This Week in Geopolitics

North Korea’s Rational Analysis

August 14, 2017

The United States has several thousand operational nuclear missiles. It has a large fleet of strategic bombers, an enormous navy, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and marines. The US could bomb, blockade, and invade North Korea if it chose to incur the cost.

Yet North Korea is threatening to fire missiles at Guam, a US island territory in the Western Pacific where a substantial portion of the American strategic forces are now stationed. The North Koreans have been unyielding in insisting that they intend to complete a force of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the US.

This seems to be irrational behavior. But if these are the deeds of an irrational regime, how has this same regime, founded by the current leader’s grandfather, survived since 1948? It survived a devastating war, managed to stay nimble during the Sino-Soviet confrontation, and endured the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China, starvation in the 1990s, and confrontation with the United States. The regime should have collapsed many times. It didn’t.

If survival is a measure of rationality, and it should be, then the leadership class (and it is of course more than just one person) could not have lasted for almost 70 years if it were irrational. North Korea may have bizarre values, but its leaders have not been stupid. So the question is, what are they seeing now?

Before we begin…

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The Price of War

At root, the North Koreans don’t believe that the United States will attack them. Yet they have spent years creating a nonnuclear but devastating response to an American attack. The artillery massed near Seoul can cause an overwhelming number of South Korean casualties. The South Koreans actually fear the North’s artillery more than they fear a nuclear strike. Nuclear weapons cause fallout, and the winds blow in many directions. Even a so-called tactical nuke is massive and, if used against the South, could easily devastate North Korea as well. But the North’s artillery could wreak havoc. The artillery emplacements are both well-defended by anti-air missiles and widely spread, so that it would take many airstrikes or a bloody invasion from the South to destroy them—a process that would take days at least. Therefore, the North believes that the South will oppose an American attack (albeit quietly), which might cause military problems for the US—and certainly political ones.

Moreover, the US is not fully certain that North Korea doesn’t have nuclear weapons already. The North Korean threat to hit Guam with missiles acts as a deterrent. Authorities in Guam have even briefed the public on how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. The point isn’t that North Korea intends a first strike—that would open the door to North Korea’s destruction. But the US must be open to the possibility that in a war, North Korea could knock out Guam and then use the delay to complete (if they don’t have it already) a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the American mainland.

Finally, an extended war could draw in China. The Chinese have been playing their own game. North Korea doesn’t trust China for reasons going back to the Korean War: The Chinese allowed the North Korean military to be ravaged and only intervened when they felt threatened. The North Koreans regard China as an unreliable but powerful neighbor, not a trustworthy partner. They know, however, that the United States has no appetite for a war with China on the Asian mainland. The US can’t discount the possibility that China would intervene, further raising the risks of an American attack.

There is, therefore, a military reality (artillery), a military possibility (a counterstrike against Guam), and a strategic uncertainty (China) that will slow—and has slowed—any American response to North Korea’s weapons development. The North Koreans know that the US is inclined to negotiate temporary agreements with them rather than take military action. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, agreed to inducements to North Korea in return for promises that Pyongyang later ignored. The American record through all administrations since then is that the US does not want war and will negotiate. We have now been told that a new cycle of negotiations has been going on for months. Of course, we also know that it didn’t work; if success were still a possibility, the talks’ existence would have remained a closely guarded secret.

Betting on History

These are the reasons that the North Koreans have a high degree of confidence that the US won’t go to war. They also believe that, once they have nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US, they will not only be able to deter any action against them, but they will also be on their way to becoming a regional power. It isn’t only the US—China, Japan or Russia would be no more likely to risk inviting a nuclear response from North Korea. Equipped with nukes, North Korea, always the weaker of the two Koreas because of the South’s economy, may be able to change the peninsular balance of power.

The North Korean regime—a complex layer of officials atop the country who benefit greatly from their positions—intends not only to survive but also to have the ability to reshape relationships with its neighbors. It thinks it has the Americans blocked. In fact, it’s so confident that it is willing to place an existential bet on it. The North Koreans have been living on the edge of disaster for so long. They are emboldened by history.

They’re strange from the American point of view, but North Korea’s elites are far from irrational. And this is a disadvantage that they have. If others think they are irrational, then they are unpredictable. But if they are rational, then their actions can be predicted. And if their actions are to a degree predictable, then it exposes the weakness of their plan. The North Koreans think that the US is highly predictable. Taking actions that are not fully rational by North Korea’s model would enable the US to unravel the North Korean position.

The North Koreans think they have backed the Americans into a corner. The US is now grappling with the question of whether a nuclear North Korea is more or less dangerous than an attack on the North. The North Koreans are betting that, based on past performance, the US will choose not to attack. The decision now is up to the Americans, and no decision is itself a decision. In many ways, this is less about what North Korea is doing (that part is fairly obvious) and is instead about what the Americans are thinking.

