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Can Kim Jong-Un be tamed?

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 12, 2017

    Days after US President Donald Trump made his first decisive foreign policy intervention by launching a flurry of Tomahawks into a Syrian air base, in response to the chemical attack blamed on the Assad regime, he has now moved an American naval strike group to the Western Pacific. The move is supposedly a result of the continuing brinkmanship behaviour of the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang, including a series of missile and rocket engine tests,1 along with signs of another impending nuclear test, anticipated to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15.2

    Like his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, the incumbent US President is also swiftly moving towards proactive foreign policy measures after promises during the election campaign of disassociating the country from international conflict zones and hotspots. The deployment of the strike group days after the action in Syria indicates the possibility of Trump considering military options against the regime in Pyongyang. The key questions that arise then are whether there is space for such an option considering the maverick behaviour of Kim Jong-Un and whether the US and its allies in East Asia (especially South Korea) are prepared for a military backlash from Pyongyang.

    The Build-Up

    North Korea has been a perennial headache for most post-Cold War US presidents, starting with Bill Clinton, who negotiated an Agreed Framework in 1994 to quell a suspected nuclear break-out, which, though, turned out to be effete in dealing with the Kim regime’s nuclear ambitions.3 North Korea was among the nations President George W. Bush identified as the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002, which was among the reasons the Stalinist regime cited to exit the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003. Pyongyang thus became the template of a country misusing the treaty membership to gain access to nuclear resources as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) and going on to exit the treaty and end up building a fledging arsenal.

    Though the Bush administration had initiated six-party talks to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme, Pyongyang’s repeated defiance of the commitments given in the talks embodied its rejection of international diktats and its impetuous pursuit of military might.4 The Obama administration, having relied on sanctions and covert actions, could do little (unlike in the Iranian case) to rein in Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear ambitions and the feverish pace at which its missile inventory was developed (with capability to hit US shores). Trump, in his own characteristic style, was dismissive of the North Korean challenge during the presidential campaign and had remarked that he could invite Kim Jong-Un for a dinner in Washington, and can talk him ‘out of those damn nukes’.5 The attack on Syria signals a realisation on the part of the US president that the ‘talking out’ may not be that easy unless he has the coercive wherewithal towards that end.

    The China Factor

    Trump has been reportedly preparing his action plan on North Korea for discussion with the visiting Chinese President, Xi Jingping. Prior to the visit, Trump had warned that the US will act alone if China fails to pressure Pyongyang to disable its nuclear programme.6 Eventually, the decision to deploy the strike group in western Pacific seems to have been made after taking the Chinese president into confidence. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quoted stating that following extensive discussions around the dangerous situation in North Korea, Xi had agreed that ‘action has to be taken’ as conditions for discussions with Pyongyang no longer exist.7 He claimed that the US and China have a ‘shared view’ or rather ‘no disagreement’ on the dangerous situation (posed by North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear ambitions) that ‘has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken’. Asserting that China also recognises the situation as a threat to its interests, Tillerson defined the agenda thus: ‘we can work together with the Chinese to change the conditions in the minds of the DPRK leadership. And then, at that point, perhaps discussions may be useful’. This could be an indication that sending the strike group to western Pacific entails the initial step towards a mix of coercive diplomacy and compellance strategy, depending on how the projection of force will play out.

    Though Beijing is yet to formally comment on Tillerson’s claims, the Global Times, while reporting on the deployment, quotes Chinese analysts affirming that Beijing’s positions have not changed.8 Confirming that both presidents agreed on the severity of the North Korean crisis and have reached some understanding on dealing with it, they, however, insist that disagreements remain and that Beijing seeks to persuade North Korea to return to talks than preferring military action that will lead to ‘unbearable consequences’. Earlier, Global Times had published an editorial (as a response to Trump’s ‘will act alone’ statement, and before Xi’s visit) warning that US has limited options in North Korea and that it should bear ‘major responsibilities for the mess in Northeast Asia’. Stating that piling more sanctions will produce lesser results, the editorial warned that South Korea ‘will be the first one to break’ if US resorts to a military approach.9 The reference to South Korea is particularly underscored by the fact that the Chinese were opposed to the deployment of the US Army’s Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system to protect South Korea from missiles fired from the North. The deployment of the high-power X-Band radar to support THAAD was detested by the Chinese for its capability to peek deep inside Chinese territory and monitor its strategic forces.

