SYDNEY – We need to put North Korea’s missile tests in perspective. Yes, they’re worrying. But the U.S. mainland is not in imminent danger.
I’ve been in North Korea twice during periods of escalating tensions. As a member of a nonprofit organization that trains North Koreans, I was there in spring 2013 when Pyongyang tested a nuclear device and sanctions followed, and spring 2016, when it happened again. I twice heard people there say that it was “too much, let’s get it over with.” That harrowing phrase reflects how good North Korea is at keeping its population geared for conflict.
During previous mini-crises that have flared up on the Korean Peninsula, I’ve also been in South Korea, where such “tensions” don’t perk much interest. You know the photo you see on the news of South Koreans huddled around TVs, watching the news about the latest missile launch or nuclear test? That shot is almost always taken at Seoul Station. The viewers aren’t engrossed or tense. They’re just waiting for a train. If soccer was on, they’d be huddled around watching that. (And many more of them.)
Those sorts of images have Americans on edge, however. On July 4, Pyongyang tested the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts said it could reach Alaska or Hawaii. Three weeks later, the regime tested the missile again. It went further, putting much of the mainland United States in range. Clearly the North is getting closer to being able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
That’s why I’m not surprised that Los Angelinos keep asking me: “So, does Kim Jong Oon (or how do you say it?) want to nuke us here in LA or what?” I’ve been in California for much of 2017 and when people hear about my trips to North Korea, they’re keen to get my view. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s intensive missile test schedule is on the news all the time. Talking heads bloviate about it. The U.S. president tweets about it. I tell them to rest easy.
Pyongyang is very good at calculating its provocations to stop short of an actual war. The leadership has always known that such a confrontation would almost certainly mean the end of their state. Experts such as the U.S. Naval War College’s Terence Roehrig think that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is primarily for deterrence. Laws passed in 2013 and several public pronouncements have made clear that Pyongyang is developing a retaliatory rather than a first-use threat. Last September, when the regime showed off road-mobile missile launchers, its message was that even if you take out most of their key sites, they’ll roll some of these out of mountain hideouts and fire them off.
The reality, though, is that Kim doesn’t have the capacity to strike the U.S. first. Pyongyang knows its arsenal is too small — and always will be — to attack the U.S. with a nuclear weapon and not face obliteration.
Even so, new dangers have emerged along with the North’s new weapons.
Keeping the population “geared up for war” means using bellicose rhetoric and manufacturing crises from time to time. Pyongyang now needs to be more cautious in its statements, lest the U.S. think North Korea is sincere in its threats. When they say military exercises could cause “a vicious showdown” to erupt or that the U.S. “crossed a red line,” are they being serious? If so, what are they prepared to do? The stakes for Washington in understanding that have become higher.
My questioners in Los Angeles should also understand that most of North Korea’s threatening language is presented in if/then sentences. As in, if Washington tries to remove Kim, North Korea will strike the U.S. heartland — a vow made last week. Reducing the U.S. “to ashes” or bringing “doom” usually comes with these qualifiers.
Beyond the rhetoric, limited clashes have happened before along the border, on land and at sea. The possibility of escalating upwards toward a full-blown conflict has always existed, but the difference now is that the end of the chain could include a missile attack on the U.S. homeland. In an emergency, the risk is that Washington would act more quickly to pre-empt such a scenario. In turn, if North Korea’s leaders think a limited skirmish is escalating towards war or an attempt at regime change, they might think they are in a “use it or lose it” situation. We don’t know yet if North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons make limited clashes or broader brinksmanship more or less likely.
Another concern is the specter of a catastrophic technical or human error as tensions rise. On Sept. 26, 1983, the Soviet Union’s early warning system registered the launch of several American Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. Duty Officer Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, with much trepidation, dismissed them as a false alarm. Had he followed standing orders to report them to the Soviet leadership, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain. A similar technical error today, but with North Korean soldiers less likely to think outside the box, could end differently.
The good news is that after 64 years both sides of the conflict have grown adept at avoiding all-out war. And Washington does have other options to avoid going down that ugly road. Part of this is maintaining appropriate forces in the region, but part of it is also discipline and clarity in communicating that defense posture to Pyongyang and U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. Beyond that, the Trump administration must also maintain positive economic and political relations with those allies.
Inevitably, all responses carry some risks. If Washington imposes more secondary sanctions to slow the pace of Pyongyang’s weapons development, it risks friction with Beijing if Chinese businesses and banks come under scrutiny for possible ties to North Korea’s military supply chains. A freeze-for-freeze deal, wherein North Korea stops working on its missiles and nuclear devices in return for U.S. concessions on military exercises, would carry both political and strategic risks. The U.S. can try to induce long-term behavior changes in North Korea by supporting the positive economic and social changes taking place there. This, however, means promoting exchanges and connections with North Koreans — difficult to balance with sanctions.
There will be no quick solution to any of this. But for now, at least, Californians shouldn’t fear that a North Korean missile is about to hit their shores.
Andray Abrahamian is an honorary fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney and has worked with Choson Exchange, a nonprofit organization that trains North Koreans in economic policy and entrepreneurship.