Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 2 – Preparing for the worst: Was North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons rational?

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North Korea’s foreign policy decision-making procedure is highly centralized to a single leader or, at most, a few political/military elites. While democratic governments are restrained both horizontally and vertically, authoritarian regimes are relatively free of constraints from the public. This paper examines the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in light of the rational deterrence model, then discusses the strategic implications of a rational, or irrational, North Korea. It concludes that North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was rationally motivated by the deteriorating security environment surrounding the state, but that this will not guarantee deterrence.

Keywords: Deterrence, Irrationality, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Rationality


North Korea is voluntarily walking down the road of isolation. The question is why? What led to North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons, despite the heavy economic sanctions and its resulting “axis of evil” reputation? Scott Sagan asked the same question and provided three models of explanation, only to conclude that “different historical cases are best explained by different causal models.”[1] The same logic applies to the North Korean case; what happened in other countries cannot explain North Korea’s motivations to develop nuclear weapons. Multiple dimensions must be dealt with, looking inside and outside the state, considering the systemic impact, and accounting for misperceptions or miscalculations by a political leader.

First, I will discuss the basic logic of rationality and irrationality under nuclear deterrence theory, then determine whether it may be applied to North Korea in evaluating the motivations of its nuclear program development, and finally will extract implications based on the results. This paper finds that North Korea’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was rational considering the structural pressures of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, I argue that rational motivations in acquiring nuclear weapons do not automatically erase the possibility of irrationality in the future, nor ensure deterrence.

[1] Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/97), 85.

PacNet #13 – Keep an eye on North Korean cyber-crime as the Covid-19 spreads

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The Covid-19 outbreak continues to cause tumult in the global economy, with countries like South Korea and Italy reporting a rapid increase in diagnoses and many companies requesting that employees work from home to keep the virus from spreading.

In North Korea’s case, it has had its Chinese borders closed for over a month, long before the rest of the world began to react to the virus. Even if it were, as its state media claims, coronavirus-free, how long could their economy sustain total global isolation? By sealing their border with their largest economic partner, North Korea has effectively placed itself at the mercy of UN sanctions.

Kim Jong-un knows that his country cannot last like this for very long, and with so much of his power stemming from the support of Pyongyang’s elite, we must prepare ourselves for their reaction. Learning from the DPRK’s past behavior, national security leaders should be less concerned about military action and focus their attention on shoring up their cyber defenses.

Jonathan Corrado, policy director for the Korea Society, noted in a recent article the extreme lengths North Korea has gone to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country. These border closures, although necessary to reduce the chance of viral contagion, will have a lasting impact on their already minuscule economy.

Even prior to the closures, UN Security Council sanctions already heavily impacted North Korean exports. Yet, despite the cuts to the DPRK’s exports, World Bank data indicates that North Korea’s GDP has been slowly rising since 2015. This financial discrepancy can be explained primarily through North Korea’s burgeoning international crime economy.

According to the 2017 Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime’s 30-page report entitled Diplomats and Deceit: North Korea’s Criminal Activities in Africa, North Korean diplomats travel “regularly to Pyongyang and Beijing in China with diplomatic bags filled with contraband.” These members of diplomatic missions to countries on the African content would smuggle illegal items such as diamonds, gold, and ivory back to the DPRK and China, where they sell for exorbitant prices.

In 2016, Angolan leaders had been meeting with North Korean liaisons to collaborate on national security projects. This collaboration did not come as a surprise—Angola has long been militarily linked to North Korea. A 2015 Washington Times article identified a number of UN sanctions that Angola had violated by engaging in business with the DPRK. Angola was found to be purchasing military training, weapons, and over 4.5 tons of ship engines and parts, to service the naval boats they had purchased from Pyongyang in 2011. North Korean arms are also believed to be regularly supplied to Ethiopia, where they have been providing and manufacturing weapons since the mid-80s.

North Korea has not limited its illegal activities to Africa. DPRK embassies have long been (correctly) accused of facilitating the international trade of crystal meth, taking advantage of the high premiums their products can garner and abusing diplomatic channels to smuggle the drug into foreign countries.

However, thanks to Covid-19, protecting the elites of Pyongyang has become such a priority that the state has sent all Chinese diplomats back to China, while simultaneously suspending all flights, trains, and travel with the outside world. The shutdown means North Korea will no longer be able to rely on its diplomats returning from trips abroad to produce the much-needed cash for the economy.

To ensure that their country can continue to function while they weather the global crisis, North Korea may very likely double down on cybercrime. While smuggling and other forms of illicit trading require the physical moving of goods and/or services, cybercrime can be committed from anywhere, even a sealed North Korea.

North Korea has already proven itself adept at infiltrating computer systems around the world. Bureau 121, an elite cyber warfare agency in North Korea, has been named the leading suspect for many famous cyber-attacks, including the Sony hack in 2014, the SWIFT banking hack in 2015, and the Bangladesh Bank Robbery in 2016. All together, these operations are estimated to have cost over $100 million in stolen funds, and billions of dollars in cybersecurity damages.

The most alarming of North Korea’s alleged cyberattacks is the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack. This ransomware—which locked 200,000 devices in a single day and demanded ransom payments in bitcoin—caused severe disruptions among businesses around the globe. But WannaCry did not just target private corporations. The attack also infected the National Health Service (NHS) in England and Scotland, causing NHS services to divert ambulances and turn away patients.

Fortunately, May 2017 was not a time of global health panic. However, as the Covid-19 continues to spread, the DPRK’s vice minister of public health declared that the Chinese border will remain shut indefinitely until a cure is completely ready. We must prepare ourselves for attempts to disrupt healthcare systems. An economically strangled North Korea has much to gain from global disruptions, and we must brace ourselves and develop our cyber defenses accordingly.

