By Eric Vandenbroeck

Where earlier it was announced that Donald Trump ordered his national security team to develop a new approach to defuse North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons threat with a military option on the table to finally denuclearize the Korean Peninsula as “the only appropriate and acceptable” solution, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said.

On 4 July then the Pentagon announced that a N. K Korea's missile test on 3 July was a variant not previously seen, with a range in excess of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) with approximately the distance to Anchorage, Alaska. To which US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley responded with that America is prepared to use military force against North Korea in the wake of its latest missile test. "One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces," she said. "We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction."

And then now again US intelligence sources told CNN on Wednesday that North Korea may be once again gearing up to test an intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missile, and more specifically that the North Korean missile test could be launched from a submarine.

And indeed, war is rarely the first option for countries trying to preserve or enhance their strategic positions. The United States and North Korea alike would rather avoid a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which would be complicated and costly for all parties involved. Neither wants war; each side strongly prefers an alternative path to resolve the core issues underlying the crisis. Yet their differing strategic imperatives and desired end states leave little room for compromise.

And as I suggested on 12 March the United States and North Korea are likely to be increasingly on a collision course which is likely to be followed by a US strike. Their differing interests are reaching a point of irreconcilability, and each side sees in the other a significant threat to its national interests. To understand the rapidly shrinking timeline for a potential conflict between the two, we must first state a few assumptions about each country's view of the other.

These assumptions are based on more than merely statements by individual leaders, which often are more about subjective desire than about objective reality. Instead, they are founded on a geopolitical analysis and intelligence study of the United States and North Korea drawing from assessments of history and strategic culture as well as studies of politics, economics and past behavior. Assumptions, of course, can be wrong and must be constantly tested; they also evolve over time, as circumstances and evidence change. But for now, these are our baseline assumptions about the key actors in the Korean crisis.


The View from Pyongyang

North Korea has long considered the United States, and not South Korea, its primary adversary. Pyongyang sees the long-term presence of U.S. military forces in South Korea as a direct, intentional hindrance to unification of the Korean Peninsula on its own terms. And when North Korea denounces joint exercises between U.S. and South Korean armed forces as practice for military action against it, it sincerely believes in the threat that it's decrying. North Korea has deterred the United States from military action for decades through a combination of political tactics and a robust military capacity that would create mass casualties for U.S. forces on the ground and for civilians in Seoul. Pyongyang, meanwhile, ensured that it never became enough of a threat that the cost of nonintervention would exceed that of intervention from Washington's point of view. 

Since the final years of Kim Jong Il's rule, however, North Korea's core leadership has reassessed its position. The government has begun to doubt that its frontline conventional weapons, even when supplemented with biological or chemical weapons, would deter U.S. military action or stop Washington from taking steps to overthrow it. A peace accord and nonaggression pact are no longer sufficient to guarantee the North Korean system's survival, a perception that has been reinforced again and again, most notably when the United States invaded Iraq despite the risks entailed. (Various so-called "color" revolutions, the Arab Spring uprisings, and the ouster and death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi even after his country gave up its weapons of mass destruction program likewise put Pyongyang on edge.)

Under current leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has drastically accelerated its nuclear and missile programs to try to develop a demonstrable capacity to strike at the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. The capability, from Pyongyang's perspective, would provide the only viable assurance that the United States would not work to overthrow the Kim administration through political, economic or military action. Pyongyang fully recognizes that the closer it gets to demonstrating the ability to strike the United States, the more pressure Washington will feel to stop the program, whatever the means. But the high cost of military action, which could rapidly expand beyond the Korean Peninsula, still keeps the United States from following through, as do political differences with its two regional allies, South Korea and Japan. China's objections have also deterred Washington from action.

North Korea, then, is caught in a conundrum: It feels it needs a nuclear capability to deter interference in its government, yet it understands that developing its deterrent will increase the chances of intervention. As a result, Pyongyang relies on the complexities of the region and the costs of military action to keep the United States at bay long enough that it can realize its nuclear ambitions. It's a dangerous gamble, but one that North Korea's leaders feel is worth the risk, since capitulation is the only alternative.


Washington's Perspective

For the United States, North Korea has long been a secondary problem. Though the country is a perpetual source of potential regional instability, its neighbors, and its own economic limitations, always manage to keep it in check. North Korea's nuclear program presented Washington with one of its first major post-Cold War crises. But the United States avoided military action in 1994 through diplomacy, and in the years since, its general policy toward Pyongyang has been to manage the issue and put off conflict. Confronted with the price of military intervention, the United States preferred declaring moratoriums on Pyongyang's missile testing, isolating it financially and making the occasional diplomatic deal. Washington, after all, has always expected North Korea to collapse at any moment, so waiting a while longer has been the more logical policy.

