By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas
Not to be alarmist, but I believe that war involving North Korea is a 50/50 proposition over the next year.
I reach this degree of alarm by asking, firstly, how likely is it that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will stand down its nuclear and missile programmes? Zero chance.
Secondly, how likely is it that today’s unequal peace will prevail with continued DPRK missile testing, and none of the ‘fire and fury’ that US President Donald Trump has promised in response, and no mistaken signals that might spark an unintended conflict? Given the personalities involved on both sides, I do not rate continuation of the status quo as higher than 50%.
This leaves me at 50% on the probability of conflict. It might start and end small, but once a conflict starts, the risk of escalation is uncomfortably high. I am not alone in seeing a growing potential for war with North Korea; former CIA chief John Brennan recently put the chances at 20-25%.
Wildly optimistic assumptions about how the other side will respond exacerbate my fears. Firstly, take North Korean stated assumptions. New York Times journalists who visited Pyongyang this autumn reported a disturbingly jingoistic mood. Nicholas Kristoff wrote: ‘Every single person we spoke to, from officials to students, voiced certainty that if war breaks out, America will end up in ashes and the Kim regime will emerge victorious.’ Kristoff said he became alarmed about the risks of a catastrophic confrontation.
With the advantage of firepower, the US is far more realistic when predicting victory in any conflict with North Korea. But an assumption has taken hold in many quarters of the US that Washington could attack with impunity: North Korea would not respond in kind to a limited attack that was prompted by an escalation in DPRK missile and nuclear testing. Such an escalation would come if North Korea followed through on Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s warning in September that leader Kim Jong-un might order an atmospheric test in the Pacific Ocean.
As one example of Washington thinking, former director of National Intelligence admiral (retd) Dennis Blair, an eminently sober statesman, recently recommended that: ‘If North Korea does in fact launch a nuclear missile into the Pacific, the reaction should be a massive American and South Korean air and missile strike against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities. The strike should be launched from South Korean and Japanese bases, as well as U.S. ships and bases in the United States.’
Similar – though less specific – signals emanate from the White House, according to conversations I hear around town. Underlying the thinking is an assumption that North Korea would not respond forcefully to such an attack because it would know that it would lose everything in the war that would follow.
Far be it from me to claim to know better than current and former US intelligence officials. Yet one person who has a first-hand feel for the matter is former minister at North Korea’s London embassy, Thae Yong Ho, who defected to South Korea last year. During a trip to Washington in early November, he warned that any military attack on North Korea, no matter how small, will prompt a fierce response. And the strike package that Blair recommended is far from small. It seems clear to me that North Korea would see it as the first salvo in a US military push to topple the regime. As difficult as it is in Washington to discern Trump’s intentions on any given day, imagine the potential for misunderstanding in Pyongyang.
Much of the posturing in Pyongyang and Washington can be seen as a form of psychological warfare and an effort to strengthen deterrence through signalling. US talk about military strikes is also directed at Beijing to encourage it to exert more pressure on North Korea, lest war engulf China as well.
If North Korea actually sent a nuclear-armed missile into the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate its capability, most Americans probably would see it as crossing a red line that would justify a US military response. Blair argued in an email exchange that such an act by North Korea should not be seen as a test, but as ‘nuclear coercion’. I understand his point, though one man’s coercion is another’s deterrence. And a demonstration is not an armed attack. The US might call a kinetic response ‘retaliation’, but the justification would be debatable.
A DPRK nuclear test in the Pacific would violate international norms and be hugely provocative. In legal or moral terms, however, it would not be that different from the first nuclear tests that the US conducted in the Pacific – without warning to the fishermen and villagers who suffered from the radioactive fallout. My saying so should not be read as any attempt to condone North Korean nuclear testing; any such test would deserve the sharpest possible response short of kinetic attacks that would risk rekindling the Korean War.