Todd Wiesel ([email protected]) is a student at Columbia University completing his bachelor’s in Political Science and East Asian Studies. He is also an MBA candidate at London Metropolitan University, where his research focuses on the impact and effects of corporate social responsibility on capital markets. He previously earned a master’s degree in Innovation, Leadership and Business Management from Oxademy Business School, and is a former Kim Koo Fellow at the Korea Society, focusing his research on the inter-Korean negotiation process. Before enrolling in Columbia, he worked as the managing director of The Negotiation Institute. Prior to his tenure at TNI he served as an urban warfare and counter-terror specialist in the Israel Defense Forces.

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PacNet #11 – Two tasks for making US-ROK troop burden sharing sustainable

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Why have US-South Korean negotiations over a new military cost-sharing deal been so contentious? Yes, the size of the US “ask” is significantly larger than in the past. But negotiations also have been complicated by the fact that South Korea is nearing a legislative election on April 15. The latest meeting between US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon on February 24 failed to yield a breakthrough.

The US position is that the cost of common defense cannot fall disproportionately to US taxpayers. Yet without taking into account the political necessity of persuading the Korean citizenry that any increase is reasonable and justifiable, a hefty increase in South Korea’s contribution risks fraying this crucial alliance.

The Trump administration is aggressively negotiating a new framework for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that governs how the two countries split costs for maintaining 28,500 US soldiers based on the Korean peninsula. Demanding that allies make higher contributions for mutual defense costs has been a priority for the US president since the 2016 campaign trail.

The US “ask” reportedly began at nearly $5 billion annually, a five-fold increase from South Korea’s current contribution of KRW 1.039 trillion ($875 million), a request that shocked both the Korean negotiators and the Korean public. The US seeks to broaden the scope of the agreement to include funds for rotational troops and other military assets—which is far more expansive than the current framework. Enhanced transparency is especially important with an upcoming election so the Korean public can better understand the U.S. position.

Negotiations are now in overtime. The 10th and most recent SMA expired December 31 and the two countries face their seventh round of negotiations with a wide gap remaining. The US has stated that it will start furloughing thousands of Korean workers paid under the SMA if a new agreement is not reached. Never before has the US gone that far.

Often overlooked in discussions about these difficult talks is the need for broad South Korean political buy-in. Notably, a new SMA does not require US congressional approval, but it does require ratification by the democratically elected South Korean National Assembly, the members of which are highly attuned to public sentiment.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is not up for re-election in April (presidents are limited to a single five-year term), but all 300 National Assembly seats are in play.

If the Trump administration wants a deal it faces two tasks. One is political, to win over both South Korean public sentiment and the National Assembly. For that to happen, greater transparency in the American ask is necessary, and greater emphasis in explaining its logic to the South Korean electorate.

The stakes are high. The South Korean press has provided blanket coverage of the SMA negotiations and the US demands. As a result, anti-American protesters have staged rallies and one group even broke into the grounds of the ambassador’s residence.

Recent polls have revealed some incipient fissures in South Korean public opinion. In early December, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found an overwhelming majority (92%) of the Korean public supports the US alliance and three-quarters (74%) support the long-term stationing of American soldiers in South Korea. The poll also revealed that “a clear majority (68%) believe South Korea should negotiate a lower cost than America’s new proposal, but most are willing to pay more than the current amount. One-quarter (26%), however, said South Korea should refuse to pay. If the two countries fail to reach a deal, a majority would be willing to see US forces in South Korea reduced, a potentially dangerous development that would be welcomed by China and North Korea.

South Korea can afford to pay more, and it should: more strategic assets are now required to defend South Korea and the East Asia region from North Korea’s increasingly potent missile and nuclear threats. As a share of GDP, Korea pays more than Japan and Germany for its own defense, but a higher price tag for the US military presence may be justified based on these changing conditions.  The task yet to be taken up by US negotiators is to clearly explain the new formula.

The second task is strategic. The Trump administration should agree to allow the SMA to once again become a multiyear agreement and not continue the process of annual renewals that it instituted last year. This would minimize disruption—and tension—in this important alliance. Former US Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks has gone on record arguing that one-year renewals cause “structural instability” and should be replaced by three-to-five year deals.

The US-ROK alliance has successfully deterred aggression from North Korea as well as China for nearly seven decades. It has led to a flourishing of economic and cultural exchanges that has significantly benefited both countries. Failure to find common ground is counterproductive to a shared deterrence posture and faith that the US and its ally will credibly deter in crisis. That, in turn, has broader ramifications.

The time is now for the United States and South Korea to come to terms on a deal that works for both sides. The smooth functioning of the alliance should not be impaired by an accounting impasse that loses sight of the incalculable benefits from 70 years of partnership.

Kathleen Stephens ([email protected]) is the chair of the New York City-based Korea Society, the president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011.

Thomas Byrne ([email protected]) is the president of the Korea Society and was the Asia-Pacific regional manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #10 – Why North Korean human rights is a regional security issue

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This article originally appeared at The Daily NK and is reprinted with permission.

Whatever the rationale, I had some tentative hope at the end of 2017 and start of 2018 that the Trump administration would do the right thing on North Korea. While President Donald Trump’s speech to Seoul’s National Assembly in November 2017 was mostly lauded for its praise of South Korea and their success in modernizing, as well as his relative restraint in threatening North Korea, he also used his speech to highlight the North’s mistreatment of its own citizens. His State of the Union address the following January highlighted not only the Warmbier family, who lost their son Otto to the North’s predations, but also North Koreans who risked life and health to escape.