And finally…

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George Friedman
George Friedman

Discuss This


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Aug. 15, 2017, 8:50 p.m.

It is difficult to compensate for bad decisions, such as the refusal of the USA to allow nation-wide elections in either Korea or Vietnam after WW2. The US installed their puppets Syngman Rhee and Ngo dinh Diem and divided and caused a civil war in both cases. The principle difference is that the Korean War is still on ceasefire. It is a very difficult situation and will be very difficult to solve. The US has not come clean about Korea and during the Nixon-Kissinger era, they used to fly squadrons of B52s straight to the border of NK and veer off at the last moment. They thought that it was really fun. Not a good investment in dealing with a ‘state’ which -according to Eisenhower-had been bombed back to the stone age by the US. First of all, intimidation of NK in terms of military exercises should cease. Both sides know the consequences of a war. Then the US should sign a peace treaty with NK and recognise it de jure, as Britain and Germany etc. does. It is a reality that any state which does not want to have ‘regime change’ imposed by the US has to make it risky for the US to attempt such a policy. So, NK is a political reality. Recognise that fact. Then be positive and creative and move on. I take the point about nuclear proliferation and it is a very serious issue. It applies also to Israel.

Joseph Somerville

Aug. 14, 2017, 2:15 p.m.

I was glad to receive this today as I was going to ask you to try and explain North Korea’s rational. You answered a question I was going to propose. How could they possibly stay in power for so long? What is the story they tell themselves. What is the “myth” they tell themselves and believe. Everyone has a “myth” about themselves, their place in a family, the family’s place in their community or city, their state, their race, their region, thier church, their country they belong to. It how we all define ourselves. You have begun to sort this out very well. Could you come back and do a deeper dive on it? Understanding your enemies position and beliefs, especially about themselves, is extremely important. I never thought they were crazy, just driven by mutliple unknown, unseen values. They should be predictable and rational once we understand their drivers and get away from our own blinding prejudice that they are simply crazy. we are the ones who are crazy to believe that.
As to China, their military doctrine holds the belief that they can have one big confrontation with the U.S. one big punch out and we will flee away from Asia. Their Paper Tiger belief come back afresh, I suspect. So from thier point of view, why not let North Korea deliver it (and take all the reaction from it). They get the same results and they keep their hands clean. If they are really needed they can step in at the end for a final push as needed - ‘helping our historic friends’. Or like Russia declaring war on Japan right at the end of the war, they can stand up near/at the end and say “us too - we have always support you.” Wise choice. They pursue their strategic interest no matter how many North Korens, and others, it takes.

Richard Willerton

Aug. 14, 2017, 1:28 p.m.

April 2018.  Sub-launched nukes close by take out North Korea’s leadership and much of their army at their annual military parade.  Tactical nukes take out much of their artillery and their own nukes.  There is no invasion to provoke a Chinese response.  Surviving North Koreans are invited to build a country that does not threaten its neighbors, or face anhilation.
Game over.

Newell Franks

Aug. 14, 2017, 1:07 p.m.

“The United States has several thousand nuclear missiles”. That statement would have been true in the 1960 and 1970’s before the nuclear arms treaties were signed and implemented. Today the START limit is 1,550. The actual deployed number would be smaller because normally there are two missile submarines in long term refit at a time. The total number of U.S. nuclear weapons of all types has dropped from a cold war high of more than 31,000 to a little less than 5,000 today. Entire classes of weapons have been eliminated. Examples would include the nuclear rounds for the 16” Iowa class battleships and 10” nuclear rounds for artillery.

Gordon Foreman

Aug. 14, 2017, 1:05 p.m.

If I were North Korea’s leaders, I would build several nukes, at least half of the total that my resources permitted, in underground bunkers as well concealed as I could make them. I would then warn the world that if attacked, these nukes would be detonated, causing massive amounts of fallout worldwide. Since these nukes would not have to be weaponized, that is, made small and durable enough to mount on an ICBM and survive the stresses of launch and re-entry, the task would be far simpler, and clearly within the current capabilities of the regime.
Depending on the number and yield of these nukes, they might even be enough to cause a nuclear winter, but even short of that, the radioactive fallout would be devastating.
Since they would only detonate them as a “dead-man switch”, the regime would assume that they would not be around to face any consequences, leaving the US facing the blame of all the rest of the world for causing this disaster.
This could be considered just a variation on the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine that ruled during the Cold War. There is no doubt that the US has the military might to destroy the regime in North Korea, but it is very doubtful that they could destroy concealed, buried nukes before their fanatical minders could detonate them.