TSG IntelBrief: A Simmering Crisis in North Korea
April 14, 2017

A Simmering Crisis in North Korea

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• There have been widespread but unverified reports that North Korea may soon test another nuclear weapon.

• On April 13, there was a large reaction to a report that the U.S. would respond militarily to any such nuclear test.

• The mixture of dangerous rhetoric and reality with a new and somewhat unpredictable U.S. administration presents enormous challenges.

• Nowhere is the risk of catastrophic military escalation as a result of misread signals amid real threats higher than on the Korean Peninsula.

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The simmering crisis surrounding North Korea’s steady move towards ballistic nuclear capabilities is nearing a boiling point. As North Korea prospectively approaches its sixth nuclear test, a dangerous combination of timing, aggressive posturing, and speculative reporting have converged, highlighting the dire military realities of decades of tension. The result has been a high level of concern over possible military escalation—whether intentional or not—with consequences that are difficult to overstate. The current atmosphere—in which the new and somewhat unpredictable Trump administration has sought to reassure its allies and partners that war is not imminent, while simultaneously warning Pyongyang that U.S. military intervention remains on the table—represents a perfect storm of possible escalation.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have been steadily increasing since President Trump took office in January. For decades, North Korea has shown a high degree of sensitivity to threats—whether real, perceived, or imagined. The Trump administration has sought to establish a hard line in its public statements—including tweets by the President—over North Korea’s nuclear advances. However, the propensity for hyperbole on the part of both President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un raises the risk of one party misreading the messaging of the other, with potentially disastrous results.

There have been a spate of reports over the past several days of a possible North Korean nuclear test, with some reports saying U.S. signals intelligence and reconnaissance have shown increased activity at a known test site. Other reports stated the test could occur on April 15, the 105th birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. This growing critical mass of reporting—however speculative—has real-world consequences. In the context of North Korea, bombastic rhetorical posturing by either side that could lead to mutual misperceptions is a dangerous gamble—perhaps more so than any other simmering military crisis. That danger is compounded by each side’s lack of insight into the other’s intentions and objectives. 

On April 13, a report by NBC stated that the U.S. was considering a ‘preemptive strike’ if it confirmed North Korea intended to conduct another nuclear test. This report was quickly and unofficially denied by the Pentagon. The subsequent consensus in the U.S. media suggested that the U.S. might retaliate militarily in response to another dangerously provocative North Korean nuclear test. 

While the growing reality of a North Korean nuclear ballistic missile capability is a global threat—with particular implications for the U.S.—it is most immediately an existential threat to South Korea. Indeed, no country has more at stake than South Korea in terms of any potential U.S. military response to another North Korean nuclear test. While the U.S. may be publicly beating war drums, it is almost certainly working quietly with all interested parties to find another solution. South Korea and China have stressed the need for dialogue, though one that accounts for the reality and seriousness of the situation and the inherent difficulty in changing North Korea’s current trajectory. The challenge for the Trump administration and its negotiating partners is to succeed where several successive U.S. presidential administrations have failed, and to find an effective tactical and strategic approach to an issue that has the absolute highest of stakes.

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