Then, in February 2018, Trump met with escapees from North Korea. After listening to their “amazing” stories, he was implored to do more to bring attention to their plight, especially the repatriation of defectors back to the North from China.

North Korea’s crimes against humanity have been documented extensively by human rights advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And yet, such aggression against the rights, dignity, and even the lives of North Korean citizenry consistently takes a back seat to the threat posed by its nuclear and missile programs.

The closest human rights have ever come to centrality in discussion on North Korea took place in the latter half of 2014, following the release of the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. The report catalogued the state’s sustained assault on freedoms of speech, religion, and association, the routine sexual violence—particularly against women in its prison camps—and the government’s role in exacerbating the catastrophic famine of the 1990s. Its panel explicitly compared North Korea’s atrocities to the Holocaust. One member even suggested that the regime’s very nature was incompatible with human rights reform.

This led, later in 2014, to resolutions at the UN General Assembly and Security Council condemning these abuses. While Russia and China prevented actual punitive measures at the UNSC, the UNGA ultimately adapted the resolution after dozens of countries co-sponsored it.

More than five years removed from those votes, a pair of things stand out. One is how North Korea itself reacted to the news. While most observers saw China and Russia’s veto of the resolution at the UNSC as inevitable, Pyongyang appeared rattled by the proceedings, launching unhinged and personalized attacks on members of the panel and leaders supportive of the resolution. It attempted to articulate an alternative vision of human rights, and attempted to discredit defectors who served as witnesses (with mixed results).

Along the way, they revealed that the attacks on the “dignity of the Supreme Leadership” uniquely difficult to bear.

Secondly was how quickly a pair of engagement-minded leaders, former presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye, embraced the resolution. Both had been elected promising a different (i.e. warmer) relationship with the North following a deterioration of ties under their predecessors. Both had reached out to Pyongyang with proposals—Park’s were (crudely) rejected out of hand; at least one of Obama’s was embraced in 2012, only to have its spirit violated shortly thereafter.

Obama and Park’s embrace of the human rights agenda for North Korea, late and half-hearted as it was, was the right thing to do. That they probably did so for the wrong reasons—diplomacy had gone nowhere and they appeared unsure of their next move—matters little in the end.

Except as a contrast to the actions of their predecessors. Moon Jae-in has shown no interest, and instead focused on an agenda of inter-Korean reconciliation. To the extent that he has shown a passion for human rights, it’s in those of Koreans victimized by Japan decades ago.

As for Trump, the exceedingly brief period between the end of 2017 and start of 2018 represents the totality of his engagement with the issue. Instead, he sought to strike a deal and rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons—a dilemma a generation of American diplomats failed to resolve before him. The reason for that is something North Korea seems to know, though its US and South Korean interlocutors appear not to—neither peaceful unification nor peaceful coexistence with democratic South Korea is possible while Pyongyang exercises the right to violate its subjects’ human rights at will.

As long as neither of those are possible, North Korea will defend itself with nuclear weapons. This realization does not mean ruling out negotiations, and it does not mean opening the door to war for regime change. It only means doing the right thing—giving a voice to escapees, supplying those in the country with information and a means of escape, and working with the international community to speak with one voice on the subject.

Since Washington seeks to avoid both war and the recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, avoiding human rights means perpetual stalemate.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #19 – GSOMIA vs. TISA: What is the Big Deal?

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South Korea’s announcement to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan on August 22 marks the lowest of bilateral relations. Following the decision, Japan’s removal of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) from its whitelist of preferred trading partners took effect on August 28, for the first time since 2004. ROK also officially ousted Japan from its whitelist on September 18, signaling unyielding bilateral tensions.

While the United States (U.S.) has been encouraging ROK to reconsider its decision before the GSOMIA formally expires in November, prospects are grim. For instance, after North Korea launched ballistic missiles on September 10, the two countries did not utilize GSOMIA to share military intelligence. International media publicity regarding the potential termination of GSOMIA has also been gaining increasingly less public traction with time (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of Newspaper Articles on GSOMIA (in English, from July 1 – October 16, 2019) 

In weighing the benefits and costs of GSOMIA, many experts and scholars turn to the Trilateral Intelligence Sharing Arrangement (TISA) as its substitute. TISA, signed in late December 2014, enables both Japan and South Korea to access military information on North Korea through the U.S. Meanwhile, GSOMIA—the first military agreement between Japan and ROK since 1945—was signed in November 2016 to allow the two nations to directly exchange military intelligence. Since GSOMIA, “TISA has not been activated very much.”

The question, then, is whether TISA could serve as an adequate alternative for GSOMIA. The next sections provide a brief overview of both Japanese and South Korean perspectives on the issue in reference to the conference proceedings at the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui (hosted by Pacific Forum) in September.

Japan’s Perspective:

Operational Significance of GSOMIA: Is Military Intelligence Cooperation with ROK Really Necessary?

The view of GSOMIA’s operational value varies among Japanese intellectuals. Proponents support the extension of GSOMIA pointing the importance of comprehensive intelligence collection. For example, in the case of North Korea’s missile launch, ROK is in a better position to attain more accurate data of the boost phase in addition to detect signs of a launch from suspicious activities of personnel and vehicles. Furthermore, HUMINT collected by ROK claimed to be valuable by some government officials and experts. These types of information combined with U.S. intelligence such as gathered by Early Warning Radar will supplement each other and enable extensive and multifaceted analysis on DPRK’s military activities.

