The Political Effects of the Missile Tests: Extended Deterrence Redux and the Squeeze on Moon Jae-in
The open-source missile community has been pointing to our underestimation of North Korean capabilities for some time now, and they have not been crying “Wolf!” in the “I told you so department,” kudos to Jeffrey Lewis, who predicted the Trump-Tower range of the July 28 test only two days after the July 4 test, as well as Ankit Panda, who picked up military intelligence on the movement of the TEL launcher.
The ranges of the two recent tests are what gives them political salience. The 6,500-mile range is bad enough, putting West Coast cities in range. But as David Wright points out at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the earth’s rotation adds range to missiles fired east, putting the East Coast in range as well. Maybe this will put an end to Moscow’s embarrassing hair-splitting at the UN following the July 4 launch, when Russia took issue with claims—including North Korea’s—that the HN-14 was indeed an ICBM. Good luck getting to a new UNSC resolution over this launch. As we have documented, they are getting harder and harder to negotiate. Perhaps that is why Ambassador Nicki Haley said that "the time for talking is over." Why expend diplomatic energy on measures that are designed by the veto-holders to avoid meaningful material effect?
But it is not just the ranges that matter: it is that the highly-lofted trajectories of these tests provide information to the North Korean scientific establishment on the long-sought goals with respect to weaponization and re-entry. Last week, the Defense Intelligence Agency shaved two years off its prediction that North Korea would acquire a fully nuclear-capable ICBM capability, essentially putting it on the table within a year. This assessment generates instability emanating from the US. If you believe in a preventive war option, the window for it is narrowing rapidly. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense piled on with a report to the National Assembly assessing that a sixth nuclear test is imminent as well.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, why talk when you are winning and the tough-talkers are losing?
Of particular interest to those working on the economic dimension of the North Korean problem is the ongoing question of China’s enabling behavior. The July 4 launcher appears to be a modified WS51200 logging truck imported from China, as James Pearson and Jack Kim detail for Reuters. The dual-use problem is not limited to chemical regents and computer chips, and more alarmist accounts speculate—without evidence—that the Chinese may be more deeply involved in the missile program than we know. In any case, President Trump’s mantra—that “they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk…” has more than a grain of truth. Coverage of the recent sanctions legislation was dominated by the executive-legislative showdown with respect to Russia sanctions. But the bill rolled together new sanctions on North Korea and Iran and the administration now has a lot of discretion with respect to secondary sanctions, which are likely to be the main course of action.
The real implications of the missile tests center on the potential stresses they place on alliance relations, and the squeeze they have put on President Moon Jae-in. We know surprisingly little about North Korean nuclear doctrine, but one thing is clear: the capacity to strike US forces in the region—let alone American cities—severely complicates the extended deterrence relationship with South Korea. The first order problem is decoupling: the complication that North Korean capabilities pose during a crisis, when the US capacity to escalate may be limited by North Korea’s ability to retaliate. The second order problem is the well-known stability-instability paradox. I have outlined why I think North Korea is more cautious than is often thought, language about pre-emption notwithstanding (See two related posts from 2013 here and here). Missile tests—even those landing in Japanese territorial waters—are different than actions that would generate retaliation, such as probes along the Northern Limit Line. But as financial advisors always point out, “past performance is no indication of future results,” and in a highly-centralized political system built around the Kim incumbent, the dangers of over-confidence cannot be ruled out.
The Moon administration is reeling from the recognition of these problems. Something appears to have happened to the president at the G20 summit as his comments suggest a certain dejection about the prospects for occupying the “driver’s seat” on the nuclear issue, however unrealistic that expectation was. North Korea is doing everything in its power to bring Moon to heel, snubbing one engagement proposal after another. The most recent: an ambitious—and doomed—effort to go straight to military talks, bypassing the functional approach that has been the hallmark of engagement proposals in the past.
As I argued, Moon’s Berlin speech already signaled a harder line. But in the wake of the July 28 test, we have seen a veritable checklist of alliance-confirming actions that suggest a much harder line out of the Blue House, starting with the claim that the Hwasong 14 launch “reached the threshold of a redline” and “was changing the strategic calculus in the region.” First up was THAAD. Despite calling for an environmental review to buy some time, President Moon Jae-in allowed the final four launchers to be installed on a “temporary” basis. Second, following joint missile tests, South Korea has approached the United States about relaxing current restraints on its own ballistic missile capabilities, allowing development of a missile with a range of over 800 kilometers and a payload of up to 1,000 kilos, double the current guidelines. Third, there are now discussions of other capabilities, including development of a nuclear-powered submarine.
Finally, we have the inevitable military-cum-political signaling. Immediately following the launch, a spokesman for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford revealed that he had "discussed military response options" with his South Korean counterpart Gen. Lee Sun-jin. Yet it is likely that these include strengthening of defensive and deterrent capabilities rather than pre-emption, with all of its well-known risks. The likely response in the short-run will be on the sanctions front, where the main question is how to proceed with respect to Beijing. My favored approach is to put as much financial forensics on the table, in a cooperative way, and try to get Beijing to do the dirty work. But I see no reason why we shouldn’t act on our own if Xi Jinping continues to drag his feet.
Nonetheless, as we have said repeatedly, the endgame—if there is one any more—will only come through a return to negotiations, even if North Korea is rapidly changing the terms of such talks if ever reconvened. Meanwhile, on the US side Vice President Pence has stated quite clearly that the U.S. is not seeking negotiations with North Korea. The problem with the pro-engagement forces, though, is that no one appears able to reach the North Koreans. It is fine to say “engage, engage, engage,” but it is hard to say that Moon Jae-in didn’t try. From Pyongyang’s perspective, why talk when you are winning and the tough-talkers are losing?