    Trump’s Options

    Tillerson had set the agenda for US action by stating that ‘the No.1 threat in the region continues to be North Korea due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilising programme of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability’. On an earlier March visit to Seoul and Tokyo, Tillerson had stated that ‘strategic patience has ended’ and that a ‘different approach’ was required, which includes ‘all options on the table’ including diplomatic, security and economic measures.10 Careful to omit ‘military’ in this description and affirming that ‘we don’t want things to get to a military conflict’, he had then explained that a military strike will be warranted only to ‘safeguard the region and American forces stationed here’. By that standard, it could be assumed that the deployment of the strike group is only intended at intimidation, hoping Pyongyang could be coerced to return to talks. That would also imply that the US will be ready for military response if Kim sees the US move as ‘an act of provocation’, and decides to launch a military strike, as he habitually warns.

    This condition, though, might have altered in recent days with sections of the US media reporting about the military options that Trump is mulling. According to NBC, the National Security Council had listed the return of nuclear weapons to South Korea and killing Kim Jong-Un as among the key options presented to Trump.11 The same report also talks of opposition to returning nuclear weapons to South Korea, after 25 years, and that the USAF is practising long-range strategic bombers to be used in a military assault. Though the full range of military options, including using Special Forces and covert means, are still being debated, everything depends on how Kim will respond to the Carl Vinson in Korean waters.

    Though Kim, like his predecessors, is seen as an irrational despot, the options for regime survival will be severely constrained if he unilaterally initiates a military campaign or swift escalation to nuclear level — which also explains Trump’s decision to go proactive. The Trump administration could respond to even a ‘limited conventional’ strike on South Korea with a heavy use of conventional force targeting Kim’s military bases as also his own abode.12 In fact, the Syrian Tomahawk strike might have awakened him to the possibility of a targeted precision strike or strategic bombing aimed at his palace or even bunker-busters to target other ‘secured’ locations. Though this could require specific intelligence inputs, a decapitating strike on the regime’s core edifices will substantially wreck his sway over a supposedly suppressed population, even leading to internal strife (provided political forces are supplemented).

    In the event Kim resorts to the nuclear escalation, the scope for an American massive retaliation could be a given. The potential return of nuclear warheads to South Korea, though a clear provocation to Kim, will convey the intention for a massive nuclear response. Even if Kim prefers an all-destruction mode and decides on a pre-emptive nuclear strike, it is likely that the THAAD could be successful in, at least, partly intercepting them, while the ground based interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska (which is the closest US territory) and SM-3/6s on Aegis ships deployed across the Pacific could form the shield against any attack targeted at the US, besides the fact that the American response will be (nuclear) in kind.13 A military confrontation, thus, may not be in Kim’s favour.

    What’s in Store?

    Much of these scenarios, however, will depend on whether South Korea will be ready to take the body blow as well as whether Kim will bite the bait and engage in hostilities. While reports indicate Seoul already being on board on Trump’s proactive plans, Kim confining to bluster than action will severely erode his credibility, and, along with Chinese and Russian prodding, could force him to return to talks, which though also buys him time to get back to the old cycle of commitments and defiance. In fact, the possibility of all parties getting back to talks seems more probable with indications that Kim’s actual desire is to gain legitimacy for his nuclear arsenal (a la India and Pakistan). A report quotes the Rodong Sinmun, the Korean Workers Party mouthpiece as remarking on March 29 that: ‘North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is being highlighted even more, which is bringing about a fundamental change in the strategic structure of relations with our neighbours. Unless the US ends its scheme of nuclear blackmail against North Korea, we will continue taking steps to advance our nuclear capability’.

    Unless Pyongyang launches a premeditated strike on any nation, there will be little legitimacy for a pre-emptive US strike on North Korea. Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons cannot be deemed as illegal (since a nuclear weapons ban treaty is yet to be negotiated), as it had used the legal route of Article X to exit the NPT, while its expansion is being restricted by numerous UN Security Council Resolutions that demand a reversal of its nuclear and missile programmes.14 Though Trump can take utilise these resolutions to put pressure on the regime, it is unlikely that even a revival of the Six-Party talks could lead to a dismantling of Kim’s nuclear programme, which has matured from existential to retaliatory deterrence. Notwithstanding Kim’s reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure his regime’s survival, the fundamental security deficit that drives the North Korean nuclear programme – threat from US and its allies – will continue to feed its belligerence in spite of any assurances.15 If at all, Pyongyang’s response to the Syrian strike is a definite pointer:

    ‘The US has been picking only on countries without nuclear weapons. The (sic) missile attack is a clear and intolerable act of aggression against a sovereign state and we strongly condemn it… The reality of today shows that we must stand against power with power and it proves a million times over that our decision to strengthen our nuclear deterrence has been the right choice…’ 

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.