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‘Idle threats’ won’t deter North Korea, RAND warns US and South Korea

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting on disaster prevention work held Sept. 4-5, 2022 in Pyongyang. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event or verify the image.

A major U.S. military-funded think tank is fed up with America’s failure to seriously punish North Korea for conducting nuclear and missile tests and warning that the U.S. must make clear “the potential consequences that would be imposed for those provocations.”

The report by RAND Corporation and the Asan Institute in Seoul should give rise to introspection by American and South Korean diplomats as they consider their mistakes in dealing with the North. For many years, we’ve held false hopes on high, seeing eventual success in talks that garner global publicity, producing nice-sounding statements and promises that ultimately are forgotten.

RAND, funded in large measure by U.S. Army and Air Force contracts, and the Asan Institute would like to reverse that trend. Their report on North Korea’s vast weapons of mass destruction program concludes by admonishing Washington policymakers for their reluctance to go beyond outraged words and sanctions. After North Korea’s multiple missile tests — most recently the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in March that North Korea claimed was a long-range Hwasong-17 capable of carrying a warhead to targets anywhere in the U.S. — the report provides a much-needed reality check.

As North Korea prepares for its seventh underground nuclear test, the RAND-Asan report scolds both Washington and Seoul for their wavering responses to North Korea’s aggressive threats against the U.S. and South Korea. It’s far from clear, though, that the message is really getting through, at least to judge from the bland, predictable comments from South Korean and foreign influencers, including military officers, from 54 countries at last week’s Seoul Defense Dialogue.

South Korea’s vice defense minister, Shin Beom-chul, sounded pretty tough when he told the gathering “there should be severe consequences” if North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un orders a seventh nuclear test. Indeed, “We may have a counter-attack against North Korea,” he said. “We are strengthening the [U.S.-South Korea] alliance.” As others quickly noted, however, there was no real sign that the Koreans and Americans are doing much, if anything, to back up the tough words with action while waiting to see if Kim orders another nuclear test.

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test since exploding what may have been a hydrogen bomb in September 2017 but has raised the decibel level of its propaganda since the South’s conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol authorized the first U.S.-South Korean military field exercises in five years. North Korea denounced the war games, which recently ended, as preparation for “invasion.”

Alison Hooker, in charge of Korean issues on the National Security Council during Donald Trump’s presidency, injected a certain realism into the Seoul Defense Dialogue’s session on denuclearization of North Korea. “It’s unclear whether a seventh nuclear test will be sufficiently shocking,” she said, decrying “the international community’s inability to muster a strong response” to North Korea’s test of a long-range hypersonic missile. “We must work to prevent further expansion of their nuclear program,” she urged, but the prospect of both Russia and China vetoing any firm UN Security Council resolution makes that “very difficult.” North Korea, she said, believes a nuclear threat “deters invasion.” 

In fact, North Korea knows that the U.S. and South Korea “threaten the North with strong rhetoric but are weak on imposing the threatened costs,” says the RAND/Asan report. “As a result, this rhetoric has little influence in deterring North Korea.”

The report states bluntly that typical warnings of “consequences cannot be idle threats.” South Korea and the U.S. “must have the will to execute them,” it says, “or future deterrence would be undercut.” Such rhetoric, it says, “has little influence on deterring North Korea.” The North needs to know there will be “real responses” from the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the U.S.

Otherwise, says the report, “the North might feel safe to challenge the ROK-U.S. with provocations below the minimum red lines.”

The RAND/Asan report focused not on the North’s nuclear program but on OWMD — “Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, notably chemical and nuclear weapons as well as cyber threats.”

Among key findings, the report accuses the North of “apparently testing chemical and biological weapons on people and carrying out some assassinations with chemical weapons.” The most notorious case, it claims, was the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Un’s older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, by a VX chemical agent as he was about to fly from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to his home base in Macau.

In addition, it says, “North Korea has actively employed its cyber capabilities in peacetime to collect information, steal money and cause damage.” Consider, for instance, the hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 for “The Interview,” a wild satire that made Kim Jong Un look like both demented dictator and a total idiot.

The report criticizes and dishes out equal blame on North Korea and the U.S./South Korea alliance, noting North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear, missile and cyber programs is matched by the failure of the U.S. and South Korea to respond effectively.

“To deter any North Korean limited employment of OWMD and cyber capabilities, the ROK-U.S. need to enhance their ability to detect and attribute North Korean attacks,” says the report. “North Korea needs to understand that even limited WMD attacks would constitute an act of war and be hard to distinguish from precursor attacks before a major invasion.”

Moreover, if the U.S. and South Korea judge that “a major war is actually starting, they would be fully justified in launching an early conventional counterforce response to eliminate North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.” ROK-U.S. military planning, the report says, “needs to assume that a North Korean invasion of the ROK would include the employment of nuclear weapons, OWMD, and major cyberattacks.”

Strong words — but who’s listening? Both the U.S. and South Korea would hope to avoid a war. The RAND/Asan report is more a cautionary note than a call to arms. Over the years, RAND has been quite influential. We can only hope that military planners in Washington and Seoul will be reading it and taking its advice seriously.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Kim Jong Nam Kim Jong Un North Korea–South Korea relations US-South Korea military exercises

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