Strictly speaking, the spike in DPRK-related military tension in April 2017 is in many ways similar to the crises on the Korean Peninsula that broke out over the last decade with two or three-year intervals. As the story goes, the US usually responds to test launches carried out or under preparation by North Korea by dispatching additional forces to Northeast Asia, holding joint exercises with South Korea and Japan and stepping up pressure on China to persuade it to impose harsher sanctions on North Korea.
DPRK usually responds with a salvo of belligerent statements, continues to carry out missile launches and threatens to strike the US or its regional allies, which in turn prompts the UN Security Council to once again hold another meeting and impose yet more sanctions on North Korea. Military activity gradually tapers off, and the situation returns to where it was before the escalation.
From a military perspective, it was always impossible to resolve the nuclear issue by conducting limited airstrikes or launching cruise missiles against DPRK, and this remains the case today. Donald Trump’s decision to launch cruise missile attacks on Syria’s Shayrat airbase changed the global context cocerning the North Korean issue. Not only this, it also greatly affected public and media expectations. However, the strike did nothing to change the gist of the problem. A military confrontation with DPRK is a dangerous venture, since it can hardly be localized, and the actions of the enemy are hard to predict.
Little do we know about North Korea’s strategic planning and how its leaders expect the future war to unfold (except for what is being disseminated by their propaganda). Not a single country has been able to establish a trust-based crisis communication channel with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. There is no doubt that the US can defeat DPRK. However, there is no reason to expect this victory to be reached easily. After all, North Korea is a country with steep mountain terrain, a million-strong army, highly militarized society, huge weapons stockpiles, developed system of underground shelters and fortifications, which makes it a challenging target.
The North Korean regime is often viewed as being weak, with its people unlikely to fight for it, which explains the all too common chest-thumping attitude toward the country. However, our vision of the North Korean society is superficial and distorted by decades of US and South Korean propaganda. From ancient times and to this day, military history is ridden with examples when catastrophes resulted from the blind faith of the attacker that the enemy is like Colossus with feet of clay that would collapse after the first blow. By the way, this was the case with the Korean War in the 1950s.
The US is unable to prevent crumbling North Korea from inflicting unacceptable damage on South Korea and Japan, America’s closest allies. The US has yet to find a way to fight mobile intermediate-range missile launchers, which form the core of the Korean People's Army’s striking force. DPRK has powerful artillery units that can strike the metropolitan area of Seoul with its 25 million residents, as well as ground forces and marine detachments. There is also the icing on the cake: an undetermined number of nuclear warheads and large stockpiles of chemical weapons.
All this is true now as it was ten years ago. Nevertheless, the attitude of the key actors in the North Korean issue has started to change in recent months. The US has stepped up pressure on DPRK and for the first time raised the possibility of resolving the North Korean issue by military means. At the same time, China does not have a clear position on DPRK so far, but it launched a powerful campaign to exert economic pressure on South Korea to punish it for hosting US THAAD missile defense systems on its soil.
The change in the US is attributable to the recognition at the end of Barack Obama’s second term that the 1990s strategic patience policy toward DPRK was a total failure. The policy itself was based on dogma-driven views of the fragility of the North Korean regime, its inevitable decay or failure that could be accelerated by economic warfare.
The gradual economic strangling of the DPRK provided an additional bonus, since the North Korean threat could be used as a pretext for deploying US troops and arms to Northeast Asia with the primary objective to target China.
The idea of being drawn into the Sino-American rivalry in Asia by the US has quite a few opponents in Japan and South Korea. However, every missile launch or nuclear test launched by North Korea further undermines their positions. The North Korean factor played a role in reviving Japan’s military might, which in turn complicated Japan’s relations with China. The same factor has ensured that South Korea remains a strong ally of the US, despite the fact that its economy has reoriented itself toward China.
However, this policy ran out of steam back in 2010. In fact, the strategic patience policy turned out to be a complete failure, and the world has yet to grasp the global ramifications of its demise. Facing a permanent economic war, DPRK was still able to keep its head above water economically and achieve stable growth. Elements of a capitalist market economy were revived, and all but legalized under Kim Jong-un. Collective farms were split into smaller entities, and manufacturers became self-sustaining and controlled by its managers. In addition, services were de-facto privatized, and foreign economic activity liberalized.
