Getting Value from the U.S.-ROK Summit


Jun 15, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on June 15, 2009.

For months, North Korea has been trying to upstage the summit between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama that is scheduled for June 16. North Korea began earlier this year with its preparations for a space/intercontinental ballistic missile launch, fired the missile in April, tested a nuclear weapon in late May, and is apparently now preparing another space/ICBM launch as well as the test of several medium-range missiles. All the while it has escalated its threats of military attacks. Almost all Americans I know have heard of these North Korean provocations. But few have heard anything about the U.S.-ROK summit.

Upstaging the Summit

In 2006, North Korea's missile launch and nuclear test provocations were clearly focused on overturning the U.S. financial sanctions that were imposed because of North Korean misbehavior, including counterfeiting U.S. currency. Kim Jong-il could simply have apologized to the United States and agreed to stop, but by doing so he would have appeared weak to the North Korean elites and vulnerable to overthrow. Instead, he used escalating brinksmanship until the United States agreed to give up the onerous sanctions in exchange for progress on disabling the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

This year, Kim appears to be more concerned about internal developments within North Korea, though he is seeking external leverage as well. Kim has apparently suffered a stroke, appears weak, and may be dying. For good reason, he has tried to hide these problems, and thus we do not know how serious they are.

Nevertheless, after years of forbidding discussion of his succession, Kim has reportedly now anointed his young third son, Kim Jong-un, to be his successor. That son lacks the experience, connections, reputation, control and awe that Kim Jong-il had when he assumed control. These must be created, especially among North Korea's elites. And if Kim is fatally ill, there may be little time to do so.

The Kims sought the appearance of empowerment by demonstrating a prowess in nuclear weapon and space technology that few other countries have achieved. The tests strengthen nationalism, boost domestic respect for the leaders who achieved these feats, garner support for the Kims inside the military, and strengthen North Korean deterrence against potential U.S. or South Korean attack. The Kims can now claim that they have made their country strong enough to deter U.S. military retaliation.

Kim Jong-il would like a particular legacy for his final years and his son's ascent: He wants North Koreans and the world to believe that the Kims have transformed North Korea into a "nuclear power," a rough peer of the United States and the other seven states with nuclear weapons. But North Korea is not even close to being a peer of any of these states, and certainly not of the United States, in terms of nuclear weapons or anything else. Instead, Kim's legacy is one of trying to make a very weak state look strong in defiance of logic and international order.

The Kims are also interested in commercial space launches. They have watched China enter the space launch business, and apparently want to offer a low-cost alternative to foreign buyers, one allowing the Kims to also "acquire" sophisticated satellite technology. North Korea has apparently spent a considerable effort to prepare a new launch site on its west coast at Dongchang-ri, a site apparently chosen for putting satellites into polar orbit.

But thus far, all of their space launch efforts have failed. To attract customers, North Korea will have to demonstrate several successful launches. No surprise, then, that North Korea already has another missile being prepared at Dongchang-ri for a space/ICBM launch. And North Korea could attempt to launch more before this round of provocations is over.

To achieve international acceptance, Kim claims a national right to space launches. He used the anticipated U.N. criticism of the launch to justify withdrawing from the six-party talks, expelling nuclear weapon inspectors, and restarting nuclear weapon production efforts. For Kim, the talks were making too much progress toward dismantling his nuclear program, something he does not want to give up. Once he has achieved his objectives with this round of provocations, the Kims can then agree to restart the six-party talks, if the talks start again from scratch. They will almost certainly insist on new offers of economic aid before agreeing to discuss their nuclear weapons program.

Kim also decries the "vicious hostile policy" of the United States and its allies and claims that the United States and its allies are eternal enemies responsible for all of the ills in North Korea. Such claims allow the Kims to excuse their poor performance as national leaders.

International Reactions

The downside of these provocations for the Kims is that the United States and other countries will seek to impose sanctions on North Korea. Kim has clearly anticipated such sanctions, and has prepared to escalate in response. After North Korea's 2006 missile launches, there were three months of slow preparations for its first nuclear weapon test, apparently intended to heighten pressure on the United States. This time, less than two months passed between the missile launch and the nuclear test, and within days thereafter North Korea was preparing another ICBM for launch.

Moreover, North Korea's rhetoric has been extreme. It has threatened military strikes if its ships are inspected, said it will no longer be bound by the armistice agreement, and would not guarantee the safety of foreign ships along the west coast.

