As Secretary of State John Kerry wings his way to Asia on his first trip there as our top diplomat, now is a good time to put North Korea’s dangerous game of belligerence, brinkmanship and blackmail into some much-needed perspective.
Pyongyang has been threatening everything from another Korean War to a nuclear strike on US cities. It’s not likely going to do anything so drastic — but it will probably keep turning up the temperature with missile launches and even small-scale attacks against South Korea.
Why? The “Nork” rulers both want to shore up its domestic support for its new leader Kim Jong Un and to get paid off in some way from someone to start behaving (well, misbehaving less).
The most thundering threats are hollow: Any major provocation is too likely to lead to a major war with Seoul and Washington that would not end well for Pyongyang. But we’re in uncharted, possibly dangerous territory with this new regime.
Nuking New York is beyond Pyongyang’s current missile and nuclear capability, but it’s making progress in developing that sort of potent punch, witnessed by December’s long-range missile test and February’s nuclear weapon test.
But turning Seoul into a smoldering pit with conventional forces is within the realm of possibilities right now. The South Korean capital is just south of the (sorely misnamed) Demilitarized Zone — and within range of North Korean artillery and other short-range missiles.
A barrage of thousands of belching Nork artillery tubes and the marching of a massive mechanized army south could come with little warning — not to mention the use of chemical and biological weapons against South Korean and US forces.
But, for the moment, we’re essentially expecting some sort of ballistic missile firings. Reports speculate a test of a new medium-range “Musudan” missile, or even a fusillade of short-range missiles, that will (hopefully) crash harmlessly into the sea.
The successful test of the mobile Musudan would put a new type of missile into North Korea’s already-alarming ballistic arsenal, one that could reach out and touch US forces on Guam, some 2,000-plus miles away.
Plus, after all its recent heated rhetoric, the North will likely have to do something violent to make sure it’s still taken seriously as more than a third world dictatorship with nukes. The target is likely to be South Korea — as we’ve seen in the past, when it sank one of the South’s warships and shelled an island in 2010. The North has already slapped the South with a cyber attack, hitting media and economic targets, but that doesn’t really meet Pyongyang’s propaganda purposes.
So we’re likely to see some sort of limited Nork military or naval action against the South’s forces along the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, where Pyongyang and Seoul dispute some territory.
A limited strike against South Korea would give the North a way to save face abroad and a propaganda victory at home. Problem is, the new leadership in Seoul will almost certainly respond. We could be in for rounds of dangerous tit-for-tat escalation.
While there is plenty of debate about Team Obama’s policy toward the Kim regime — we’re told it’s “strategic patience,” whatever that means — it’s clear the approach hasn’t been able to quash the weeks-long perilous play. The White House showed some spine with B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter sorties over the Peninsula, some beefing up of missile defenses (a pragmatic policy reversal) and ship deployments, but none of it put Kim back in his cage.
Nor did canceling a planned US ICBM test into the Pacific Ocean, which would’ve been another show of strategic strength.
Kerry has his work cut out for him as he travels to South Korea, China and Japan in the coming days. Above all else, he must not make Washington look weak, which would invite Pyongyang to act up even more, increasing the risk of deadly consequences.
Unfortunately, at this point, it won’t be easy to overcome the prevailing perception that Team Obama’s foreign policy isn’t as strong as it needs to be to deter misperception and miscalculation.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in New York Post.