Toward a possible New Normal

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Toward a possible New Normal

Much of the analysis of North Korea’s recent cycle of escalation and provocation has focused on Kim Jong-un. Is he trying to solidify his internal power base? Is he too inexperienced to know when to pull back from the brink of conflict? These are reasonable questions, particularly given the more bellicose and sometimes cartoonish threats emitting from Pyongyang.

Yet there is another plausible explanation for the current intensity of North Korean provocations that also has to be considered. Specifically, is it possible that the North’s more intense bellicosity reflects a growing confidence in Pyongyang that they can increase their threatening posture with impunity because of their advancement in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology? And if that is the case, might we face even greater efforts at coercion as the North continues its relentless pursuit of uranium-based weapons and a diversified arsenal of ballistic missiles?

In a future where Pyongyang relies on its nuclear weapons to blackmail the South and other powers through repeated crises and provocations, Washington and Seoul will need to rethink some old assumptions and practices. The March 23 U.S.-South Korea agreement on procedures for responding to North Korea limited attacks was an important first step that showed alliance resolve and solidarity. But more steps are needed.

First, does it make sense for the South to stay out of U.S. global missile defense systems when the North’s ballistic missiles are designed to hit targets in the South, Japan, and Guam simultaneously? Integrated missile defense systems increase overall effectiveness and send a further signal of solidarity to Pyongyang and - frankly - to Beijing, which needs to understand that its complacency about North Korean actions is furthering necessary defensive networks in the region.

Second, can Japan or South Korea afford to squabble in the face of increased North Korean threats to both countries? The Lee Myung-bak government’s decision to pull out of a bilateral information sharing agreement with Japan last year can only have sent comfort to the North, particularly since the agreement is necessary for sharing threat information about North Korean attacks. South Korea has numerous such agreements with other countries, including Russia. Japan is the rear area base for U.S. operations to defend and reinforce Korea in a crisis - why not sign a basic bilateral information agreement with Tokyo?

Third, Korea and the United States both need to invest in defense systems that maintain our technological edge over the North. In order to signal enhanced deterrent capabilities in the wake of the North’s most recent threats, the United States deployed fifth-generation stealthy F-22 fighters to Korea. Japan is procuring the fifth-generation F-35 to replace their F-4s and will likely replace their F-15s with the F-35 as well. The reason: not only China’s development of fifth-generation stealth fighters, but also the growing North Korean threat. The Obama administration also needs to rethink defense cuts. As part of the “rebalance” to Asia, the Air Force will deploy most of its fifth-generation fighters to the region, the Navy 60 percent of its ships, and the Army will realign the I Corps based on Washington State for missions in Asia and the Pacific. However, the U.S. is a global power with demands on resources in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even if Asia’s share of the pie increases, the effects of the whole pie shrinking will be felt in this theater. Fourth, the United States and the South have to double check wartime Opcon transfer at the highest levels next year to ensure that deficiencies in South Korean capabilities are filled and that new command relationship are validated in light of the new posture in the North. This cannot just be a box-checking exercise by colonels in both militaries - the White House and the Blue House have to carefully scrutinize the transition from a national strategic level as well. That is the essence of civilian control.

Finally, the U.S. and South have to intensify planning for instability or collapse in the North, since the emerging North Korean posture could blow back on Kim Jong-un and lead to internal fissures.

None of these steps obviate the need for dialogue and exploration of off-ramps from any crisis on the peninsula, but it does not look like dialogue is going to solve this security problem anytime soon. As American and Korean leads have emphasized, deterrence is more important than ever. And our concept of deterrence has to be dynamic and agile as the situation in the North presents we challenges.


*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green
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