On the other hand, some experts question the value of GSOMIA arguing the alternative use of TISA and the superiority of Japanese intelligence capability. Japan currently has seven ISR satellites in operation, six Aegis BMD-capable vessels and four ground-based radars in addition to maritime patrol aircrafts and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Some claim Japan has sufficient intelligence capabilities without relying on information from ROK which possesses much fewer equipment and assets related to intelligence collection activities.  Moreover, some argue Japan could achieve necessary information exchange through TISA instead of GSOMIA.

However, intelligence analysis based on information obtained only by Japan and the U.S. might overlook some important observables and fail to attain comprehensive picture. Also, as discussed in the section above, TISA cannot ensure timely and comprehensive intelligence sharing like GSOMIA. Thus, even though Japan has better ISR capability and TISA will partially facilitate information sharing with ROK, comprehensive intelligence sharing under GSOMIA is an effective countermeasure for Japanese government to address new regional challenges not only limited to the DPRK’s missiles and nuclear programs but also including the threats from China and Russia.

South Korea’s Perspective:

90-Day Window Until the Final Deadline: Time Won, or Time Lost for South Korea?

The domestic political divide is reflected in the way South Korean officials and intellectuals evaluate GSOMIA, its military value and strategic implications. Those who stand in favor of the Moon administration’s decision to end GSOMIA view it as a diplomatic card against Japan amidst continued bilateral trade disputes. They advocate ROK’s maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the 90-day window between the government’s announcement to end GSOMIA in August and the deadline to renew it in November. By neither confirming nor denying its withdrawal from GSOMIA, proponents believe that ROK can utilize the time to effectively weigh its costs and benefits.

With regard to GSOMIA’s military significance, advocates of the government decision claim that TISA is a valid alternative as an intelligence-sharing mechanism between Japan and ROK. They argue that TISA is reliable since it had been utilized in the past prior to the enactment of GSOMIA, and because “the [same] level of confidential military information” is shared by TISA and GSOMIA. More active supporters consider GSOMIA as a biased agreement since it provides Tokyo easier access to Seoul’s information on early detection of North Korean missile and nuclear threats. By splitting the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance into two individual and competitive hubs-and-spokes, they suggest that Washington’s strong encouragement toward the renewal of GSOMIA may raise Seoul’s suspicion of its impartiality in addressing the two regional allies.

Perhaps the Moon administration’s announcement to withdraw from GSOMIA and its maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the three-month window following it are more strategically driven than they may seem. According to a survey conducted in late August, 54.9 percent of the South Korean public supported the decision end GSOMIA, showing a 7.9 percent point increase since earlier survey results. From the respondents, only 38.4 percent opposed the government decision. With continued Japanese boycotts in South Korea, public support is increasingly shifting towards GSOMIA’s termination.

However, time itself is a double-edged sword. While the administration has bought time to waver between renewal of and withdrawal from GSOMIA, prospects for reconciliation with Japan have further dimmed. As the deadline to renew the agreement approaches, ROK will have to arrive at a decision that will have lasting consequences on the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance. In addition, time will be paid later if ROK decides not to renew GSOMIA. TISA will slow down the intelligence-sharing process for both Japan and the ROK with the U.S. as an intermediary source of information. Most importantly, once terminated, it may take decades before an agreement such as GSOMIA is re-enacted between the two countries.

Conclusion: GSOMIA vs. TISA

Overall, while TISA may function as a substitute to GSOMIA, it is more likely to hinder swift intelligence exchange and effective coordination for three reasons.

First, unlike GSOMIA, information sharing under TISA is limited to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. This limited focus weakens both Japan and ROK’s capabilities in addressing new regional challenges, such as North Korea’s SLBM. For instance, on October 2, DPRK launched the Pukguksong-3 into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Secondly, TISA provides lower intelligence confidentiality than GSOMIA. Under GSOMIA, Japan and ROK exchange information that is both confidential and legally binding. In contrast, under TISA, either Japan or ROK can reject the counterpart’s request for military intelligence if it detects the risk of information leakage. The issue of confidentiality, then, inevitably influences the two nations’ willingness to share information and especially valuable information.

Finally, information sharing between Japan and ROK through TISA will be operationally inefficient due to delays in information exchange. GSOMIA reduces this operational cost and facilitates swift coordination in intelligence gathering amongst the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance.

During the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui, both South Korean and Japanese representatives—regardless of their respective political standing—either indirectly or directly suggested the need for continued bilateral cooperation. For instance, many South Korean participants inferred that the government would renew GSOMIA in so far as Japan initiates the reconciliation process. Japanese participants also showed willingness to share classified information with ROK through GSOMIA prior to receiving a formal request from Seoul.

Hence, what is necessary for the two parties at this time is mutual dialogue, which has been hindered by respective national pride. Deterrence against regional security threats require a cooperative effort based on a stable U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance; the termination of GSOMIA should be reconsidered before it is too late to nullify the decision.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #18: The Realignment of Strategic Priorities for Combined Regional Deterrence

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The US-ROK-Japan strategic partnership sends an important message across the globe as the bastion of the liberal democracy in the Northeast Asia. The strategic triangle shares moments of historical discordances and harmony in the past. The recent anxiety over the difference of national priorities centering the North Korean security dilemma and economic trade between the Republic of Korea and Japan exactly exemplifies a discordant instance. With the Republic of Korea as a mediator, the denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea remain an entanglement that provides both the opportunity and adversity for the region. In response to this frequently changing regional security environment, the partners use various political and economic assets to maintain the regional balance of power and project their capabilities in hopes of demonstrating the resolve and engaging others to open up for negotiations.

