Last May, I spoke at Mauldin Economics’ Strategic Investment Conference and made two points on the situation on the Korean Peninsula. I said that the United States and North Korea had entered into a major crisis and that the crisis would likely lead to war. The crisis ensued, but war has not broken out. As North Korea test-fired another missile that flew over Japan late last week, it’s time to review what happened and why the war hasn’t materialized.
North Korea had been working on developing nuclear weapons for years; this was nothing new. But the development that turned this into a crisis was that the North had passed a threshold. There was evidence that North Korea had developed warheads small enough to be fitted to a missile. There was also evidence that Pyongyang seemed to be moving toward a new missile that would be capable of striking the United States.
One of the United States’ top imperatives is to keep the homeland secure from foreign attacks of all sorts. The possibility of a nuclear attack towered over all other threats. Logically, North Korea would not want to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile and endure the inevitable retaliation that might annihilate the country. The problem for the United States was that it could not be certain that North Korea would follow this logic; the fact that it probably would was not good enough in this situation. Therefore, the US would try to destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities just before they became operational. The problem, of course, was figuring out how close North Korea was to developing an operational weapon. The United States was therefore in an area of uncertainty.
“Likely” Isn’t Good Enough
The US had little to gain from a war with North Korea; it wanted only to destroy the North’s nuclear program. The war plan was complex, and though it was likely to succeed, “likely” is not a term you want to use in war. North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities were scattered in numerous locations, and many were underground or in hardened sites. And the North Koreans had massed artillery along their southwestern border, within easy range of Seoul. In the event of an American attack on North Korean facilities, it was assumed those guns would open up, killing many South Koreans. Destroying those batteries would require a significant air campaign, and in the meantime, North Korean artillery would be firing at the South.
The US turned to China to negotiate a solution. The Chinese failed. In my view, the Chinese would not be terribly upset to see the US dragged into a war that would weaken Washington if it lost, and would cause massive casualties on all sides if it won. Leaving that question aside, the North Koreans felt they had to have nuclear weapons to deter American steps to destabilize Pyongyang. But the risk of an American attack, however difficult, had to have made them very nervous, even if they were going to go for broke in developing a nuclear capability.
But they didn’t seem very nervous. They seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.
Another Player Enters the Game
A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.
With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.
The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.
With the South making it clear that it couldn’t accept another devastating war on the peninsula, the war option was dissolving for the United States. When we consider North Korea’s confidence now, it is completely explicable. Assuming the South hadn’t told the North its position, Pyongyang’s intelligence service certainly picked it up, given the various meetings being held. I thought these meetings were about war plans, but in retrospect they were about pressuring and cajoling South Korea to accept the plans. Another indicator I missed was a general absence of South Korean preparations for war and an odd calm among the public. The US was leaning forward, and yet there were few practice evacuations, as if the South did not expect war.
The key element I missed was that South Korea’s overriding imperative was the avoidance of war. It wasn’t happy with North Korea’s programs, but it was not prepared to sustain the kind of casualties an attack on North Korea would precipitate in the South, and especially not the possibility that, like other American wars, a quick intervention would turn into a long and limitless war.
For the United States, a nuclear North Korea is still anathema, but war is less of an option. One solution would be to increase the isolation of the North, but there is little that can be done to isolate Pyongyang more than it already is. Another solution would be to convince China to bring overwhelming pressure on North Korea. But in exchange for their cooperation, the Chinese will demand massive concessions. Some will be about trade, others about the South China Sea and US forces in South Korea. Trump will be traveling to China, likely in November, to continue negotiations. In the meantime, South Korea remains opposed to war on the peninsula, and that explains why the US is going after South Korea on steel.
We got the crisis I predicted, but the war that seemed so likely has become an enormously more complex issue… though still a possibility. If North Korea appears too immediately threatening, if China is unwilling or incapable of persuading the North, or if the United States simply decides that it cannot tolerate the risk posed by North Korea, then war is possible. But the geometry of that war will be very different than it first appeared to me.