It is unlikely that the Kims just woke up one morning and decided to do a space/ICBM launch. Instead, they appear to have planned a series of provocations, threats, and reactions. They appear to have anticipated U.S. and international responses that they could use to their benefit. The timing of the Kims' campaign may well have been set to upstage the U.S.-ROK summit, to demonstrate that the Kims' North Korea can compete with and better the United States and the ROK. And so far, they seem to be winning.

Demonstrating Strength in the Summit

Can the summit even compete with the North Korean antics? It can, but to do so, the United States and the ROK must demonstrate an ability to counter and even check the North Korean provocations. This, of course, could be dangerous. Still, the world would find it refreshing if the United States, the ROK, and other regional participants were to finally deter North Korean actions.

The ability to deter or coerce a country is a function of the benefits that country sees from taking action versus the costs it sees that it might suffer. What costs could the United States and the ROK threaten to impose?

In the current world environment, few countries are prepared to use military force other than defensively. Instead, the international community typically resorts to financial sanctions that are undermined by weak enforcement. So far, the North Koreans seem to be winning. From their recent provocations, the Kims gained the many benefits outlined above, have suffered little, and certainly have not been deterred. Moreover, they appear to hope that by employing escalatory brinksmanship and extreme threats, they can minimize serious actions against them.

For the U.S.-ROK summit to succeed, it must develop means of deterrence that threaten the Kims with costs they perceive higher than the benefits they would otherwise obtain. This approach might forestall some further provocations, but it might also push the Kims into escalation to demonstrate their power and try to make U.S. and ROK steadfastness painful. Thus the United States and the ROK would need their own escalatory plan, with increasingly serious costs employed to deter more extreme North Korean actions.

Which actions might the Kims consider costly? The North Korean sensitivity to the anti-Kim leaflets delivered regularly by balloon to North Koreans suggests that the Kims fear criticism or any suggestion from the outside of their weakness and failures. The ROK and the United States could threaten to blast the North Korean population with messages by dropping leaflets, beaming more radio/TV broadcasts, distributing more video tapes and DVDs into the North, and even emailing people in the North.

The messages sent by these means could include criticism of Kim Jong-il and reasons why Kim Jong-un cannot reasonably lead North Korea, offers of financial rewards to defectors with specific backgrounds (e.g., those in the nuclear or missile programs), or reassurances to the North Korean elites that the ROK/U.S. plan to give them a future in a unified Korea. Such meddling in North Korean affairs would be highly offensive to the Kims.

The ROK and the United States could also announce plans to prepare for the collapse of the North Korean government. A collapse might not happen for another 10 or 20 years, but it might happen next month, and so it is time to be better prepared. When North Korea does collapse, the ROK will need vast food stockpiles and the means to quickly send food into the North to prevent mass starvation (although many North Koreans already do starve to death). At such a time, food will be the "coin of the realm," the thing necessary to buy support from various North Korean groups. The Kims would be outraged by any discussion of regime collapse or an ROK role in resolving the subsequent difficulties. But many North Korean elites might be surprised by ROK willingness to help them.

Of course, such threats would need to be part of a deterrence campaign. The ROK and the United States could privately tell the North Korean government, for example, that they will announce plans to stockpile food in the ROK if North Korea launches another ICBM. They may also want to include other actions to pose a threat with sufficient costs to offset the benefits North Korea otherwise would expect from a missile launch.

North Korea would likely reply that any such action would be a serious escalation, and they would escalate themselves. North Korea has already threatened military attacks on the South, and may make such threats again. The ROK and the United States would need to have already planned to threaten a high cost to North Korea as their response. They could say that any North Korean attacks on the ROK would be met by the immediate destruction of North Korea's ICBM launch complexes on both the east and west coasts, complexes into which North Korea has invested vast sums and many years of effort.

While such threats and counterthreats are dangerous, there appears to be no other way to deter North Korean provocations. Moreover, even the financial sanctions recently approved by the United Nations will likely drive North Korea into such an escalatory mode. Otherwise, Kim Jong-un would appear weak.

There is no guarantee that the United States and the ROK can deter the North Korean provocations, but we are more likely to succeed if we prepare a coherent plan with concrete measures and then execute that plan. The U.S.-ROK summit will appear far more meaningful if it leads to our countries being able to deter at least some of North Korea's ongoing provocations.

Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. This commentary represents his personal views.

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