Recent international and domestic political developments in each state influenced the strategic decoupling of the triangle. A rupture within the triangle emerged when the national priorities clashed and could no longer stay aligned. The strategic decoupling also resulted in the misperceptions of others’ strategic developments regarding military reform and advancements. While the concept of deterrence is openly discussed and commonly accepted, the implementation of deterrence strategy can be perceived differently among the three states.

ROK’s Defense Reform 2.0 and Self-Reliant Strategy

The Ministry of National Defense’s 2018 Defense White Paper defined the ROK’s national security goal as “a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula” and outlined its national defense objectives as “protecting the nation from external military threats and attack”, “supporting a peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula”, and “contributing to regional stability and world peace”.

In achieving the national defense objectives, a self-reliant national defense was emphasized and led to an extensive military reform. The Defense Reform 2.0 aims to “build an innovative, creative, ‘elite and advanced strong force’ by transforming the command structure that is “capable of executing integrated, offensive operations in an informatized, high-tech network-focused environment suitable for future warfare.” This pertains to resizing and equipping the military with the strategic, operational and tactical assets including mechanized equipment, multiple rocket launcher systems and enhanced C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) equipment.

The Republic of Korea’s 4D (Detection, Disruption, Destruction and Defense) Operational Concept, a concept for comprehensive counter-missile operations, is an expansion of previously conceptualized Korea Air and Missile Defense, a multi-layered defense system for missile interception. As there is only a single battery of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployed in Seongju, Korea, ROK Air Force strives to develop the KAMD system for deployment as soon as possible. Through force development including command restructuring and technological advancements, the Ministry of National Defense prepares for the wartime operational control transition in order to have a self-reliant defense against omnidirectional security threats, including the North Korean nuclear threat.

United States Indo-Pacific Strategy

The Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report centers on a vision for preserving “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The report describes the People’s Republic of China as a revisionist power due to its military modernization and coercive actions through “political warfare, disinformation, A2/AD networks, subversion and economic leverage,” while it continues to label the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a rogue state. The revisionist actions of China inherently clash in interest with the “adherence to international rules and norms, including those of freedom of navigation and overflight” and “peace through strength by rebuilding the military”.

In enhancing the balances of power and advancing the international order, the defense strategy emphasizes a process of preparing, partnering and promoting a networked region. Besides advancing the defense capacity and capability in the region, the strategy calls for increased ISR capabilities and multi-domain operations. It also intends for the security partners “to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” The foreign military sales as the first instrument of resort in effort to maintain alliances have been effective in providing remedy for the allies in exchange for increased shared of burden. Taking an advantage of this, the Republic of Korea will continue to purchase additional F-35 variants to replace its outdated F-16s.

A shared security in the Indo-Pacific through the promotion of a networked region remains a challenge with different national priorities and uneasy interoperability and coordination among the regional allies. The expansion of the hub-and-spokes approach to a regional network of alliances through bilateral and multilateral arrangements has been fruitful. Still, the divergence of the national priorities, political agenda of each leadership and public opinion dimmed a shadow on the bilateral relations when alliance management matters. The quasi-alliance between the ROK and Japan requires an unwavering commitment from the United States.

Strategic Realignment

ROK’s recent inaction to renew the General Sharing of Military Information in response to Japan’s export control added onto the strategic uncertainties that already exist. In spite of Seoul’s debate on GSOMIA as a non-necessity, the ROK’s Ministry of National Defense recently required further intelligence on recent North Korea’s missile test. The political and economic tensions between the ROK and Japan may contribute to a number of uncertainties, but the strategic triangle is nevertheless necessary and remains a strong force of deterrence in the region. The strategic priorities of partners may be realigned for increased partnership and coordination among the security partners.

The strategic triangle concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests against the United Nations sanctions. It also has a growing concern for the impact of new technologies in the security environment in the region. The difference in perceptions of the strategic environment, however, had born strategic decoupling. Seoul troubles over détente and self-reliant policies. Tokyo focuses on the protection of its citizens from the North Korea’s security threats including North Korea’s abductions of its citizens. Washington commits to maintaining the rule-based international order and preserving networked region to have an effective deterrence against any threat to the international order.

A dilemma on the combined deterrence due to strategic decoupling can be addressed without having to realign the national priorities and with the realignment of economic policies and political assurances. Though East Asian partners have become more export-driven economies and have successfully grown their economies in the past decades, the recent economic growths of ROK and Japan show the least promise with 2.7% and 0.8%, respectively, in 2018 due to the global recession. Likewise, the “America First” policy of the United States has yet to show its impact on its economy. The reluctance to promote regional trade and network the region with economic ties left the countries to seek economic growth through other means. This has also led to the ROK-Japan economic tension and its spillover to the ROK’s inaction on GSOMIA.

The challenge lies in enclosing the economic gap among the triangle in a strategic environment where the US-China strategic competition has the greatest impact on the region. “China’s growing global economic influence” has considerable implications on the United States and its partners. The incomplete transformation into a free-market driven economy and lack of regulations bare challenges, such as the theft of high-valued intellectual properties, to the economic interests of the triangle. The externalities, such as trade restrictions and export control, in the trade can also be considered as an obstacle and move onto a freer trade among the partners. The use of economic instrument for the realignment of regional strategies can be useful in addressing current strategic decoupling.


