For months, the Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have each made a series of moves that have appeared to take them ever closer to the brink of war.
But a closer review of the escalation of the conflict reveals that both sides are consciously maneuvering for what they know will be extended serious negotiations on a new framework for peace on the Korean peninsula. The Trump administration is well aware that it has no real military option against the North, and the Kim Jong-un regime seems to have sought to use missile launches as signals to the Trump administration to convey not only North Korea’s determination not to give in to pressure, but also its hopes to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation in US-North Korea military relations.
The latest US-North Korean crisis revolves around the Trump administration’s public refusal to accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile program, and Trump’s flirtation with options for removing it that would certainly result in a highly destructive and destabilizing Korean War.
Those military options preceded the new administration. In mid-2015, after a series of North Korean nuclear tests between 2006 and 2013, the US military and the South Korean military both adopted a new war plan for the Korean Peninsula, OPLAN 5015. The plan called for surgical strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites and command-and-control facilities, as well as “decapitation” raids by Special Forces to take out senior North Korean leaders.
Such strikes and raids were to be “preemptive” in character, based on the assumption that the United States and South Korea might obtain good intelligence on a planned launch of a nuclear-armed North Korean missile. But the reality, as most US military planners know full well, is that the United States doesn’t know where the missiles are hidden, and a preemptive strike would have little or no chance of catching many of North Korea’s missiles on the ground. Moreover, any attack on North Korean strategic targets would probably provoke retaliation by North Korea’s 8,000 artillery pieces trained on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, which is home to 10 million people, including a quarter million Americans. Robert E. Kelly, an American political scientist at Pusan National University, had a succinct verdict on the leaked war plan: “In terms of national security, it’s just nuts.”
The Trump administration nevertheless embraced OPLAN 5015 enthusiastically as a form of pressure on North Korea. In mid-April, multiple intelligence officials — presumably with the encouragement of CIA Director Mike Pompeo — told reporters from NBC News that the United States “was prepared to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea” in response to intelligence that North Korea was planning a nuclear weapons test.
There is good reason to believe that the story reflected a psychological operation aimed at North Korea. It appears that the Trump administration was seeking to intimidate Kim Jong-un by convincing him that the US was contemplating regime change by force. However, the United States couldn’t attack North Korea without the permission of the South Korean government, and no South Korean government is likely to risk a war with the North over the belief that North Korea was about to test a nuclear weapon. In fact, the opposition candidate in the 2017 South Korean presidential election, Moon Jae-in, was elected after arguing that South Korea should learn to “say no to the Americans.” In August, Moon rebuked the Trump administration for making threats to attack North Korea to which the South Korean government had not assented.
OPLAN 5015 became the basis for the annual joint US-South Korean military exercises called Key Resolve/Foal Eagle and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. The new war plan added a major new provocative element to the joint exercises, which the North Koreans had already regarded for decades as possible moves toward war. Pyongyang was especially upset at the presence of long-range US bombers in the joint exercises beginning in 2016.
After the 2017 Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises had been completed, the Trump administration sought to increase the pressure once again. US B-1 bombers began flying from Guam to South Korea regularly to “show US resolve.” The response from Kim Jong-un was not long in coming. On June 22, North Korea launched two large Musudan intermediate range missiles with a range of 3,000-4,000 kilometers, putting the highly militarized US territory of Guam well within its range. It was a clear signal that the North would respond to evident threats with demonstrations of its retaliatory capability.
But Kim Jong-un’s biggest riposte was yet to come. On July 3 North Korea carried out a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that media reports speculated could reach the continental United States. In fact, the missile was incapable of doing so, according to independent missile analysts who analyzed the flight data. Nevertheless, the test was another major political signal to the Trump administration by Kim that he would not be intimidated by US shows of force.
Trump escalated tensions further on August 9, warning that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the United States,” or it would be “met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen.” That remark suggested that Trump was warning Kim against any further missile tests that could reach US territory.
But just two hours after Trump’s threat, Kim made a statement that was inaccurately described by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a threat to fire missiles at Guam, the heavily militarized US island from which those US warplanes had flown. In fact, Kim’s threat was not to attack Guam itself, but to consider launching Musudan missiles in the vicinity of the island — in a show of force paralleling the flight of US B-1 bombers near North Korean territory.
Almost immediately after the tit-for-tat of threats and missile launches as signaling had reached that climax, however, both sides moved to turn it down a notch. The following day, Kim Jong-un changed signals and said he would wait for a while longer to see what the United States would do. And the Trump administration signaled that it recognizes that its provocative posture of the previous months has not had the desired effect on Pyongyang’s actions. Taking at least half a step back from earlier statements by several military officials who refused to rule out a US military operation against the North, Mattis and Tillerson said the aim of the United States’ “peaceful pressure campaign was denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula rather than regime change.” That explicit renunciation of regime change represented a substantial moderation of the extreme posture of the administration in the spring.
More important as an indicator of apparent US restraint was the fact that South Korean military officials believed on the eve of the beginning of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise on August 21 that the United States was unlikely to send its “strategic assets” to participate in the exercise, according to the Korea Herald. Specifically, the military sources said the US would probably not introduce a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, submarines and long-range fighter jets carrying nuclear weapons into the exercise.
Those assets were not deployed during the same drill in 2016, but according to the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean defense official said the largely computer-based exercise would likely play out a “nuclear war game” for the first time. So, the absence of those US strategic assets from the weeks-long exercise could take on greater significance as a sign of desire not to exacerbate tensions with North Korea further and in combination with the new Mattis-Tillerson language, could signal a hope for the beginning of serious talks with North Korea.
These developments suggest at least the possibility that the signaling by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration’s realization that its initial highly provocative threats were backfiring have caused Trump’s national security team to make an important recalibration of its North Korea strategy.
Those signs point to a possibility for negotiations in the relatively near future. What is needed, however, is a return to the successful diplomacy of the Clinton era, which produced an agreement — the “Agreed Framework” of 1994 — that could have avoided the present situation of high tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Given the advances of North Korea in both nuclear and missile technology since then, it will be more difficult now than it was then — but far from impossible — to devise ways to satisfy the interests of both sides. But as always, the main obstacle to such an accommodation is the US political elite’s deeply imbedded habit of refusing to accept the legitimate interests of other states.