But in recent years, the U.S. view has started to change. Isolation, sanctions and stern statements from the United Nations have hardly slowed North Korea's drive toward a viable nuclear deterrent. Pyongyang no longer treats its nuclear and missile programs as bargaining chips to trade away in negotiations. And as its nuclear weapons development continues, nearing a point where the threat reaches the continental United States, moratoriums on testing are not enough. The sense is growing in the United States that Pyongyang's quest for nuclear capability is a crisis that can't be punted down the road any longer.

A North Korea armed with missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to the United States is a danger Washington cannot accept. Even if the U.S. government assumes that Pyongyang wouldn't start a war (an idea not everyone agrees with), questions remain over how it would use its new capability. North Korea could, for example, use it to constrain Washington's responses to regional moves or perhaps share its weapons technology with other "rogue" states, thereby significantly altering the global nuclear landscape. Given the pace of Pyongyang's missile tests, Washington sees that the window for taking one last shot at non-military action is rapidly closing.

The United States wants to avoid war, but to do so, it feels it must make clear that it will use military action if necessary. Washington's airstrike against the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons, recent ballistic missile tests and higher-profile military exercises on the Korean Peninsula were all meant in part to demonstrate that the United States is willing to resort to military action in the absence of a better option. The U.S. government is using the threat perhaps more to try to sway China and Russia than it is to change North Korea's behavior. From Washington's point of view, Beijing alone has the leeway to propose a nonmilitary solution to the North Korean crisis. Not only is China Pyongyang's primary economic backer, but it is also keenly interested in keeping the North Korean system in place as a buffer at its border.


China, from the Other Sides

But the risk of intervention outweighs the risk of inaction for Beijing. China still considers instability in North Korea, or the political and military repercussions of trying to overturn the leadership there, a greater danger than Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. It continues to believe, moreover, that for all Washington's bluster, the United States wouldn't follow through on military action to stop North Korea's missile development because doing so would risk starting an East Asian war. For China, which already lives with a nuclear-armed North Korea at its border, not to mention a nuclear India, Pakistan and Russia, Pyongyang's growing capabilities are a problem, but not an unmanageable one. The United States poses a bigger risk to its strategic interests. At the same time, China's options to respond have dwindled as Pyongyang has steadily restricted Beijing's communications and influence with it.

South Korea, too, has been coping with the North Korean military threat for decades. North Korea's nuclear program threatens South Korea, aimed as it is at the U.S. alliance structure. Nevertheless, Seoul understands that its national interests and those of Washington may diverge in the future, or at least not fully coincide. South Korea also foresees little danger of North Korea trying to reunify through force; U.S. support notwithstanding, Seoul's military capabilities have grown since 1950, and the international system is no longer conducive to military action on Pyongyang's part. In the event of another war between the two Koreas, China would be just as likely to intervene on the side of the South as on that of the North, if only to prevent the United States from getting involved.

Seoul and Beijing are each interested in managing the situation and forestalling conflict rather than in resolving the issue immediately. The advancement in North Korea's ballistic missile range, though a paradigm shift for the United States, represented only a small change for the region's overall security. Consequently, South Korea and China are trying to convey through their remaining channels with North Korea that they are willing to delay a crisis to shield Pyongyang from potential military action. Their assurances may embolden North Korea, but for Seoul and Beijing alike, delaying a confrontation is the preferable path, especially since neither see much chance of a true compromise between Washington and Pyongyang. China, meanwhile, maintains a sliver of hope that Washington may eventually accept the reality in North Korea and adjust its behavior toward the government in Pyongyang accordingly, backing off from military threats in favor of dialogue and management.

Russia and Japan each play a slightly smaller role and differ in their views of the situation. Moscow, which wants to avoid a war but lacks much clout with Pyongyang, is using the crisis to emphasize the threat Washington poses to international peace and stability. And Japan feels the change in North Korea's nuclear development perhaps more acutely than does South Korea. The missiles Pyongyang has been testing serve a more valuable military purpose aimed at Japan and the U.S. bases there than they do trained on South Korea, a country that has long been within the demonstrated reach of North Koreas' missiles. Tokyo sees the standoff with North Korea as an opportunity to fortify its position as the key U.S. ally in the region and to counter China's growing influence. In addition, the threat of Pyongyang gives the Japanese government further justification for its decision to lift the constitutional restrictions on the use of its armed forces.


Population Density

If these assumptions stand, a time is fast approaching when the United States won't be able to sit back and delay action anymore. Washington still has several options short of military action, but history has so far shown that the tactics are only temporary. Every deferral enables North Korea to move closer to its goal of developing a long-range nuclear missile while reinforcing Pyongyang's notion that U.S. security guarantees are nonbinding and rarely outlast a single president. Whether each side's perceptions of the other are accurate matters less than whether North Korea and the United States believe them and make their decisions accordingly.

In fact this is how wars begin: not through the rash actions of erratic warmongers, but through the slow confrontation of irreconcilable differences. When the threat of inaction appears to exceed the threat of action, and compromise is off the table, conflict looks unavoidable.