Securing the economic ties can ensure the partners to put their national sentiments and historical learning behind and prioritize their national strategies centered on network-based economic growth and, eventually, regional security. In a network-based region, enhanced alliance coordination can be an opportunity for stronger economic and security ties. In such strategic environment, the partners can engage in trilateral exchanges to discuss the deterrence at the policy level and nurture a common understanding on deterrence to eventually develop a combined regional deterrence. In this regard, the partners’ common assumption on the feasibility of “NATO-like” deterrence in the Northeast Asia can be explored. After all, NATO’s deterrence mechanism entails the forward deployment of missile defense systems and partners’ burden sharing.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #17 – Reflections on the Indo-Pacific and the Demise of the INF: Challenges and Opportunities

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In July, I joined a gathering of analysts, researchers and government figures from the United States and allied states within the Indo-Pacific at the Centre for Global Security Research (CGSR) in Livermore, California, to discuss the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty, which restricted the deployment of ground-launched missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5500km, was motivated predominantly by Russia’s non-compliance. However, the biggest strategic dividends for the US could be reaped in the Indo-Pacific, where the US is seeking to refresh its regional posture and strategy in response to China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2AD) and power projection capabilities, particularly its sizeable arsenal of land-based short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles — over 90 percent of which are of an INF range. For the US, fielding its own missile systems represents one of several ways to begin correcting the perceived military imbalance with China. Indeed, Washington plans to test and develop a new ballistic missile with a range of 3000-4000km, and also recently tested a new ground-launched cruise missile with a range exceeding 500km, which could be ready for deployment as early as 2021.

Discussions at CGSR raised many issues worthy of consideration and elaboration. While it is impossible to capture all of them within this report, and with recent developments in mind, five key takeaways stand out. Firstly, theatre-range missiles may have great deterrent and operational value, but are perhaps more important in that they may pose problems for China’s overall strategy in tandem with other capabilities. Secondly, US allies are reluctant to host American missile systems not because they are unwilling to assume strategic risk, but because of domestic political considerations and the likelihood of Chinese economic and/or political punishment. Thirdly, the end of the INF Treaty offers opportunities for the US and its allies to collaborate on missile research and development (R&D). Doing so could simultaneously fill existing gaps in their force respective structures and contribute to the development of a strategy of collective or federated defense. Fourthly, introducing new missiles into Asia to counter China could conceivably undercut diplomacy with North Korea if these conflicting strategic priorities are not reconciled. Finally, there is the question of how exactly China will respond to missile proliferation in Asia.

Targeting China’s Strategy

Rather than simply quantitatively matching China’s missile forces, introducing new missiles into the Indo-Pacific should be done with the aim of qualitatively undermining its overall strategy. Conventionally armed INF-range missiles are not a silver bullet for America’s strategic dilemmas in the region, but would nevertheless bolster deterrence and provide alternative credible strike options to existing air- and sea-launched missiles. The INF Treaty constrained the US military’s ability to threaten the Chinese interior, allowing Beijing to invest heavily in power projection rather than defensive systems. Now, the growing quality, range and size of China’s missile inventory threatens not only US regional bases and access points, but also its key surface power projection capabilities, and US forces arriving from outside the region would have to “fight to get to the fight” in the event of conflict. Leading thinkers have highlighted the pressing need to redefine US power projection capabilities within the Indo-Pacific to respond to the challenges posed by Chinese forces, and to deter Beijing from pursuing a fait accompli in the South China Sea, East China Sea or over Taiwan. The logic goes that systems like INF-range missiles should be employed to try and produce uncertainties in China’s operational and strategic calculi, and shore-up US-led regional deterrence in the process. 

Four potential missions for ground-launched IRBMs were canvassed in discussions at CGSR. Firstly, they could be used to suppress Chinese airpower by targeting major airfields and communications facilities in a hypothetical conflict. Secondly, they could serve a counter-value targeting role, putting select People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) assets and/or locations under pressure, particularly if coupled with credible loitering munitions. Thirdly, the missiles could fulfil a long-range sniping role, disrupting operations or destroying assets at critical moments, creating opportunities for US or allied forces to exploit. Finally, they could be used as a broader suppressant, providing cover for other military assets to operate under — much as PLA forces would rely on their own missile forces to do the same.

Of course, considering missiles in the Indo-Pacific beggars the question of ‘how much is enough?’, and the answer will likely depend on the role(s) these capabilities are expected to play. Matching China’s missile inventory one-for-one is neither cost effective nor suited to broader US operational doctrine or regional strategy. Rather, the challenge is to figure out how INF-range systems most effectively complement existing and planned US force structure to maximize their operational and strategic value, in the interests of undermining China’s overall strategy. While unlikely to voluntarily relinquish or restrict its missile forces under present circumstances, forcing changes in China’s military spending, strategy and even appetite for arms control diplomacy should remain the primary motivator for leveraging new US missile capabilities in the region.

The Challenges of Basing

To do that, of course, these systems will need to be based appropriately. Such is the geography of the Indo-Pacific, however, that the US there are relatively few locations for the US to field missile systems on its own territory, and it enjoys only minimal strategic depth compared to China. While INF-range missiles could conceivably be deployed to US Pacific territories in order to range the Chinese mainland, that could result in the putting of too many strategic eggs in too few baskets, creating a small number of geographically concentrated high-value targets in a conflict. US military planners fully expect present bases along the first island chain as well as those as far afield as Guam to be primary targets for the PLARF in a future conflict scenario, and are thus seeking alternative wartime operating locations across allied and its own Pacific territories. Northern Australia, for example, could provide an alternative basing location for ground-launched IRBMs that could range the South China Sea, or even the Chinese mainland with the right payload. Shorter-ranged GLCMs would indeed undoubtedly need to be deployed to allied territories in order to threaten sea- or land-based PLA targets. 

