Military conflict over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes is a serious possibility, writes Mark Fitzpatrick.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

I am not wont to shed tears for North Korean officials. I might find myself crying over them, yes, but not usually for them. Yet it was hard not to feel some pity for Choe Son Hui, the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) delegation head who, every time she left the plenary sessions of the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference during 18–20 October, was hounded by the 125 journalists accredited to the event. They seemed to have come largely to see Choe, director general of the North American Affairs bureau of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in hopes of spotting any sign that the crisis over her country’s nuclear-armed missile programme could be peacefully resolved.

Choe, who attended formally in her other role as president of the MFA Institute for American Studies, gave no satisfaction. Contrary to some expectations, she did not meet with Wendy Sherman, former negotiator for presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who was also hounded by the press. Nor did Choe meet with the Japanese or South Korean government officials in attendance. She went out of her way to insult one of the latter by saying she did not want to respond to the remarks by a ‘dull-headed person’.

No suave diplomat she, Choe also gratuitously insulted a Chinese fellow panellist who had the temerity to praise DPRK founding father Kim Il-sung without also extending praise to his grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un. Interrupting the proceedings, Choe assured the conference that the ‘respected general comrade is equally wise and far-sighted’, adding that ‘the entire country and army believes in his leadership’. One might also feel some pity for an official who has to spout such dribble.

In her prepared remarks, Choe was no less unbending. Pursuing nuclear weapons was a matter of life and death for the DPRK, she said. Like other nuclear-armed states, it was vital for deterrence. She claimed a power balance had almost been reached with the United States, ‘so the US would not dare talk about military action’. Any attempt to enforce UN ‘so-called sanctions’ would be considered an act of war. ‘DPRK nuclear weapons are non-negotiable unless the US is prepared to engage with us as nuclear-armed’. This was nothing new; we have heard it before.

The takeaway was that North Korea is not interested in negotiation – except under certain conditions. This position may encourage a growing US predilection toward military action, perhaps in the form of a preventive strike against an intercontinental ballistic missile on the launch pad. The most recent danger sign was a rumoured, unofficial US government recommendation for people to begin to remove personal assets from South Korea, reported by the well-regarded Nelson Report newsletter. In addition, according to the Nelson Report, Americans engaged with non-governmental organisations in North Korea have been encouraged to leave.

Choe’s professed disinterest in negotiations should rightly be seen as an opening gambit. Similar to US President Donald Trump’s tweet to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to waste time talking to them, the North Koreans do not want to appear eager to negotiate, so as not to give advantage to the other side. The conditionality of Choe’s ‘unless’ clause can nevertheless be read as an indication that some give and take may be possible. 

Every other participant at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference who spoke on Northeast Asian security called for dialogue. One participant noted that the time between November and next spring, during which no major US–South Korea joint military training exercises are scheduled, is an opportune time for North Korea to lower the temperature by not conducting further missile tests. American expert Robert Carlin pleaded with both sides to pull up on the controls of the metaphorical aircraft that he characterised as coming perilously close to crashing. Indeed, I came away with the conclusion that military conflict with North Korea may be a 50/50 proposition over the next year. Wise diplomacy is sorely needed.

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