North Korea and the United States appear to be well past the point of compromise. Pyongyang feels that its security hinges on a deterrent that would make Washington think twice about trying to overthrow North Korea's leadership or launching military action against the country. Washington, meanwhile, can't tolerate Pyongyang's efforts to develop a reliable nuclear weapon and delivery system that could strike the continental United States. Having nearly attained its security goal, North Korea can't delay further missile tests without giving the United States time to build national and international political support for military intervention. The United States similarly can't stop at a moratorium on North Korea's missile tests since only a few steps separate Pyongyang from long-range weapons capability. And past measures have done little to roll back North Korea's progress.

In the absence of a suitable middle ground with Pyongyang, Washington is counting on China and Russia to finally pressure North Korea into cooperating. Under the best-case scenario, further sanctions and isolation would cause factions of North Korea's elite to revolt, overthrow the Kim government and divert the country from its current course. But that outcome is not likely. The risk of destabilizing the country, on the other hand, would be high — too high for Beijing and Moscow to accept, especially when they have doubts that the United States will make good on its threat of military action. North Korea sees hesitation on the part of China, Russia and even South Korea and figures their reluctance to act will restrain a U.S. strike against it.


North Korea's Arms Push a No Return

The more the looming prospect of conflict pushes China and Russia to try to prevent war, calling for talks and claiming the real danger lies in U.S. military action, the more confident Pyongyang would become that it can finish testing before Washington intervenes. And the closer North Korea gets to realizing its weapons ambitions without China's interference, the closer Washington gets to military action. That's not to say that war is inevitable, though. Changes in intelligence assessments, in leadership, in interpretations and in perceptions can always intervene unexpectedly.

The U.S. military has for several years operated under the assumption that Pyongyang already possesses a nuclear weapon and the ability to deliver it at least regionally. But North Korea is unlikely to use a limited number of nuclear weapons to start a war with the United States, with its vastly superior military and nuclear arsenal. Consequently, traditional forms of nuclear deterrence could still keep Pyongyang in check. Political will may be lacking in the United States to undertake military action against North Korea that would disrupt economic and trade activity and leave behind a massive reconstruction project in Northeast Asia, if not lead to a regional conflict.

North Korea's government may be more risk averse than it seems. Pyongyang may not be willing to push its testing far enough to incite the United States to intervene. Alternatively, North Korea might not respond to a surgical strike against some of its nuclear and missile facilities, enabling Washington to interrupt its weapons development without triggering a full-blown war on the peninsula. Some Chinese commentaries have suggested that limited attacks on North Korea — even a single symbolic strike on a mobile missile ahead of a test — would shake the government enough to change its behavior. Pyongyang otherwise may feel sufficiently confident in its progress with the missile program that it shifts focus to political reconciliation with South Korea in an effort to ensure both its national security and its future economic prospects.


What Happens Next

As I reiterated on 28 May an American attack on the North is problematic because it could result in massive South Korean casualties. Also, the North Koreans have dispersed apparent nuclear and missile development sites so that it is difficult to tell which are primary, redundant and decoy sites. Some of them are built into deep tunnels or mountains. Conventional airstrikes will set back the program, but they may not stop it.

To increase the probability of success, special operations forces and other troops may need to be used. Failure to destroy the nuclear facilities with catastrophic civilian casualties is a real possibility. The campaign, even if successful, will be extended, complex and inevitably costly. This is why the U.S. is prepared to give China all the time it claims to need, even if success is dubious. The alternative is frightening.

One way to increase the likelihood of success would be to use at least tactical nuclear weapons against hardened sites and perhaps against North Korean artillery in the south. But that would also set a precedent for using nuclear weapons in cases that aren’t of existential importance. Therefore, this is not an option for the United States.

The issue about the number of casualties also requires an understanding of North Korea’s command system and how it would respond to a U.S. attack on North Korean nuclear facilities. In the event of an attack, will the North Korean artillery complex in the south be ordered to open fire immediately? And perhaps more important, if the political and military command is destroyed or isolated by an attack and communications are disrupted, where will the artillery complex get its orders? In the absence of contact with higher command, are they instructed to open fire on their own initiative? If communication within the artillery complex breaks down, what are the orders to battery commanders? In other words, is it possible to paralyze the artillery complex? Given the nature of the North Korean regime, devolving authority to the levels of lieutenants and captains is hard to imagine, and initiative is not built into the culture.

It is inevitable that as the decision approaches, alternative strategies will appear. And it is in human nature to raise doubts about a strategy’s effectiveness once it’s decided on. Going to war overwhelmingly confident is dangerous; it causes you to minimize risks. That said, this debate cannot go on much longer because if it does, those arguing for acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power win by default.

A decision will likely be made depending on what progress is made with the next several N.Korean ICBM tests, for some form of attack that could be a soon as in around 9 to 12 months, but it can’t be based on an assumption of how North Korea will behave. One just doesn’t know. But it can be made based on knowledge of how the command system for the artillery complex works, and a hundred other details that define vulnerability, and therefore risk, on both sides.