I’m just back from a week in China, a week during which global geopolitical stresses increased, at least as evident by a combination of recent events and media attention. US embassies were stormed in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Israel has stepped up its rhetoric against Iran, although it seems it will hold back on firm moves until after the US elections. And the Daiyou / Senkaku island dispute has ignited a new series of concerns over East and South East Asian territorial waters. But while these are all very troubling, I’m currently also concerned by an issue I’m not hearing that much about – North Korea (DPRK for short).
Let me first admit a few biases and caveats. For rather random reasons I’ve been reading a lot about the country over the past few weeks – so recency and availability biases are having a strong effect. I’m also not claiming any unique data or specialized knowledge in assessing North Korea – my opinions are my own and based on a review of a wide range of public sources. Nevertheless, a number of internal and external dynamics suggest to me that the recent quiescence of North Korea is not at all a stable state. In short, I’m concerned about a scenario that could unfold in the next few months where a) the DPRK makes a significant military provocation, in the form of another nuclear test or an unprovoked attack on South Korean (or even Japanese) assets, b) such a provocation escalates into a regional crisis involving military retaliation and c) the events catch people off-guard and unprepared and thus have particularly negative effects on markets and regional stability.
Now I know that making event prediction with a time attached means it is highly likely I am proved wrong (and I very much hope I am). But I work in scenarios – the point is not to be right but rather to ensure that both risks and opportunities are considered, discussed and prepared for, even if they never precipitate. So here are three reasons why you might take a few minutes to think about what would happen if North Korea unexpectedly made a move that destabilised the region:
1) Kim Jong Un, the new and unknown “great leader” (appointed following the sudden death of Kim Jong Il in December last year), has both some stripes to prove as well as a track record of military provocation. According to the North Korean press and other reports, he was involved in the October 2010 shelling of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong, and the ballistic missile test that took place in April 2009. More interestingly, he went ahead with the (failed) missile test earlier this year that seemingly contradicted the Feb 29 moratorium – this moratorium saw DPRK promise to suspend missile tests and nuclear activity in return for 240,000 tonnes of food aid from the US, but lasted only a couple of months. Depending on how the succession politics are playing outside within North Korea, it would not be unreasonable for additional aggressive actions to be deployed as evidence of the new leader’s strong hand and decisiveness. Any such attack would be characterised so as to entrench the public’s need for their new leader to defend against North Korea’s “enemies”. A show of military force would be right in line with the regime’s focus “‘military first” politics referred to by Kim Jong Un during his April 15 speech this year.
2) The timing is opportune – North Korea likes to act on symbolic days for its foes, and elections are occurring in both the US and South Korea before the end of the year. Its second nuclear test took place on the United States’s memorial day in 2009. It conducted ballistic missile tests on Independence Day in 2006, (unsuccessfully) testing a three stage missile with an intended range that would allow it to reach the continental united states. Attempting to disrupt the US election would fit this pattern, as would trying to influence the South Korean Presidential elections. Additionally, the year 2012 is an auspicious one for DPRK, being the 100th year since the birth of Kim Il Sung, and the regime has apparently for at least four years been on a mission to show that in 2012 North Korea will be “a great and prosperous nation”. Given that the attempted missile launch on April 13 this year failed, the regime may be looking for another way to show that strength.
3) The country, and regime, remains stressed for both internal and external reasons. While we now very little about what happens within the country in terms of protest and the possibility of revolution, it has been a hard year for DPRK in terms of flooding and agricultural production, as the food aid discussions have shown. Since July, there have been a spate of rumours internally about Kim Jong Un’s supposed plans for economic reform that suggest that change is afoot, but which also raises concerns about how to keep such changes from leading to popular criticism of the regime. The internal situation links to external concerns about the Arab Spring and global concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea would be keen to avoid the kind of scenario that has happened in Libya or Syria (particularly the former, where relinquishing nuclear weapons was involved), and is likely to be extremely sensitive right now about how the US and others are dealing with Iran. On September 1st DPRK signed a technology agreement with Iran that might herald a more concerted effort to transfer North Korea’s superior missile technology , bringing the two countries into closer alignment. The regime may consequently feel like weighing in on current events by reminding the world of its existence and nuclear strength, thus showing solidarity with Iran while demonstrating the country’s strength and uniqueness to its own population.
If you accept these points, the question then becomes whether a North Korean provocation would be serious enough to matter beyond raising heart rates in Seoul. It’s clearly not in North Korea’s interest to deliberately kick off a major confrontation that would lead to regional conflict. Going on past behaviour it is more likely that it would attempt to use its unique situation between the US, Japan, South Korea and China to remind the world of its dangerous capabilities and regional importance, whilst not going so far as to alienate its traditional allies or force the hand of its enemies. The desired payout would be a combination of global attention, aid flows and internal popularity. So the baseline expectation would be for a troubling act that didn’t quite cross the line into outrage; that the international community would condemn the act but with the Russians and the Chinese being rather diplomatic; and Japan, the US, South Korea and others would try to use the event as an opening for diplomatic moves and conditional aid offers to convince the North Koreans to give up their nukes.
