By James Hardy, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: James Hardy is Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. The views expressed are his own.
North Korea's announcement via state TV that it was preparing to target Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States – and had readied its “rocket and long-range artillery” forces for the purpose – has inspired a cacophony of speculation across the globe.
But the fact is that despite the bombast, and unless there has been a miraculous turnaround among North Korea’s strategic forces, there is little to no chance that it could successfully land a missile on Guam, Hawaii or anywhere else outside the Korean Peninsula that U.S. forces may be stationed.
Even if North Korea did have the capability and chose to use it, the likelihood of an overwhelming U.S. military counterattack would render any such attack self-defeating for Kim Jong Un’s regime. Indeed, as Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman tweeted a few weeks ago, any such move would amount to "North Korea basically telling the world it would like to be made into a parking lot.”
This hasn’t stopped North Korea trying to muddy the water – its latest threats were accompanied by images of the latest drills by the Korean People's Army. Witnessed by Kim, images flashed up of female North Korean soldiers firing Type 63 multiple rocket launchers and a massed hovercraft landing on a tidal flat. The problem is that there’s a good chance the images were photoshopped. Aside from that, all we were treated to was Kim operating some pretty rickety computer systems.
It is, of course, easy to dismiss North Korean rhetoric, because most of the time it seems so detached from the rest of the world's version of reality. But as any longtime Pyongyang watcher will tell you, underneath the verbal pyrotechnics there is an undeniable logic to the North's pronouncements.
In this case, Kim is under probably the greatest international pressure he has experienced since taking over from his father in December 2011. Last month's nuclear test appears to have been a step too far for China, which is reportedly actually enforcing the U.N. Security Council sanctions that it joined in passing earlier this month. Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea have recently concluded a series of major military exercises, and earlier this week agreed to a contingency plan to deal with any North Korean “provocations.” This agreement is vital for the United States, which had seen South Korean patience with its northern neighbor shrivel following the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of the same year. The last thing the U.S. wants is an overreaction by South Korea that could lead to a full-blown international crisis.
Kim is also responding to the announcement by new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the continental U.S. is going to get more ballistic missile defense interceptors based in Alaska, specifically to neutralize any potential North Korean threat.
So Kim's under international pressure. And he's also probably under considerable internal pressure to maintain the Songun, or “military first” policy espoused by his father that ties the regime's success to the armed forces. Certainly, speculation that Kim's accession would see a rebalancing of the North Korean political system away from the military and toward the Korean People's Party has been rebutted by the predominantly military postures he has adopted in recent months.
But this is just some background to this week's threats, and begs the question of whether North Korea’s bark is worse that its bite. The answer is probably yes.
North Korea doesn't appear to have the capability to carry out its latest threat to attack U.S. bases in Hawaii, Guam or the U.S. mainland. From what we know of its existing inventory, it does have Scud derived missiles that could complicate the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and they could likely reach Japan. But anything further is probably an empty threat.
For all the hoopla surrounding the Unha-3 rocket that was used to launch a satellite in December 2012, the fact remains that it was ballistic missile technology, not a ballistic missile. That leaves the KN-08, which was unveiled at last April’s military parade in Pyongyang. Hagel's announcement that the U.S. was ramping up its ballistic missile defenses on the west coast/Alaska was interesting because Pentagon officials used the KN-08 as a rationale for the move, but then refused to divulge the intelligence they have on it.
There are two possible trains of thought on this: either America knows something about this missile that means it is taking it seriously, or it is using its existence as an excuse to ramp up their Asia-Pacific facing missile defenses. The latter would tie into Washington's “pivot” plans for Asia-Pacific, but will not be lost on China, which has already signaled its lack of enthusiasm for any such moves.
All this said, the KN-08, if it becomes operational, is still likely to pose a problem for the United States in the medium to long term. But for now, North Korea is not in a position to wage a war with the United States or South Korea, and will instead have to rely on asymmetric “provocations.” What could these involve? Most likely, activities such as last week's cyber attack on South Korean media and banks. Or, if Kim needs more bang for his buck, then another shelling of South Korea's Yellow Sea islands or even a naval skirmish.
