[Viewpoint]Preparing for diversified provocations
It appears that the Kim Jong-un era may be characterized by increasing provocations from North Korea, but it is important to recognize that this also represents a diversification of the tool kit of provocations used by Pyongyang against Seoul and the international community.
The United States, Korea and the international community will now have to prepare for three distinct kinds of provocations.
Nuclear and missile provocations
Many observers analyze North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests as moves designed to gain concessions, bring attention to the North’s demands or force the United States back to the negotiating table.
These are all important tactical goals for the North, but they are secondary considerations compared to the strategic objective of establishing nuclear weapons capability and the means of delivery through missiles or transfer.
These tests are also distinct from other provocations because the North can have no deniability. Pyongyang can weaken international opposition to some extent by claiming its missile tests are for peaceful satellite launches, but the United Nations Security Council no longer buys into that excuse.
The nuclear tests clearly have no other purpose than weaponization and they are easily detected through seismic, atmospheric and satellite monitoring.
So rather than deny or conceal these provocations, the North uses them for leverage or simply braces for international sanctions, which have proven somewhat toothless over the years because of China’s non-implementation.
How then to respond to the nuclear and missile provocations? Recognizing that these are primarily stepping stones toward a strategic capability, the United States and the international community should respond and even pre-empt the tests with lasting countermeasures of our own that constrain and impose costs on Pyongyang for continuing with development of such weapons.
The UN Security Council is necessary, but not sufficient, since China has not fully implemented sanctions on the North. Other steps could include: inspections of all ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 100 days; imposition of financial sanctions against Chinese companies that are known to be engaging in trade with North Korea in violation of UN Security Council sanctions (to put more pressure on Beijing to implement those sanctions); and more aggressive efforts in the UNSC to ensure implementation of sanctions after resolutions are passed.
In addition, the United States and Korea will have to update missile defense cooperation and planning for scenarios in which the North may feel emboldened by nuclear weapons or more advanced missile capabilities. Diplomacy will have a role as well, though not as prominent as many once expected, given Pyongyang’s determination to be a full nuclear weapons state.
Conventional military provocations
The Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks demonstrated that the North is willing to use conventional military force (undersea and artillery fire) to intimidate the South, prove bona fide intent of Pyongyang or attempt to drive a wedge between the U.S.-South alliance and China.
While the North succeeded to a limited extent in maintaining deniability of the Cheonan attack because of willful ignorance by Beijing and shameful excuse-making by fellow travelers in Korea and the United States, there was no question of deniability for the governments in Seoul, Washington or most capitals of the world.
After the Yeonpyong attack, the Lee Myung-bak government successful restored deterrence by credibly threatening to strike the units and command elements in the North responsible for any further attacks.
However, Pyongyang may be tempted in the future to test the resolve of the South and other governments or provoke a split between Washington and Seoul because of U.S. concerns about escalation. The targets for the North would be the West Sea and Northern Limit Line, special operations raids or attacks on South Korean targets off the peninsula.
It is possible that Pyongyang sees the conventional provocation front as a way to distract or deter the South and the international community from responding to the strategically more important nuclear tests.
The South and the United States will need to maintain a credible deterrent, but deterrence will be more credible if it is joint and bilateral. Rather than clashing over the range of South Korean missiles, Seoul and Washington should show solidarity and develop a joint operational concept for counterstrike that may include extended ranges for missiles as needed. This also requires war-time operational control (Opcon) transfer to be done right and not just done on time.
North Korea is not highly dependent on the global commons (cyberspace, outerspace, maritime, etc.) and can develop the means for targeted asymmetrical attacks on the infrastructure that advanced nations like the United States and South Korea use to drive their economies and societies.
North Korea’s cyberwarfare capabilities appear to be rapidly improving and recent attacks on media organizations in the South suggest Pyongyang intends to use those capabilities.
The recent North Korean interference with GPS delayed operations at Incheon International Airport. North Korean associations with criminal gangs around the world provide connections and cover for a variety of illegal and even lethal attacks against critics of the regime.
For Pyongyang, asymmetrical sabotage of this sort is attractive because it is deniable, making retaliation difficult. In cyberattacks the North can use Chinese servers or even sympathetic hackers in the South. GPS jamming signals can be launched from mobile trucks in the North that are difficult to locate or target.
Moreover, the North appears prepared to continue such attacks on a constant basis in order to test its capabilities and continue doing damage to its adversaries. For internal legitimacy, Kim Jong-un can let a select group of elites know of these “successes” without divulging the details to the world.
Defense of the commons against asymmetrical attacks is difficult. It will require much improved cyber defense strategies for the Korean government and leading companies and closer collaboration between the United States and the South.
China’s role is critical, but China is also the source of massive cyberattacks on the United States and other nations, and efforts to conduct a bilateral dialogue on this topic between Washington and Beijing have not been terribly successful. Perhaps the most important task will be to organize strategies for deterrence, defense and retaliation across all three areas of provocation so that we have our own tool kit ready.
*It is possible that Pyongyang sees conventional provocations as a way to distract or deter from responding to its nuclear tests.
by Michael Green
More in Columns
Time for a ceasefire
A dramatic about-face
A land of injustice
Set a Chinese name for kimchi
This is not who we want to be