America’s leadership in the Asia Pacific was founded in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on its status as the first atomic power. Nuclear weapons thereafter defined Asian geopolitics. Today, on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear technology is again set to feature in a dramatic shift in Asia’s power balance. With a summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now in prospect, future historians may come to see North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles as the trigger that unravels America’s strategic leadership of Asia.
This article was originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 5 January 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s conciliatory gestures towards South Korea are a welcome move. But they should not belie the high possibility that it will continue ballistic missile and warhead testing in 2018.
On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said of North Korea that the current U.S. “focus is on diplomacy to solve this problem that is presented by the DPRK. We must, however…be prepared for the worst, should diplomacy fail.” Not surprisingly, most recent commentary and analysis on the current North Korea crisis has focused on the prospects of either a near-term conflict or a diplomatic way out. That focus is understandable, but fixates on the two least likely outcomes. Rather than preparing for diplomatic or warfighting scenarios with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the United States should be preparing for a sustained period of deterrence, coercive diplomacy, and rollback. This is the best approach to achieve the international community’s long-stated goal of the eventual peaceful denuclearization and reunification of the Korean Peninsula at an acceptable cost.
Nuclear alarmism is reaching a fever pitch in Washington. President Donald Trump has responded to North Korea’s push toward a nuclear-capable ICBM with paroxysms of bluster: He warned that North Korean threats to the United States would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” proclaimed Kim Jong Un a “Rocket Man” (and now “Little Rocket Man”) on a “suicide mission,” and averred the North Korean regime “won’t be around for much longer.” Other members of the administration have echoed the president’s rhetoric: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster suggested that Kim is undeterrable. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley trumpeted “plenty of military options.” The White House has engaged in open discussion of preventive war. » More
‘This third-generation Kim already holds the titles of supreme leader, first secretary of the party, chairman of the military commission and supreme commander of the army – but he wants even more. This Kim wants recognition, vindication and authentication.’ The Observer, May 8, 2016
This description of Kim Jong Un is not the most lurid; in fact, it is representative of broadsheet analysis of the leadership of North Korea. It reduces analysis of the leadership of a state of 25 million people, which has an indigenous advanced scientific capability sufficient to develop nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missile technology, to a level more appropriate to the pages of an airport pot-boiler. It trivializes analysis of a conflict that involves all the world’s great military powers, and which intermittently looks as if it might spill over into warfare that military planners from all sides assess will cost millions of lives, however and whenever the conflict ends.
The focus on Kim Jong Un as supreme leader is misplaced and dangerous. It obscures and prevents discussion of where real power lies in North Korea.