Regardless, the logic behind them all is clear: as long as the U.S. threatens regime survival, whether by sanctions or treaty alliances, the North Korean regime will do its damnedest to make life difficult for Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. But those bases that Kim has been threatening will be safe for a while yet.
11:59 AM ET
By Charles Armstrong, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles Armstrong is the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. The views expressed are his own.
Anyone who has followed North Korean affairs for the last several years (or the last two decades) could have predicted North Korea’s defiant response to the U.N. Security Council resolution this week condemning North Korea’s rocket launch last December and strengthening international sanctions against Pyongyang. But it should also be clear by now that while carrots only occasionally deter North Korea’s provocative behavior, sticks – whether in the form of sanctions or threats of military action – only make North Korea defiant and more bellicose.
In 1994, the first time the United States proposed taking the North Korean nuclear question to the United Nations, North Korea announced that any impositions of U.N. sanctions would be considered “an act of war.” In 2006, and again in 2009, North Korea responded to U.N. sanctions not by giving up missiles and nukes, but ratcheting up the rhetoric. In the past, promises of security and economic aid have persuaded Pyongyang to freeze or reduce its missile and nuclear programs: North Korea halted its plutonium program for eight years following an agreement with the United States in 1994, adhered to a voluntary moratorium on missile tests from 1998 to 2006, and shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in 2007 as part of a multilateral agreement. The record may not be terribly encouraging, but carrots do occasionally work.
Much has been made of the fact that North Korea this week directed its threats specifically against the United States (before issuing a warning to South Korea earlier today), calling America its “sworn enemy” and claiming that its would “target” the United States with its weapons. But this too is nothing new. North Korea has for years denounced America’s “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang and has long insisted that its nuclear program is designed to defend the country against an American attack. North Korea’s ability to strike American territory with missiles is questionable, and North Korea almost certainly lacks the technological capability to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile. Neither side is willing to back down, but threats and sanctions are unlikely to resolve the key issues dividing them.
For the past year, the North Korean regime has been focused on internal power consolidation under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Part of Kim’s legitimacy rests on claims of a robust national defense, including nuclear weapons. North Korea seems determined to be recognized as a nuclear power, something the United States and other countries have said repeatedly is unacceptable. But it seems there is little anyone can do to prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program, including conducting a third nuclear tests (after the ones in 2006 and 2009) in the coming weeks or months. The latest sanctions announced by the United Nations may look robust on paper, but without enforcement – above all by China, North Korea’s most important economic partner – sanctions have no teeth. So far, Chinese enforcement of U.N. sanctions has been tepid at best, as China prefers to keep North Korea economically viable rather than risk instability on its border.
Kim Jong Un has also talked about improving North Korea’s moribund economy and hinted that he would move the country in the direction of reform and opening. Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month could point the way for North Korea to come out of its shell and join the global economy. The visit was criticized by the U.S. State Department, and doesn’t seem to have produced anything of significance so far. But the very fact that North Korea allowed the visit suggests Kim Jong Un is interested in bringing modern technology to his country, to improve the state of the North Korea economy through connections with the outside world.
The dilemma, though, is that North Korea can only embark on serious reform from a condition of what it considers absolute security, in which neither the leadership nor the country as a whole is threatened by hostile outside forces. Unfortunately, the quest for security and the desire for economic improvement have been in contradiction for some time. A genuine opening could unleash political and social changes that threaten the legitimacy and stability of the regime, while the path of security through nuclear deterrence and missiles have led time and again to confrontation and renewed isolation.
So, where do we go from here? The United States and the United Nations have little choice but to impose sanctions in response to North Korea’s actions, which clearly violate earlier sanction conditions. But it is hard to see how such sanctions can deter a determined and defiant North Korea, especially if the sanctions are not rigorously enforced. The best we can hope for is that the latest confrontation will finally bring all sides together – including both Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan – to solve this issue.
Diplomacy, not threats or sanctions – and certainly not military action – is the only viable path to resolution.