Many of the current conflicts and crises in international relations are born of internal factors within the governments of the countries precipitating them.
North Korea is no exception to this, although there are differences in its approach. North Korea’s new, young ruler, Kim Jong-un, has found himself in a leadership crisis almost immediately after taking the helm, because of a combination of sanctions and other actions from the international community.
The suspension of food aid, joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, further financial sanctions approved by the UN Security Council, and the freezing of overseas financial assets of North Korea or its citizens, have all contributed to Kim’s leadership being questioned at home. To consolidate his political power, he has resorted to the risky tactic of military scaremongering.
This time, however, it seems that the US and its allies South Korea and Japan are getting impatient with what they regard as a tired ruse.
Let us rule out first of all the possibility of North Korea launching a nuclear weapon. Such an action would be directly followed by a comprehensive counterattack — and possibly even a targeted preemptive strike — coordinated by the US, South Korea and Japan. It could also lead to an overwhelming set of new punitive sanctions by the international community, and then the days of North Korea’s ruling party would be surely be numbered.
The most likely next step for North Korea would be to launch several short-range or medium-range tactical missiles, which could be aimed south toward Guam or east toward the US and South Korean navy fleets.
Whether these missiles actually hit their targets or not, they would still have the effect of carrying out a threat. That would give the US, South Korea and Japan an opportunity to test their anti-missile defense systems.
It would also give the US Army a legitimate pretext for striking the sites it is really worried about, namely North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. If the US did so, and as long as Kim was willing, the two sides could then enter into negotiations, allowing military tensions to abate for the time being.
In the event that Kim feels his dignity has been bruised, and rashly decides that the time has come to launch an attack, there are three ways in which this could play out, with varying degrees of seriousness.
First, he could order an attack similar to the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan, by launching a missile or submarine attack against a US or South Korean vessel.
Next, he could select a specific area and order a limited and containable attack, similar to the November 2010 artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
The final option, and one that nobody wants to see happen, is that he could order an all-out, large-scale offensive against South Korea, using artillery or missiles to bombard US and South Korean forces or major cities and towns south of the 38th parallel, sending in tank divisions as part of a major land invasion, or dispatching special forces to South Korea to assassinate its leaders. He might even order the use of biological weapons.
In the case of the first two scenarios, no matter whether North Korea achieved its objectives, or US and South Korean forces successfully defended against the attack, there would still be a chance for the two sides to de-escalate the situation and enter into negotiations.
However, the third scenario would lead to an unstoppable conflict that would escalate into all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
Until now, the US has responded to North Korea’s provocations by deploying advanced weapons. Assuming that all-out war does not break out and that Kim does not order a nuclear attack, the US military could use the situation as a testing ground for its military hardware, and to demonstrate the accuracy and effectiveness of its weapons.
Then, after any conflict, it would have a commanding position in the ceasefire negotiations.
As well as demonstrating the US’ ability and resolve to help maintain peace and stability in East Asia, it would be an excellent advertisement for US-made advanced weaponry. However, if such a conflict failed to deter Kim from continuing his irrational military actions, leading to the outbreak of all-out war or the launching of nuclear weapons, the consequences would be unimaginable.
Neighboring powers, notably China and Russia, have their own concerns and agendas. They do not want North Korea to spark a major war, but neither do they want to see the US achieve its objectives. Whether they decide to support Kim or try to have him replaced will depend on how the overall situation develops, and the eventual outcome could be a compromise between the major powers.
What is clear is that Kim has made the greatest possible error of judgement. The opening sentence of the ancient Chinese military treatise, Sun Tzu’s (孫子) Art of War, states that: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”
Any leader who, like Kim, seeks to make political gains through military threats casts not only himself, but also his country, into the gravest peril.
Wang Jyh-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
Translated by Paul Cooper