Since we have scant evidence on North Korean intentions, we devolve to competing theories. Here are the plausible alternatives, not all mutually exclusive, arrayed from those emphasizing North Korean strengths to possible weaknesses. Tomorrow, a look at what the US is doing, as it is equally if not more puzzling.
- Planning to Fight and Win. AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt has recorded a remarkable one-minute explanation of North Korea's ambitions. It is dystopian. Eberstadt believes that the North Koreans are preparing to fight and win a limited nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, driving the US alliance to collapse. One minute does not provide him the opportunity to explain how such a war would actually start, and despite all the Sturm and Drang, the peninsula looks more stable to me than some of the hysteria would suggest. But on at least one point, Eberstadt is clearly right: nuclear weapons and missiles are not for show. If war were to break out, North Korea having these capabilities seriously complicates fighting it. Nuclear weapons could also lead to the alliance decoupling that Eberstadt fears, particularly given Trump’s comments on the matter.
- The Porcupine Theory: Signaling and Testing. The North Korean regime has a history of testing incoming American and South Korean presidents. After his relatively benign campaign with respect to North Korea, Obama got a cold shower in 2009 with a sequence of missile tests, followed by the second nuclear test in May. The South Korean presidential election of December 2012 that brought Park Geun-hye to power was followed by one of the tensest periods on the peninsula since the first nuclear crisis, also punctuated with a nuclear test in February. President Trump is just getting his lesson that North Korea is capable of deterring any military options. President Moon is learning that the terms of inter-Korean relations will be set by Pyongyang. In short, the tests are sort of like a North Korean welcome mat.
- Bluffing but Racing. The North Korean leadership—rightly or wrongly—really does believe its own rhetoric that it is under nuclear threat from the United States. This theory is particularly plausible, because it is precisely what Pyongyang continuously says. Yes, a conventional deterrent vis-à-vis the South—through the capacity to impose damage on Seoul—is useful. But nothing quite does the job like your own nuclear capability. But do they really have it? Yes, the test could signal that they are making progress on miniaturization; despite its obviously higher yield, North Korean engineers are no doubt experimenting with getting the size of any weapon down. And yes, the North Koreans have tested something at or near the borderline of intercontinental range. But those tests were with limited payloads and we don’t know whether they have solved the re-entry problem. This theory envisions a North Korea that is substantially more insecure, seeing an unpredictable US and desperately scrambling to secure the capability it may only appear to have.
- China and Sanctions. The final theory—and the one that I hold—is that this has much less to do with the United States and South Korea than it does with China and driving political wedges among the parties (See recent posts here, here). As Marcus Noland and I have argued for some time, including in our recent book Hard Target, North Korea does not enjoy some magic invulnerability to sanctions. Rather, sanctions by other countries have been offset in whole or part with the growing China trade, and have been imposed in a way which—to date—has allowed evasion and adaptation. But how long can this go on? In the words of American economist Herbert Stein, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The “something” in this case is Chinese enabling; the “it” is the economic growth and even macroconomic stability the North Korean economy has enjoyed over the last three or four years. Under this theory, the North Korean regime is pulling resources from a variety of overseas accounts to sustain its balance-of-payments deficit with China, now virtually its only significant trading partner. The regime is perfectly aware of what is in those accounts and how long they will last, and it does not like what it is seeing. The tests are not a sign of confidence but desperation: an effort on the part of Kim Jong Un to sway the Chinese to back off their recent sanctions commitments, which are in fact quite draconian.
Needless to say, these theories have very different policy implications. If you believe in the porcupine or bluffing-but-racing theories, then assurances loom large and emphasis should be placed on underlining the commitment to negotiate. Tough talk only has adverse effects. But if you believe in either the strong or weak North Korea theory, now is the time to press the case even more vigorously. Since I favor the last theory, I have no problem with the strategy that Secretary Tillerson has outlined of so-called “peaceful pressure.” The problem with this strategy is that the Trump administration can’t get it right; more on that problem tomorrow.