OPINION | How North Korea is trying to bully America’s military
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Global attention this week has been dominated by North Korea’s threats and President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE’s counter attacks. Despite all the attention this row has received, its crucial dynamic is being overlooked: North Korea is seeking to use its growing missile and nuclear capabilities to bully the United States into abandoning long-standing policies. This is almost certainly a harbinger of how Pyongyang will seek to harness its growing military power in the future, and Washington needs to consider it’s response very carefully.

If you read beyond the bluster typical of North Korea, the statements Pyongyang released this week made a very clear demand: that the United States stop conducting bomber overflights of the Korean Peninsula.

The first statement on Wednesday, which was attributed to North Korea’s missile forces, began by noting that U.S. bombers had flown from Guam to the Korean Peninsula the day before. North Korea’s missile forces then argued that the United States had created a “grave situation” by having its nuclear bombers fly from Guam to South Korea, and said it was creating an operational plan to use its new medium-range ballistic missile to “subdue and check key military bases in Guam” to prevent the United States from continuing to carry out these flights.

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The next day, North Korea clarified that it would launch a salvo of four medium-ranged ballistic missiles in the waters around Guam, which it called “a practical action targeting the US bases of aggression.” That statement ended by noting that Pyongyang will be watching U.S. actions closely in deciding whether to go ahead with such a test.

In both statements, North Korea emphasized that it was drawing up plans to use its newfound missile forces to target Guam in response to America’s bomber overflights over the Korean Peninsula. The statements also implied that Kim Jong-un could be persuaded to not go ahead with the tests near Guam if the bomber flights stopped.

How the Trump administration responds is crucial.

The United States has used nuclear bomber flights to intimidate adversaries and reassure allies since the early days of the Cold War. During the Berlin Blockade in 1948, President Harry Truman stepped up bomber exercises and forward deployed some 90 U.S. bombers in Europe.

Perhaps most dramatically, he held a widely-publicized exercise in July 1948 where 700 U.S. military planes from around the world converged on what is today JFK Airport in New York City. This was an unmistakable signal to the Soviet Union that America's globe-stretching Air Force could rapidly converge on a single target.

Truman's example has repeatedly been emulated by his successors. For instance, during heated negotiations to end the Vietnam War in October 1969, Nixon ordered a show of force code-named Giant Lance. This exercise consisted of 18 B-52s flying from the continental United States towards the Soviet Union. More recently, U.S. bombers have also been used in Asia to protest China’s Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, as well as in Europe to reassure allies following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Bomber flights have also been a frequent tool towards North Korea. For instance, as tensions ratcheted up following North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, two B-1 bombers flying from the United States conducted mock bombing runs over Korea. A B-52 bomber conducted a low-flight near Korea following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016. After North Korea’s fifth nuclear tests in September of last year, two B-1 bombers stationed in Guam were used to reassure Japan and South Korea. And the United States has stepped up the pace of these bomber flights as North Korea’s missile tests have accelerated this year.

Not surprisingly, North Korea has always opposed these overflights, calling them highly provocative (some U.S. officials have been sympathetic to this argument.) But now Pyongyang is going beyond simply opposing them and instead trying to use its expanding military strength to bully the United States into abandoning its long-standing policy. Although North Korea has made general threats in the past, it is now making very concrete ones. More importantly, it now has the capability to make good on these threats.

Put simply, North Korea is using its expanding nuclear capabilities to renegotiate the rules of the road with the United States. This is almost certainly only the beginning. As North Korea continues to acquire more powerful nuclear capabilities, it will try to use them to force the United States to abandon other long-standing policies that it opposes. This includes the annual military exercises the United States conducts with South Korea, which Pyongyang routinely portrays as preparations for war.

More importantly, since the Korean War, North Korea’s overwhelming objective has been to get the United States to withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula and breakup its alliance with South Korea.

U.S. policy must disabuse North Korea of the notion that these efforts will ever be successful. Thus, despite North Korea’s provocative threats to launch missiles near Guam, and regardless of the effectiveness of bomber diplomacy, the Trump administration must stand strong on this issue. After all, this is only the first of what is likely to be many challenges by an increasingly powerful North Korea.

Zachary Keck is a former researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the former managing editor of The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Follow him on Twitter @grecianformula.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.