As of the early 2010s, DPRK has been showing rapid economic growth alongside the improvement of living standards (remaining quite low even compared to that of poor Chinese regions) and military upgrades. Desperate for foreign currency revenues, DPRK has been playing a key role since the 1990s in spreading missile and space technology across the world. It was North Korea that was behind the programs to create intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Iran and Pakistan, as well as the Iranian space program. North Korea also helped Iran create new missile-defense systems and obtain submarine capability. DPRK is proactive in searching for new markets for its missile technology.
The creation of double-stage solid-propellant intermediate-range cold-launching missiles, including Pukkuksong-1 SLBM and land-based Pukkuksong-2, were among the major North Korean achievements in recent years. With this technology, DPRK can be compared to China in early 1980s, when it tested Julang-1 SLBM and Dong-Feng 21 medium-range ballistic missiles.
Technology of this kind is currently available to four out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council (with Great Britain left out, since it lacks the capability to produce ballistic missiles) and only one non P5 country, India. As DPRK continues to advance in this area, sooner or later it will no doubt be able to make solid-propellant intercontinental missiles. This is the message DPRK wanted to convey by staging a parade to mark Kim Il-sung’s birthday of April 15, 2017 featuring prototypes (or dummy models) of missile complexes distantly resembling Russia’s Topol RT2 and China’s DF-31 systems.
Of course, it will take many years before these systems are developed, and go through all the required tests. It will also require creating new costly infrastructure. A situation when dangerous technology for building quick-response mobile strategic missile systems becomes available beyond the few “responsible” states is quite alarming. In addition, North Korea will inevitably obtain the capability to reach US territory within 10 to 15 years, first its remote parts (Guam, Alaska and Hawaii) and later its most populous areas.
Consequently, in March 2017 the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had every reason to abandon the strategic patience policy. As far as we can make out, what the US now wants to do is to persuade China to enforce a blockade against DPRK by stopping oil supplies, enacting a sea blockade, stopping air traffic, banning exports of North Korean workforce, etc. A limited military strike is said to be a measure that might be taken only as a last resort, but more likely than not, this message is merely a way to pressure China, while the US will never venture that far.
There are also shifts in China’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula, influenced by a number of traditional strategic priorities in the region and the political changes in the US. Overall, China has little praise for the North Korean regime, since it strains China’s relations with South Korea and Japan. At the same time, China cannot allow the North Korean regime to break into tatters and be absorbed by South Korea, following which US troops could be deployed along the Yalu (Amnok) River.
This is a matter of concern for China in terms of defense and foreign policy, and could have disastrous repercussions at home. In fact, China takes pride in having won the hard-fought Korean War of 1950−1953 against UN troops led by the US. It has become part of Chinese historical mythology. Having US or South Korean troops in Pyongyang for China is like a NATO base in Sevastopol for Russians.
For a long time now, China opted for exerting limited pressure on DPRK in exchange for having the US and its allies respect its security interests in Northeast Asia. This strategy has become irrelevant, just as the US strategic patience policy. A point of no-return was reached when the US deployed its THAAD missile defense system in South Korea under the pretext of shielding it from North Korea’s threat. While useless in terms of defending South Korea, the missile system provides the US with additional advantages for monitoring Chinese air space. As a result, China started an economic war against South Korea by limiting tourist flows, exerting administrative pressure on Korean businesses in China, etc. This campaign coincided with a domestic political crisis in South Korea, making a successful outcome possible for China. The Chinese hope that South Korea either gives up on THAAD or agrees not to deploy additional systems of this kind. If China succeeds, this would show recognition of China’s privileged interests on the Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese were taken aback by the new style adopted by Donald Trump’s administration when it ordered a surprise strike against a Syrian airbase, coinciding with the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to the US, and threats to resolve the DPRK issue unilaterally. So far, China has not made any meaningful steps or statements concerning the Korean issue. Beijing is currently looking at how it should respond to the new approach adopted by the US on Northeast Asia. It seems that China’s strategy will soon be ready, and Beijing will be interested in having Russia’s backing during Vladimir Putin’s upcoming May visit to China.