However, securing missile hosting agreements with allies would require a significant investment of political capital, a commodity which the Trump administration has all but expended. In addition, allied governments may be unwilling to squander their own domestic capital in attempting to convince their own publics of the strategic benefits of hosting such assets. The concern is that if mishandled, US missile deployments could become another point of friction between America and its regional allies — and another point of leverage for China. Indeed, for allies to accept such deployments could invite Chinese retaliation. Though they would not necessarily be assuming greater strategic risk by hosting US missile systems, allied governments are far more concerned about potential short- to mid-term economic or political punishment from Beijing. Chinese officials have stated in no uncertain terms that allies that agree to host US missiles should be prepared to pay an unspecified ‘price’ for their actions. Recent history suggests what that ‘price’ may look like. In 2017, for example, it unofficially sanctioned South Korean companies in response to the deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD). Even after Seoul agreed to limit military cooperation with Japan and the US as well as cap further THAAD deployments, China only lifted these sanctions entirely in May this year

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, that when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited the region to canvas a range of strategic issues with allies, including potential missile deployments, both South Korea and Australia — which has also suffered the political and economic consequences of Beijing’s displeasure — stated somewhat preemptively that they would not host US missiles. A policy whereby US missile systems are periodically rotated between allies could provide a compromise of sorts, but China is unlikely to acknowledge the nuance in that sort of deployment, and would likely continue to leverage its economic largesse over smaller US allies. Allies’ receptiveness to hosting missiles could certainly change rapidly in the event of a conflict, but by then it could be too late or too difficult to deploy. After all, time is of the essence if the US and its allies are to prevent a Chinese fait accompli. 

Building Collective Defense

Considering the above, rather than hosting US missiles, it may well be more politically and operationally viable for allies to develop field their own. To do so, they could deepen collaborative R&D with the US and other regional partners on relevant technologies such as hypersonic missiles and sensors. That approach would be consistent with recommendations that the US and its allies pursue strategies of ‘federated defense‘ and/or collective defense in the Indo-Pacific in the interests of equitable and sustainable burden-sharing. Indeed, a recently released report from the United States Studies Center, on which I worked extensively, detailed not only the scale of China’s military challenge to the US, but the equally serious and enduring budgetary, capability and readiness challenges it faces now and in the future. It is therefore in allies’ interests not only to help offset these pressures by improving their strategic self-sufficiency, but to simultaneously think more regionally about their strategic futures and to share in the costs of defending regional order.

Rather than simply fulfilling US strategic imperatives by hosting American missile systems, co-developing or sharing missile technology with and between partners could help the US and its allies fulfil their individual strategic needs, enhance burden-sharing efforts, and contribute to long-term collective defense. Both Australia and Japan, for example, are presently seeking to fill their own long-range strike gaps, and could each benefit from working together and with the US to develop and field these systems. In terms of collective strategic planning, agreeing upon an appropriate operational division of labor between the US and its allies — for example, the targeting of fixed versus stationary targets, or distributing strike versus ISR capabilities — could also benefit the capability-cost equation for all parties. Nonetheless, while it might be tempting for states to see missiles as the silver bullet to countering China’s regional strategy, they will not uniformly fulfil the individual strategic needs of different regional partners. The long lead-times and significant costs of developing ground-launched missile systems, the varying appetites between states for political and strategic risk, and simple geography will motivate different states to pursue different capabilities to varying degrees. Partnering with the US to develop and deploy these systems is an appealing way for allies to secure a qualitative edge and the keep the America ‘in the region’, but allies should attempt to strike a balance between alliance interoperability and independent capability wherever possible.

North Korea and US Grand Strategy in Asia

While much of the discussion around theatre-range missiles in Asia centers around China, the US has yet to address the disconnect between strengthening its military posture vis-á-vis China with diplomacy and trust-building efforts with North Korea. It is not entirely clear how or where North Korea fits into the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy — in fact, it has arguably been compartmentalized from wider regional policy, seemingly ignoring geographic and geostrategic realities. Under the Trump administration, North Korea policy is conducted in a strategic vacuum quite apart from the wider ‘Asia Chessboard’. This could be problematic when it comes to fielding new missiles across the region. 

Diplomacy itself is not the issue, but the US President’s apparent willingness to consider offering strategic concessions to Pyongyang could become one if these gestures stand to undercut wider regional security objectives. Indeed, it is not difficult to see how the Trump-Kim “bromance” could complicate the introduction of new ground-launched missile systems into the region — North Korean State Media has already warned against doing so. Supposing that Pyongyang continues to tie incremental denuclearization to so-called ‘reciprocal measures’, including strategic concessions, the chances that it would allow the US to deploy missiles in Asia, it is difficult to see the US being able to field a missile system in the Indo-Pacific that can range both China and North Korea without some kind of setback in talks on the Peninsula. The other elephant in the room is the US President himself. In fact, new missiles in Asia could be just as unpalatable to Trump as they would be to his “good friend” Kim Jong-un. There is every reason to believe that Trump would side with Kim, criticizing such deployments as another example of allied free-riding and completely overlooking their value vis-á-vis Beijing.

Unlike the Trump administration, analysts and government officials across the wider region are realistic about the limited prospects for North Korea disarming, and recognize that it will continue to pose a serious threat for the foreseeable future. A thorough arms control model to “quantitatively and qualitatively limit, rather than eliminate,” North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities should is a realistic goal to set in dialogue with Pyongyang. Furthermore, Commander of US Forces Korea General Abrams has stated that even in the event of denuclearization, North Korea’s conventional capabilities would justify an ongoing US presence on the Peninsula. For the US government to accept those assessments would allow it to reconcile and de-conflict its strategic objectives regarding China and North Korea respectively: in other words, INF-range missiles in Asia would be serving as a deterrent to both of those threats. In any case, discussions over new missile systems in the Indo-Pacific cannot occur in a ‘China vacuum’ that ignores the potential for North Korea or President Trump to complicate regional strategy.

