December 07, 2017

When examining the nuclear tensions in the Korean Peninsula, it is essential to separate rhetoric from reality. It is easy for the US to threaten North Korea with a preemptive strike against Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. It is also very easy for Kim Jong-Un to speak of a devastating war against the United States and its allies. However, it is much more difficult for either North Korea or the US to carry out these threats without inviting retaliation from the other side. Assuming the essential strategic rationality of both the US and North Korea, neither country is likely to purposefully initiate military action.

Concerns are rising for those operating in East Asia following recent comments from top US politicians. On Dec. 6, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, spoke of the possibility of US athletes not participating in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea due to regional security concerns.  Two days earlier, US Senator Lindsey Graham called for dependents of US military personnel to be removed from South Korea because of the perceived potential for regional war. If the US were to actually withdraw dependents and nonessential personnel from South Korea, or refrain from sending athletes to the 2018 Olympics, such moves could indicate a significantly increased likelihood for regional conflict; however, there is no indication at this time that the US will issue such orders.

Graham and Haley's comments follow North Korea's launch of a Hwasong-15 into the Sea of Japan Nov. 29. The missile traveled only 950 km (590 miles), but reached an altitude of over 4,475 km (2,780 miles). Many experts believe the missile could potentially travel 13,000 km (8,077 miles) if launched in a standard trajectory, putting the entire mainland US within its range. The launch followed a series of other launches and tests, including the Sept. 23 test of a nuclear device with an estimated yield roughly equivalent to most modern nuclear devices stockpiled by the US and Russia. It is currently unclear whether North Korea could deploy a nuclear device on one of its long-range rockets. However, even if North Korea does have the capabilities to launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland, it is highly unlikely to do so.

The primary objective of the North Korean leadership is regime survival. North Korea's long-range missile and nuclear tests appear to be aimed primarily at demonstrating Pyongyang's ability to cause widespread devastation if the country is attacked. Even without its nuclear capabilities, North Korea has a large army and significant conventionally weaponry deployed near Seoul, South Korea. While the US has an immense conventional and nuclear advantage over North Korea, a full-scale conflict with North Korea would likely cause significant damage and economic disruption to South Korea, a key US ally.

The US wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal to protect US regional allies, ensure freedom of strategic action, and stem the global spread of nuclear weaponry. An attack against North Korea could achieve these goals, but it would entail, and the very least, immense disruption to South Korea, the global economic system, and the US military. A preemptive war appears illogical if the target has the capabilities to retaliate with potentially devastating force. The nuclear weapons programs of both the Soviet Union and China were also immense strategic problems for the US, but these perceived threats did not inspire direct US military action.

The US and North Korea are not the only states with interests in the standoff. China also faces strategic problems arising from Pyongyang's nuclear program. Beijing has condemned the bellicose rhetoric of both the US and North Korea while calling for a negotiated settlement to the standoff. More importantly, Beijing appears to be limiting its trade with North Korea in response to Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests. However, increased economic pressure from China is unlikely to deter Pyongyang's nuclear efforts. While the North Korean leadership values trade with China, Pyongyang likely places greater emphasis on ensuring regime survival by maintaining its nuclear arsenal.

Like China, South Korea has condemned Pyongyang's nuclear program while warning against military action. On Nov. 15, Choo Mi-ae, chairwoman of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party, warned that the US must not launch any military strike against North Korea without first obtaining Seoul's consent. Seeing as Seoul would be on or near the front lines of any full-scale conflict, South Korea would likely rather live with a nuclear-armed North Korea than risk a potentially devastating military solution. 

The potential costs of a war almost certainly far outweigh its benefits for all concerned powers.  However, it is not irrational for US and North Korean leaders to make mutual threats meant to improve their bargaining positions. It costs nothing for the US and North Korea to threaten each other. Such threats may also be useful in terms of highlighting the standoff internationally and inspiring fear in the potentially adversary. The costs of war, on the other hand, are difficult to predict and potentially enormous. Graham and Haley's comments do not indicate a significantly increased risk of a regional war. However, if the US does evacuate dependents and nonessential personnel from South Korea, the regional situation would need to be reexamined. The continued uncertainty demonstrates the necessity for businesses operating in Northeast Asia to develop contingency plans for taking necessary actions should tensions continue to elevate.

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