Inflamed rhetoric from North Korea and the US has spiked tensions on the Korean Peninsula and alarmed Northeast Asia. The US has threatened pre-emptive action to thwart a nuclear weapons test widely expected by the end of April. North Korean officials have charged that they would also pre-emptively strike if faced with the imminent prospect of a US attack. US President Donald Trump has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Sea of Japan in a show of force against North Korea; this, combined with US rhetoric and ongoing uncertainty over the Trump administration's intentions, has raised concern that military action in Northeast Asia could occur. However, a US strike against North Korea remains highly unlikely in the near term, as it would trigger a retaliatory attack against US interests in the region and boost Chinese support for Pyongyang. Regardless, the threat of US action is unlikely to deter the actions of the Kim regime, which has placed nuclear weapons development at the center of its national strategy. North Korea's leaders are primarily concerned with regime survival, and are similarly unlikely to directly attack South Korea or other US interests in Northeast Asia due to fears of US retaliation. Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula are likely to continue, though the threat of military action will probably recede in the coming weeks.
- Pyongyang is unlikely to conduct any pre-emptive attack against the US, South Korea, or Japan, as the action would galvanize support for military action against the Kim regime.
- The Trump administration's rhetoric and military movements are likely intended to demonstrate resolve in handling the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as to increase pressure on China to take a proactive role in constraining North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
- North Korea will continue the pursuit of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs to develop a credible deterrent against the US and South Korea. A nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test will prolong - and could intensify - tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea's Motivation
North Korea technically remains at war with the US and South Korea, as the Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Pyongyang claims that the US seeks to overthrow the Kim regime and unify the Korean Peninsula. North Korea's national strategy, the so-called Pyongjin Line, calls for the simultaneous development of the economy and a robust nuclear weapons program, as the regime thinks it can only ensure its survival through the possession of a credible nuclear deterrent against the US. To this end, North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests since Kim Jong-un assumed leadership in 2011, including two in 2016. These tests are indicative of progress in Pyongyang's goal of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon so that it can be placed on a missile, and some US government agencies believe North Korea already possesses this capability. However, Pyongyang must be able to deliver the weapons to achieve a proper deterrent, and the regime has drastically increased its short- and mid-range missile tests in recent years, testing nearly 40 ballistic missiles. The country has also conducted two space launches, which allies South Korea, Japan, and the US claim were veiled attempts to test intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. Such activity is likely to continue as the country further develops its nuclear weapons and missile technology; while these provocations routinely prompt concern in the region, particularly as Pyongyang nears its ultimate objective, the tests do not alter the security situation in Northeast Asia in the near term.
North Korea has, as it does every year, been threatening major "retaliatory" action during the annual joint US-South Korea Foal Eagle military exercises, which run from early March through the end of April; Pyongyang considers them a rehearsal for invasion. As April also marks several important anniversaries for the regime, speculation is high that the Kim regime will carry out a major provocation. Activity at North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Hamyong Province, suggests that preparations for a nuclear weapons test are complete. If North Korea carries out the test, it is most likely to occur on or around April 15, the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and Kim Jong-un's grandfather. However, a nuclear weapon test could also occur on or around April 25, which marks the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army. The later date occurs close to the end of the Foal Eagle exercise, which is slated to end April 30. All of North Korea's previous nuclear weapons tests have occurred underground, making external determinations on the type of weapon used and the test's success or failure more difficult to determine. However, underground testing also limits the environmental impact of any detonation; health risks to people in South Korea, Japan, and other neighboring countries will likely be remote absent any containment breach at the Punggye-ri facility.
Changing US Policy?
Faced with a potential provocation from Pyongyang, the new US administration of President Donald Trump has sought to ratchet up pressure on Kim; however, any attack on North Korea appears unlikely in the near term. Despite reports that the US is prepared to launch a conventional strike if North Korea moves to test another nuclear weapon, statements from South Korean officials suggest the move is probably a rhetorical threat. While the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to the region can be seen as strengthening US credibility, such a deployment is not a departure from past US practice; former President Barack Obama also moved the carrier group to the region during a period of increased tensions in 2013. As any US action will trigger some type of retaliatory attack from Pyongyang, a conventional strike is unlikely to occur without close coordination with Seoul and Tokyo; neither government is likely to support such a provocative move until diplomatic avenues have been exhausted or North Korea's ability to deliver a nuclear weapon is proven. Moreover, any pre-emptive strike would likely require corresponding troop movements and evacuations in South Korea, which have not been reported.
Instead, the Trump administration's rhetoric and military movements are probably intended to demonstrate resolve in handling the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as to increase pressure on China to take a proactive role in getting North Korea to return to negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. Though Trump has publicly stated the US would not rule out military options in settling the ongoing nuclear dispute, his statement does not necessarily signal a departure from previous US strategy, which has primarily been centered on multilateral diplomatic talks with regional powers. Trump has used the rhetoric to call China to action publicly, threatening to act unilaterally if Beijing does not do more to settle the nuclear standoff. It is unclear how much leverage China still has over North Korea under Kim Jong-un; however, some reports claim Beijing is prepared to cut food and oil supplies to the country, which would sever a vital source of support for the Kim regime. However, any US military action against North Korea could instead bolster Beijing's willingness to support for Pyongyang, and leave South Korea and the US with few options to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The current period of heightened tensions is likely to continue in the near term. If North Korea conducts a nuclear weapon test, the action is likely to trigger widespread international condemnation. Beijing - North Korea's primary protector at the UN - has already signaled that it is prepared to support another round of sanctions in the UN Security Council. Reports on April 14 that Beijing plans to halt flights to Pyongyang are likely indications of the first in a series of punitive economic steps that the Chinese government could leverage if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, in addition to targeted economic punishment from South Korea, Japan, and the US. Previous rounds of sanctions have infuriated the North Korean regime and triggered strong rhetoric and threats. North Korea is likely to continue conducting short- and medium-range ballistic missile launches in the coming months; such tests have thus far not overtly threatened either South Korea or Japan or led to any commercial or transport disruptions in the region. However, Pyongyang could also conduct an ICBM test. Reports since early 2017 suggest that North Korea is planning to launch a KN-08 or KN-14 missile during the year; neither missile has been tested before but are expected to have ranges capable of reaching parts of the US mainland. An ICBM launch would probably solidify perceptions of the North Korean threat within the Trump administration and renew calls for military action against the regime.
Although tensions are extremely high, the overall security situation on the Korean Peninsula, in particular, and Northeast Asia, in general, remains unchanged. Pyongyang is likely to continue developing its nuclear weapons and missile programs, occasionally taking actions that are viewed as threatening by many countries in the region. However, a provocation sufficient to invite attack from the US and its allies in the region is unlikely. The US government has shown signs it may alter its approach in dealing with North Korea, but its chief goal will likely remain a diplomatic solution to end North Korea's nuclear program. The threat of US military action - while on the table - remains low, as it would undoubtedly trigger retaliation against US interests in the region and against its allies Japan and South Korea.
The current period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula is a good reminder to identify and maintain contact with employees in the region, to ensure that crisis management plans are in proper order and response drills are regularly conducted for maximum effectiveness. Those operating or traveling within the Korean Peninsula should anticipate heightened security and ongoing North Korean provocations in the near term, especially through the end of April. WorldAware will continue to monitor the situation and alert clients to any potential impact on travel, physical security, and business continuity.