China’s Possible Reactions

Finally, there is the question of how China might react to new missile systems in the region. China could double down on its power projection strategy, accelerating the development and production of new and existing missile models. This would reinforce existing operational problems for the US, though would not necessarily offset the vulnerabilities exposed by US theatre-range missiles. China could also pursue new offensive capabilities to augment its current strategy, and attempt to create new problems for US freedom of action in a regional conflict. As the aforementioned USSC report details, China has rapidly modernized its air and naval forces in parallel with the development of its missile forces which, alongside the PLARF, will pose increasingly significant challenges to their US counterparts, perhaps even contesting America’s primacy in critical domains in which it has traditionally enjoyed near-complete dominance.

On the other hand, introducing conventional IRBMs into the Indo-Pacific could also put China on the defensive. Beijing may feel compelled to divert funding to defensive measures in the face of a new US or allied missile threat, specifically missile defense and ISR capabilities, which it has until now been able to avoid thanks to US compliance with the INF Treaty. Beijing might also feel pressured to pursue a new arms control reduction treaty with the US, Russia and other missile-capable states. This, however, is highly unlikely given the centrality of missiles to China’s power projection strategy and the significant advantage which they presently confer. Beijing is unlikely to see ground-based INF-range missiles as a game-changer in the region, but rather a multiplication and diversification of a preexisting capability (namely, air- and sea-launched missiles). All the same, as a threshold Great Power with few allies in a region fraught with risk, Beijing may not be able to avoid arms control negotiations forever, and it is in the region’s collective interest to prevent arms proliferation from spiraling out of control. 

For now, however, the prospects for diplomacy look bleak. As the US and its allies adjust to the region’s shifting landscape and prepare for an uncertain strategic future, ground-based intermediate-range missiles are likely just the beginning. 

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #3 – Nuclear flexibility necessary for North Korea’s economic development

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This article originally appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations and is republished with permission

Although Kim Jong-un’s latest words on New Year’s eve are a cause for concern, they seem more for negotiating leverage than indicative of a real change in North Korea’s trajectory. The global community needs to encourage the North Korean leader’s efforts to improve his country’s economy and make it more of a “normal country.”

Instead of giving a New Year’s speech, as he had previously done annually, Kim delivered a report concluding a four-day Workers’ Party Central Committee plenum. About 70% of the report addressed the economy, showing that economic improvement is of paramount importance to Kim. Kim was candid in admitting the economy was in trouble, revealing that a lack of economic progress in the past year was a major source of frustration for him. Kim highlighted areas that needed reform and declared that global sanctions on his country were choking its economic potential.

Indeed, it is the economic damage of sanctions that apparently drove Kim’s statements in the national security arena. Alleging that his country has received no economic benefit from dismantling a nuclear testing site and putting a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, Kim questioned his country’s all-out focus on economic development since the shift from the previous byungjin strategy (simultaneous development of the economy and military). Claiming that the United States has not made any concessions in spite of his unilateral concessions on denuclearization, Kim implied that Pyongyang would resume nuclear and long-range missile testing and even unveil a “new strategic weapon” if the sanctions are not lifted.

Although these statements are disconcerting, they are clearly intended to maximize Pyongyang’s negotiating leverage, as Kim added that the extent and scope of his military response would depend on Washington’s reaction to his statements, making it clear that he was open to further negotiation. Further evidence that Kim is open to negotiations is that he did not name Trump even as he was criticizing the United States and he did not stage any military provocation, despite the previously threatenedChristmas gift.”

The onus is now on both Pyongyang and Washington to work out their differences if they are to avoid a reversion to the days of nuclear brinkmanship and high tension (the days of so-called “fire and fury”) before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. Apparently, North Korea has demanded a gradual step-by-step denuclearization, reciprocated by relaxation of sanctions, while Washington has insisted on a comprehensive roadmap starting with defining the final denuclearized state and then spelling out the steps leading to that state. Whatever may have been the exact negotiating positions of the two sides, there was a serious enough difference between the two to cause a breakdown in the talks. This current impasse has led to Pyongyang’s demand for a new approach from Washington and Washington’s promise of a new flexibility.

The two sides must now show real flexibility in their actions, not merely in their words. Pyongyang must take more tangible steps for denuclearization beyond the symbolic dismantling of an old testing site, and Washington must seriously consider partial relaxation of sanctions in response. Perhaps a way to start would be finding a path forward on reconnecting rail and road links between the Koreas without explicitly violating the sanctions regime. Such an endeavor can help build the mutual confidence necessary for further progress in denuclearization and may eventually lead to building a gas pipeline across North Korea carrying Russian gas into South Korea.

The global community must encourage economic reform in North Korea and help persuade a frustrated Kim Jong-un that though such reform is not easy and may take time, it is necessary and worthwhile. The global community must support negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington by offering creative ideas to build mutual trust and break the impasse. Although the recent proposal by China and Russia at the UN for partial relaxation of sanctions has gone nowhere, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo would do well to consult closely with Beijing and Moscow to discuss a common gradual approach to denuclearization accompanied by partial easing of sanctions.

Jongsoo Lee ([email protected]) is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. He is also Adjunct Fellow at Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004.

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