Posted by: Nicholas Davis | April 8, 2013

North Korean Escalation

I’m still fascinated and concerned by the rising tension on the Korean peninsula. The question I keep asking of late is along the lines “what is the circuit breaker?”. Because it is not clear that this cycle of hostility and aggression between DPRK and the rest of the world has a natural or built-in resolution. This implies that the chances of a misstep from either side that could lead to irretrievable consequences are higher than previously.

Let me try to put that another way. North Korea has a long history of provocation – including shooting down US military planes (on Kim Il-sung’s birthday), killing US soldiers, many attempts to assassinate South Korean Presidents, and of course the recent military shelling of Yeonpyeong. Throughout these acts, North Korean leaders have acted with extreme confidence, even in directly challenging the world undeniable military superpower. At each stage, the response from the US and the South has been not to react militarily, but instead to bolster US-South Korean defensive capabilities through exercises and assets.

Will this simply be another cycle of aggression then appeasement? Koreans that I speak to argue yes, that it is a matter of Kim Jong-Un asserting power both internally and externally, and that the current rhetoric is a calculated, logical gambit with an ultimate goal of  attention, dialogue that gives Kim good photo ops and makes the West look weak, and possibly some much-needed source of aid or other resources.

However what worries me is four conditions:

1. An unstable internal situation in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un is the new, “Great Successor” in the Kim regime, relatively worldly himself given his schooling in Switzerland, yet surrounded by a generation of military leaders who have been incredibly isolated themselves and who see the cold war as the glory days of North Korean power. Given the role that the Kim cults of personality have played in reassuring the population that their sacrifices on behalf of the country are not in vain, it is reasonable to think Kim wants to prove himself to his people. To what lengths will the regime go to demonstrate power externally, and consolidate it internally around Kim Jong-Un, and how “logical” will or can they be in calculating the response? Given Kim Jong-il’s reputation as the leader who made the country a nuclear power, in what ways will the son look for a way to militarily distinguish himself?

2. A nuclear, missile-capable DPRK. The stakes are much higher today than they previously were, both in terms of the threat and the consequences of action. At what stage will the US and South Korea, perhaps with China’s tacit consent, decide to attempt a pre-emptive knock-out of DPRK’s missile and nuclear facilities? It’s been done before here, and here. And what would DPRK military officials do if they thought this was even a significant possibility?

3. Fragile North Korea-China relations. One of North Korea’s sources of strength has been its ability to rely on its traditional allies to the North – Russia and China – both diplomatically and for resources. However it is unclear how close Kim Jong-Un and the Chinese leadership are, and the recent references by President Xi Jinping indicate that China is increasingly concerned by DPRK’s words and actions.

As always, I hope (and I think it’s likely) that my concerns are unjustified. But with new relationships like this, the possibility for missteps are higher than normal. And a misstep with a nuclear power, particularly a remarkably confident one which looks back longingly to the cold war as the period where the country was most stable and prosperous, could have disastrous consequences.

Let’s hope that instead the relationship is more aptly regarded as Jon Stewart satirized on the Daily Show recently – an amusing “rebound war” sideshow that is temporarily concerning, but ultimately nothing that anyone has to worry about.

Posted by: Nicholas Davis | February 12, 2013

On that imminent DPRK nuclear test

Call me obsessed, but the rising tension on the Korean Peninsula is the one subject (beyond my PhD and World Economic Forum project work of course) that really grabs my attention. I see the disruptive power of North Korea as an under-estimated, under-anticipated issue that has the potential to shift global perspectives on Asian security overnight. 

The latest escalation following North Korea’s successful missile test on Wednesday 12 December is a planned (and now impending) nuclear test, ostensibly in response to UN Security Council Resolution 2087. This is concerning beyond the simple provocation of a controlled nuclear explosion, the demonstration of available fissile material and a nose-thumbing at the UN;  the implication is that the regime is testing nuclear warheads which, combined with long-range missile technology, significantly raise the security stakes in the region.

The relevant piece from the statement by North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC) issued in late January reads:

We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the DPRK one after another and a nuclear test of higher level which will be carried out by it in the upcoming all-out action, a new phase of the anti-U.S. struggle that has lasted century after century, will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people.

Even North Korea’s “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea” responded to the resolution with fighting words.

“Sanctions” mean a war and a declaration of war against us.

We have already declared that “we would react to provocation with immediate retaliatory blows and a war of aggression with a great war of justice for national reunification.”

All our service personnel and people will never allow the reckless confrontation moves of the group.

Those who dare stand in the way of our just cause will never be able to escape deadly retaliatory blows.

So, yeah. Back to those scenarios about the day after a truly region-shaking encounter between North Korea and one of its many enemies


PS. Thanks to the Peterson Institute’s “Witness to Transformation” blog for keeping me up to date on what’s happening and for supplying the links to most of this material.

Posted by: Nicholas Davis | December 7, 2012

North Korea – provocation update

In September, I wrote about my fears that North Korea would do something to attract attention and provoke the international community before the end of the year, and outlined a few reasons for why such act may be more dangerous than previous provocations.

Unfortunately my analysis regarding North Korea’s desire to make a statement during 2012 seems to have been correct – on 1 December 2012 North Korea announced that it is planning a missile launch for the period surrounding the South Korea presidential election. It seems likely at this stage that DPRK will go ahead with the launch, perhaps as early as Monday 10 December, with weather as the main delaying factor.

Since then, the usual efforts have been made to forestall the event itself, and some less usual ones to prepare for it. NATO, the US and others have called for North Korea to halt the launch, the US PACOM has moved two warships closer to the peninsula for monitoring and missile defence, and Japan has reportedly authorised surface to air missiles for interception in the (rather unlikely, according to the trajectory coordinates provided by Pyongyang) event that it looks like the missile is heading towards Japanese territory.

South Korea’s stance is normal and expected. On the other hand – though I admit I’m not certain of this – I don’t believe that for the April launch the US specifically talked about moving ships with “ballistic missile defence capabilities” into the area. Official PACOM news releases don’t actually mention the missile defence or intercept angle (just referring to “monitoring“, but I would think that China would be rather sensitive to the US demonstrating its missile defence capabilities in that way.

The uncertainty now becomes around whether the launch occurs in such a way to invoke a stronger than normal response from Japan, South Korea or the US. With China-DPRK relations themselves at an uncertain stage with a new Chinese leadership and Kim Jong Un’s reported desire for greater independence, the China-Japan relationship in trouble and the timing of the South Korean election, there are many more variables for the important players to keep track of and therefore a more fragile regional balance to maintain. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Image from the excellent 38 North blog:

Posted by: Nicholas Davis | September 27, 2012

A North Korea Reading List

I tend to read in themes. Which some would call obsessive, but I view as efficient. If you’re enjoying one pastoral novel from the 19th century, why not experience a good sample, say another five or six, to see if you’re drawn to the subject matter, the style or merely the characteristics of that first book’s plot and characters?

Having been turned onto books about North Korea by a book review in The Economist, I’ve managed to consume (a few only partially) a number of different books and accounts of the country over the past couple of weeks. And I’m definitely fascinated by the subject. Here is my reading list in case you are interested in sampling from my sample. It also serves as the bibliography to my previous post worrying about North Korea-driven geopolitical risk. Read More…

Posted by: Nicholas Davis | September 27, 2012

Why North Korea is on my mind

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: Read More…

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