North Korea is often righteously condemned for being the only nation to have conducted five nuclear tests and a barrage of missile tests in the 21st century. Led by a young chubby dictator with a bad haircut, we have long been told that the paranoid hermit kingdom known for its undeniably bombastic, intensely patriotic and anachronistic rhetoric is evil, unhinged and dangerous.
While not to advocate for family dynastic rule in any way, the way in which North Korea has been mediated for mainstream audiences in advanced industrial democratic countries over decades demonstrates a consistent narrative pattern of Orientalist imagery that play on variants of immaturity, cunning and treachery in a legacy going back to Fu Manchu. Complexities tend to be reduced to a simplistic ‘us or them’ binary and seem to trigger intuitive reactions hard-wired by more than enough movies and sensationalist media journalism. No further discussion or reading required.
In the significant amount of digital space recently awarded to speculation on North Korea’s purported nuclear-capable ICBM tests on 4 and 28 July that could strike parts of continental U.S.A., few mainstream media reports bothered to include that since May 2017 the U.S. military tested 4 ICBMs from Vandenberg Air Force base to Kwajalein Atoll and conducted 11-12 drills over the Korean peninsula involving B-61B, B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers. The current Ulchi Freedom Guardian reiteration on 21-31 August 2017 and the previous Foal Eagle Key Resolve operation involving 67,000 troops in March 2017 are based on years of biannual U.S.-ROK military drills, giving substance to the recent statement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis: “combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”
Certainly, North Korea staged the longer reach of a new Hwasong-14 missile which demonstrated staged rocketry, better re-entry cladding and guidance systems. Yet we were expected to take at face-value a Washington Post report of claims by unnamed US Defense Intelligence Agency officials that North Korea had achieved sufficient warhead miniaturisation to fit on ICBMs. This was supposed to support US President Trump’s apparently unprompted threat of ‘fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen’, holding much of the population of North Korea hostage as he sat down to lunch. Yet days earlier Senator Lindsey Graham had stated that he had discussed a plan with the President to “destroy the North Korean nuclear program and North Korea itself”. Moreover, National Security Adviser McMaster had already declared that United States could launch a ‘preventive war’ to prevent North Korea from attaining nuclear weapons cabability – a paradoxical pursuit if ever there was one.
Mainstream channels continued to interpret this ‘tough line’ corrective to the former Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’, as necessary to force North Korea to the negotiating table. Incidentally, preventive war was the defence used by lawyers at the Nuremberg Trials in their attempt to justify Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.
In response, the North Korean Strategic Force stated that it was calculating an operational plan to create an ‘enveloping fire’ with 4 IRBM (Hwasong-12) missiles in areas 30-40 km off Guam which had to be approved by leader Kim Jong-un. Subsequently Kim suspended the operation for the meantime. Clearly intended to demonstrate credible intention to strike Guam’s huge U.S. naval and airforce installations from where pre-emptive strikes could be launched and which include 8,000 U.S. troops, anti-ballistic missile defence systems, and signals intelligence infrastructure, this was aimed at military targets. Media reports did not emphasise this point, ignoring the North Korean caveat that this launch would be a warning not an attack. It remains unclear whether or not the IRBMs would be nuclear-tipped. The Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho at the recent ASEAN meeting stated that North Korea was not prepared to negotiate with its nuclear weapons and ballistic rockets unless “the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated”. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) listed U.S. hostile actions as: ‘decapitation operations’ and ‘pre-emptive’ attack (as rehearsed in U.S.-ROK drills); ‘preventive war’; and/or ‘secret operations’ for stealthy regime change (CIA coordinated Special Operations).
While indicating its preference for de-escalation and negotations toward de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, China declared it would defend North Korea if it was pre-emptively attacked by the United States and it would not do so if North Korea struck first. Determining who exactly fired first may be difficult, however, if it was a matter of minutes between detection of a pre-emptive attack (such as B-61B bombers firing missiles at distance) and North Korea launching conventional attacks on U.S. bases in South Korea and IRBM missiles to Guam (nuclear or non-nuclear).
From a North Korean strategic perspective informed by decades of various forms of hostility from the U.S. and some of its allies including the refusal to negotiate and preparations for regime change, such missile capability would seem to provide a desperately needed means of self-defence. In fact, with regard to these latest U.S. nuclear threats listed above (which are not new), North Korea could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter which maintains the right to self-defence when a sovereign state is under direct attack by a foreign power. It could also invoke the Caroline standard of pre-emptive self-defence in the case of likely attack being ‘instant, overwhelming and without other means, and no moment for deliberation’.
As it would be suicidal for North Korea to provoke U.S.-led retaliation with a pre-emptive strike and considering its historical context, it is reasonable to see the North Korean nuclear program as intended to achieve a second-strike retaliatory capability. Although the U.S. would be unlikely to strike if China (and possibly Russia) was to intervene, North Korea would still seek such a deterrent as a means to negotiate its security terms with the United States and others and to protect its fundamental sovereignty which it regards under threat.
It has been official U.S. policy to refuse to countenance a North Korean nuclear weapons state which it now frames as threatening the lives of millions of ordinary Americans in continental U.S.A.. Yet U.S. leadership does not hesitate from threatening millions of lives in North Korea and on the Korean peninsula. This is not very strategic, as it undermines South Korean sovereign agency and perceptions of and trust in the U.S.-ROK alliance as a deterrent and to the contrary that it might drag the South Korean population into a destructive conflict.
In short, with China’s ‘dual suspension’ suggestion as the most sensible and statesman-like so far, North Korea conceivably would suspend its nuclear program in return for a freeze in U.S. military hostile actions to create the mechanism for direct negotiations to begin. North Korea would then seek an end to the Armistice Agreement of 1953, the terms of which the U.S. never honoured in full, and the establishment of a formal Peace Treaty. North Korea would also seek independent negotiations with South Korea for increased trade, exchange and communications.
Compared to the spike in stocks in Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing and as some U.S. allies push for increased military spending, including anti-ballistic missile systems and‘pre-emptive strike’ capabilities, the potential losses of millions of lives in a conventional and/or nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula and to the global economy in trade would not seem to be worth it. Diplomacy and dialogue between North Korea and the United States and/or other concerned parties toward demilitarisation and de-nuclearisation would seem the safest and cheapest form of defence to be investing in. Perhaps a normalised Korean peninsula which would benefit China’s economic plans, are what the U.S. and its allies fear most, and so they are starting fires to revivify a military containment policy.
Dr Adam Broinowski is a visiting research fellow and recent ARC DECRA post doctoral fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. His research and teaching are is in contemporary history, politics and society in Japan and Northeast Asia. He is the author of Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body during and after the Cold War (London and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic,2016).