However my sense is that the potential for escalation is greater today that it was previously. One driver of this links global dynamics and regional dynamics that mean parties that traditionally acquiesce to DPRK intimidation could decide to call North Korea’s bluff. There is no longer a “sunshine policy” in Seoul which would repay bad behaviour with kindness, and the US does not want to set a bad example for Iran or others with proliferation right now. A second driver is the trend by DPRK towards more aggressive military acts. Recent acts by North Korea have been far more serious and direct – for example the (alleged?) sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 which killed 46 sailors and the Yeonpyeong artillary attack which killed four people on November 2010. Since North Korea probably hasn’t had a chance to build another three-stage missile to test, and its new launch sits may be waterlogged, it might opt next time for a less technologically symbolic, but more directly-damaging display of power.
These two drivers should be put in the context of international concerns that North Korea is developing ever-more threatening nuclear capabilities, which simultaneously raises the stakes for the international community to draw a line while emboldening North Korean aggression. Unlike Iran, the DPRK already has shown via two nuclear tests that it possesses the ability to make a bomb, and it likely has nuclear warheads. It already has SCUD-type missiles (the Rodong-1) with a range that includes Japan. And despite the failed test earlier this year, North Korea is undoubtedly getting closer to being able to deliver a warhead to cities further afield, possibly even the continental US. Missile tests conducted in April 2009 had much greater success than previous attempts, flying a long range, three-stage missile towards Hawaii over the Japanese island of Honshu. In his book “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future“, Victor Cha, a former National Security Advisor for the Bush Administration argues that the advancing capabilities of North Korea’s missile programs could make it only the third country (after China and Russia) to be able to launch nuclear missiles on major US cities as soon as within four years. These facts make North Korea more confident, as it must feel that possessing such capabilities deters serious responses from other countries. But it also acts as a ratchet for conflict risk – bolder moves by DPRK might invoke bolder responses from South Korea and others which could quickly get out of hand, particularly in circumstances where lines of communication and relationships are uncertain and personalities unknown and third parties (ie Iran) are watching closely to gauge the strategies of different players. In this context, if a provocation looked serious enough to the US and Japan, it may shift the priority level of North Korea rapidly up in global geopolitical circles and lead to actual military action, with corresponding risks for South Korean and Japanese cities, and heightened stress for China and Russia.
To run this scenario further is to fear that a major misstep by the regime now, combined with internal pressures created by a poor, hungry, unhealthy and what looks like an increasingly frustrated population (according to defector accounts), could cause the North Korean regime and corresponding social system to collapse, leading to reunification in a “hard landing” scenario. Per capita GDP in DPRK is under $1000 per person – less than a twentieth of those in South Korea. Given such income disparities and the dramatic differences in infrastructure and productive capacity, estimates of the costs of reunification range from the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars – with a significant portion of this simply being humanitarian aid to help the millions in North Korea who are suffering from a lack of basic nutrition, health and other essential services, and the hundreds of thousands reputedly in labor camps and prisons in truly horrific conditions.
An unexpected collapse of the DPRK would be incredibly difficult for the region. Besides the direct cost to South Korea and the international community of a sudden reunification, there are of course broader geopolitical concerns. China has demonstrated that it has a stake in keeping the Kim regime intact – which means that if the regime falls, they may see the need to provide alternative stabilizing measures to ensure that refugees don’t flood across the border (and possibly, as Victor Cha has argued, to retain access to North Korea’s mineral resources). And yet, according to Cha, there is no official talk on how North Korea’s neighbours would together handle a sudden collapse of the country. Questions such as “Would the Chinese government send troops to maintain order in North Korea in the event of a regime collapse?” are troubling for everyone in the region.
Why might I be wrong in terms of timing or importance of an aggressive act? A few indicators that may weigh against my arguments above include:
A) Work by Kim Insoo and Lee Min Yong indicates an inverse relationship between security threats and agreements around food aid – so the recent discussions about aid may indicate some more breathing space.
B) Sino-DPRK relations, while suffering after the death of Kim Jong Il (who had been interacting extensively with the Chinese in the last few months before his death), still seem close enough for significant influence to be a factor in any provocation. I’m assuming China don’t want North Korea rocking the boat- (they apparently brokered the moratorium in February), so this may also push down on the probability of a military or diplomatic crisis initiatives by Kim Jong Un or his army in the short term.
C) The aforementioned chatter about land reform in North Korea, despite firm policies being absent from the latest parliamentary session, may suggest moves by the regime to improve popularity through efforts to raise standards of living rather than by shifting people’s attention to external enemies. Kim Jong Un may wait to see if this strategy provides him with the desired stability before reverting to external military tactics.
D) Any act resembling a third nuclear test would necessarily consume a significant amount of North Korea’s plutonium or enriched uranium. As Axel Berkofsky points out, the regime may want to “keep its powder dry” rather than expending processed materials, potentially ruling out a nuclear provocation.
These points notwithstanding, I’m worried about the possibility of serious North Korean military action and the risk of escalation into a regional crisis without adequate planning. As with other risks in the region, it’s the uncertainty around what would happen AFTER the initial geopolitical event that is the true source of concern. I very much hope I’m wrong, but I’m worried enough to urge a quick consideration of the issue at a time precisely when there already seems to be so many other geopolitical threats on the horizon.
For those interested in the reading I’ve been doing that serves as the source of much of this material (apologies for not footnoting every point of fact or source of inspiration), I’ve provided a bibliography in a separate post. I welcome your thoughts, comments and corrections!