, the new focus instead emphasizes a nuclear and missile testing freeze. Michael McFaul, an Obama foreign policy advisor and Ambassador to Russia, has been one of the more prominent voices arguing the case. While McFaul makes a persuasive case that a “complex, nuanced, multi-faceted strategy… combining both carrots and sticks,” his inventory of the coercive diplomacy tools still available is less convincing.

Both hawks and freeze advocates have an unfortunate tendency to evade discussing the costs associated with their proposals. Just as the hawks ignore the threats facing US forces in Korea and Japan, the freezers would rather not talk about what concessions North Korea would demand in exchange for halting their nuclear and missile testing: an end to joint military exercises between the US, South Korea, and Japan. While a testing freeze is more realistic than denuclearization, over-emphasis on such a distant goal risks ignoring intermediate goals that might significantly reduce tensions.

A more limited strategy for managing North Korea’s transition into nuclear power status should be embraced unless and until a viable strategy that freezes the North Korean development program in place is found. It would require first and foremost robbing Pyongyang of the escalation control it now enjoys that keep the US and its allies on a permanently reactive footing. This, in turn, demands clearer thinking (and messaging) about which North Korean actions and pathways are merely provocative and that which is truly unacceptable must be pro-actively prevented.

A management strategy will only work if it is informed by realism, empathy, and far more imagination than we see now. Every other nuclear power has needed to develop and test long-range delivery platforms, but no other nuclear weapons state has been as small and virtually land-locked as North Korea. Realism suggests North Korea will continue to test their missiles and empathy would acknowledge earlier efforts that lofted missiles nearly straight up instead of overflying Japan. Imagination is needed to think through a range of vastly different possible scenarios for the future of their testing program.

There is a crippling lack of creativity in thinking through what form future North Korean testing might take. Not only are ‘red lines’ for war hazy and shifting, but there has also been remarkably little distinction between different kinds of tests and gradations of what is unacceptable. Recent official responses have done little to distinguish a missile test that lands in Japanese territorial waters far from shore and recent tests that have overflown Japanese cities. To my knowledge, only the Chinese have signaled that underground testing is more acceptable than atmospheric testing. No one has yet suggested pushing for an acceptable testing corridor and standard warnings for airmen and sailors.

There is a significant risk that highly escalatory actions like atmospheric nuclear testing cannot be deterred because there is little left in the diplomatic toolbox to punish North Korea. Too many tools have already been expended by over-reacting to far more innocuous testing with sanctions that now embargo their shellfish and Vinylon.  Pyongyang controls the escalation because the US and its regional allies have only demonstrated an ability to react to what they do.

The US has responded exactly as Pyongyang expected. If they perceive that Washington is running out of policy ‘sticks’ to punish Pyongyang with, North Korea might well be tempted to escalate to de-escalate. It is not difficult to imagine the US and UN Security Council being blackmailed into removing earlier sanctions if that is the only way to stop North Korea from continuing to overfly Japan with nuclear-tipped missiles to make mushroom clouds in the ocean.


A comprehensive, proactive multilateral strategy could break this cycle and deprive North Korea of their control of escalation. Such a strategy does not require negotiations or agreements with North Korea because fair terms can be dictated to them the other five parties in the earlier Six-Party Talks. Rather than pressuring China and Russia to cut oil shipments after the latest underground nuclear test, diplomatic work should be done now to identify mutually agreed ‘red lines,’ like atmospheric testing, that would clearly and credibly deter North Korean provocations by preemptively making clear what the consequences would be. Raising the threat of American secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian firms might prod Beijing and Moscow into action if talks to develop such a strategy stall.

The US would also find more leverage if it had diplomatic ‘carrots’ to offer. The easiest way to do this is by dangling the prospect of some sanctions relief. For instance, one way to deter future ICBM testing might be to add an expiration to some of the most recent sanctions with an automatic ‘snap back’ provision. The penalties would disappear after two years if the testing stopped, but they would go back up and the clock restarted if testing continued. Different sanctions could be used to nudge North Korea in other directions, like ending unannounced overflights of Japan cities.

The current path is increasingly boxing in two of the most inexperienced, impulsive, and inflammatory leaders in the world right now. If the sanctions are as crippling as the US government hopes they are, we should worry that Kim Jong-in might escalate the crisis to the precipice of war to negotiate relief. On the other side of the Pacific, Donald Trump will be more tempted by military responses as his administration runs out of diplomatic cards to play. While it is too late for the US and its allies to diplomatically disarm North Korea, Trump might instead find comfort in compelling North Korea to follow the least provocative course going forward and rob ‘Rocket Man’ of his control of escalation on the Korean Peninsula.

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