HONOLULU – North Korea has captured the headlines twice in recent weeks. One instance was highly intriguing — the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia. The other was highly significant. While the interesting has once again overshadowed the important, the medium-range ballistic missile launch constitutes the first real security test for the U.S. Trump administration. An effective response demands a clear understanding of the forces driving North Korean behavior. All too often, however, myths and misunderstandings dominate thinking about the North, so it’s time to set the record straight.
Fact No. 1: Kim Jong Un is not irrational. The Kim family is anything but irrational. They have played a poor hand extremely well, defying international opinion, antagonizing allies and adversaries alike, and ignoring their chief benefactors. They have relentlessly pursued a narrowly defined national interest and shrugged off virtually every attempt to get them to change course or even compromise. Pyongyang has figured out how far it can go without prompting an overwhelming response. This is exceptional strategic thinking, not irrationality. No leader does anything that he or she thinks is irrational. When we call Kim irrational, we are really saying “we don’t understand his rationale.” Why does the North do what it does? Quite simply because (so far, at least) it’s working!
Fact No. 2: North Korean tests are not provocations. While outright defiance of the international community is by definition provocative, the primary purpose of North Korean nuclear and missile tests is not to provoke; it’s to advance its weapons programs. If a test overshadows the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Abe, that is icing on the cake. North Korea is happy to demonstrate that it is not intimidated by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ Asia visit or by a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The best proof for this proposition is Pyongyang’s readiness to test despite the political uncertainty in Seoul. Many analysts expected North Korea to hold off until the Constitutional Court ruled on President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment to avoid distracting the Korean public from the current political spectacle. If Pyongyang put foreign considerations foremost, it would have held off.
Fact No. 3: China is not the answer. China may be troubled by North Korean behavior, but there is still more value for Beijing in the regime’s survival than to have it collapse. China prefers a divided peninsula: it wants a buffer zone between it and democracy (and U.S. forces); Pyongyang’s behavior distracts from Chinese misdeeds, increases China’s relevance and gives Beijing leverage in dealing with the West.
China may provide a lifeline to the embattled regime, but that does not mean that it can compel North Korea to act as it wishes. The killing of Kim Jong Nam removes yet another arrow from Beijing’s already limited quiver. There is no love lost between North Koreans and Chinese; in private discussions, each complains vociferously about the other and both believe the other needs it more than it needs its partner.
Fact No. 4: Force or sanctions alone are not the answer. Having tried negotiations and pressure, there is a growing view that the time for half-measures has passed and the U.S. and like-minded nations should adopt a more aggressive approach. But a march on Pyongyang, while within U.S./South Korean capabilities, would result in unacceptable levels of collateral damage and should only be contemplated in response to an egregious military provocation by the North.
Nor is there any proof that diplomatic and economic pressure, no matter how forcefully applied, will force a regime as determined as North Korea to its knees. Nothing short of the very real prospect of regime collapse will persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear capability.
Fact No. 5: The Pyongyang regime is not poised today for collapse. This year rice production increased 23 percent; the private sector of the economy — officially illegal but still tolerated — is set for 3-4 percent growth. There is increasing strain among the leadership — evident in the swelling number of higher-ranking defections, demotions, or executions — but there is no indication that the regime is tottering, even if the assassination of his half-brother demonstrates a continued high level of (justifiable?) paranoia. This event does, however, give Washington apparent cause to put North Korea back on the list of state-sponsors of terrorism, which could help tighten a few screws.
Fact No. 6: Time is not on our side. North Korea is not sitting still; it is determined to have the capacity to strike the U.S., believing that such an option will both deter Washington from pursuing regime change or taking action against Pyongyang when it seeks to shape the regional security environment in ways that it considers beneficial.
Our challenge is to persuade Pyongyang that the closer it comes to achieving its stated goal of being able to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons, the less secure it will become. Thus far, the North’s threats and egregious behavior have been tolerated, not because of its nuclear capabilities but because of the death and destruction it could rain on South Korea — Seoul is within artillery range of the DMZ and Pyongyang’s conventional forces pose a formidable threat. But the day Washington and Seoul become convinced that the North is capable of deploying a weapon of mass destruction against the U.S. or its allies, then the cost of not doing anything may exceed the costs associated with conflict, and war on the peninsula may not only become more likely but necessary.
Ralph Cossa is president and Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.