Yesterday, I reviewed some of the most important developments surrounding the peninsula, starting with the North Korean missile tests. Although the missile tests appeared to be timed to the onset of the US-ROK joint exercises, such timing arguments are harder and harder to make given the relentless pace of testing; you can now tie tests to virtually anything. I emphasized that the particular developments of the last month—most notably the apparent launch from a submarine of a two-stage solid-fueled ballistic missile—underline the consistent underestimation of North Korean capabilities.
We cited Uzi Rabin on this point, but an important new thread at Arms Control Wonk by Jeffrey Lewis provides more detail. Lewis makes two main points. First, although submarine-launched in this exercise, there is nothing to stop the North Koreans using the KN-11 from land. Given that solid fuel rockets have shorter set-up, launch and reload times, these developments are precisely what we don’t need from the perspective of crisis stability. Second, however, the developments complicate the utility of THAAD. On the one hand, the ability to launch from both land and at sea—and thus outside the line-of-sight of the radar deployed at a single battery—suggest the need for a second THAAD battery to achieve full coverage. Yet given that the KN-11 can be lofted, with much higher entry speeds, the new missile raises questions of whether THAAD can really protect from this particular threat. Is a defensive-offensive arms race with North Korea—and with China, on which more below—where we want to be? Lewis concludes, reluctantly, that we may have to accept the vulnerability vis-à-vis North Korea just as we do against Chinese and Russian strategic forces.
Needless to say, this is not an appetizing prospect, and it is worth spelling out exactly why. First, with a secure second strike capability, North Korea might miscalculate that it can undertake low-level, asymmetric provocations with impunity, as it did in 2010 with its unprovoked attack on Yeongpyeong Island. But the US and the ROK have not been standing still in terms of strengthening the deterrent, and the second concern is thus crisis stability. As such a self-generated crisis escalates, the regime might miscalculate the benefits provided by its nuclear weapons or, alternatively, feel compelled to use them as they have doubts about the integrity of their second-strike capability. A big country with both nuclear and conventional superiority and a highly-competent ally facing a small isolated country with (what it thinks) is a secure second-strike capability is a recipe for crisis instability and miscalculation on both sides.
The Chinese Response: More—or Less—Nuanced Than it Appears?
Whatever the technical merits of the case, THAAD has clearly pushed Chinese buttons. Chinese concerns appear to center less on THAAD per se than on the perception of encirclement: that brick by brick, the US is putting in place not only an integrated regional BMD system but an integrated detection capability across the region, strengthened by THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar. Ian Armstrong at the Huff Post provides a useful analysis of how the Chinese might respond, most notably by MIRV’ing existing forces and accelerated pursuit of hypersonic gliders. But the current state of play is much worse than the changes it may introduce with respect to strategic stability. THAAD deployment is now seen from Beijing in a wider regional political context—largely of Beijing’s own making—that includes the South China Sea, the East China Sea and how the president of the United States descends from his aircraft while visiting the country; everything is fraught.
While in Beijing last week, I was told by a credible source that China had been working internally to flesh out a proposal to get back to talks. Not only are those efforts over, interest in implementation of UNSC 2270 appears to have waned as well. Moving forward, Witness will be covering implementation on a regular basis as relevant trade, exchange rate and price data becomes available. But our one-word assessment of enforcement to dates would probably be “tepid.”
At the broader diplomatic level, North Korea was conspicuously missing from the Fact Sheet on the President's meeting with Xi Jinping, despite the fact that North Korea celebrated the G20 meeting by firing three Rodongs in the direction of Hokkaido. The subsequent “Readout” of the meeting contained an anodyne paragraph recognizing the threat and committing to existing UNSC resolutions (“The leaders reaffirmed the threat presented by North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile systems, and resolved to strengthen coordination in achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, including through full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and other relevant Security Council resolutions.”) However, President Xi was somewhat blunter with President Park in Hanzhou, stating that "mishandling the issue is not conducive to strategic stability in the region, and could intensify conflicts." For her part, President Park stuck to the new line opened over the last few days that South Korea was open to communication on the issue.
However, the Chinese response has been moderated in one little-noted way, and it was emphasized to me by Chinese hosts while in Beijing. During the trilateral summit with Korea and Japan at the end of last month, Wang Yi outlined briefly and cryptically a modification of Chinese policy on North Korea; as these don’t come frequently it should be taken seriously. In addition to the “three persistences”—commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, settling all relevant issues through negotiations, and maintaining peace and stability—Wang Yi added “Three Objections.” The three objections were that China opposes “the developing process [sic] of nuclear missiles by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, opposes any remarks and actions that will trigger tension on the Korean Peninsula, and opposes all measures that violate the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2270.”
The question is what this—and other aphoristic Chinese utterances—really mean? Clearly, the explicit mention of opposition not only to the nuclear program but to the complementary missile program is welcome. (This raises doubts in my mind about Bruce Bechtol’s recent claim that the tests reflect direct Chinese technology transfer; Lewis weighs in on this issue as well). And opposition to all measures that violate UNSC 2270 could also be welcome given that the resolution restates prior prohibitions on both nuclear and missile development; for example, here is para. 2:
“2. Reaffirms its decisions that the DPRK shall not conduct any further launches that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests, or any other provocation, and shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launches, and demands that the DPRK immediately comply fully with these obligations.”
But the definition of “remarks or actions that will trigger tension on the Korean peninsula” is left unstated, and constitutes the dropping of the other shoe. A review of Chinese statements on THAAD shows not only consistent opposition, but also a ratcheting up of the stakes, from a stated willingness to put the China-ROK relationship at risk to the assertion by Wang Yi himself that "THAAD is most certainly not a simple technical issue, but an out-and-out strategic one" (Reuters).
For reasons similar to Lewis’, I am somewhat skeptical about THAAD. But the US and South Korea simply cannot allow a third country to veto deployment of what the alliance partners deem are necessary defenses; where does that end? In a post next week, I lay out in more detail what might be done. But the core is closer coordination between China, South Korea and the US on the issue. Although the prospects are minimal, the US and Korea need to restate their willingness to join any talks with an agenda that includes denuclearization to which the North Koreans will come. China designed the Six Party Talks and it is the only country in a position to outline how such talks will work in more detail; the Five Parties would appreciate Wang Yi filling out his proposal in more detail, presumably a proposal that North Korea would endorse. For its part, the ROK and the US have already dropped most preconditions for talks, should restate their commitment to the quid pro quos in the 2005 Joint Statement, and underline that THAAD—and indeed all defensive measures, including exercises—are undertaken contingent on the threat; if the threat diminishes than the need for THAAD could diminish accordingly.
Don’t hold your breath, but not making such an offer only makes things work. I can just hear the laughter from the halls of power in Pyongyang as the US, China and South Korea are at each other’s throats. I don’t see any other winners from the current state of play.