Commentary | 07 July 2017

We should worry about North Korea, even though it's small and weak

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

In the aftermath of Pyongyang's successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test this week, Washington's representative to the United Nations, ambassador Nikki Haley, put the world "on notice" against aiding the North Korean regime. She also warned that the US will use military force "if we must".

That's despite that fact that most experts, including within the US government, believe the likely costs of a preventive strike would be very high, with uncertain prospects of destroying the North's nuclear and missile arsenal and supporting infrastructure.

As the US homeland falls under the shadow of direct nuclear threats from North Korea for the first time, it is no surprise that Washington's tone has sharpened. One successful test does not translate into a deployed capability – that will take more time. But North Korea's demonstrated passing of the ICBM threshold is an important Rubicon-crossed in capability terms, and psychologically for Americans. Only Russia and China have the ability to directly threaten the US homeland in this way. This has elevated North Korea to become a, if not the, strategic priority of the US.

However, President Trump's credibility on North Korea has already been seriously dented. Trump's ill-considered tweet, in January, that a North Korean ICBM capability "will not happen!" has been proven wrong. North Korea's risk-taking leader, Kim Jong-un, has called the US Commander-in-Chief's bluff (as state media promised would be the case back in June). Washington's willingness to consider preventive or pre-emptive military options has taken on a hollow ring of late. That said it cannot be dismissed out of hand – if for no other reason than the US President-elect carelessly put his personal credibility on the line via social media.

South Korea and Japan have lived within striking range of North Korea for years. So have forward-deployed US military personnel and their families in both countries. What changes the strategic dynamic now, is that by successfully testing a missile that can fly at least 7000 kilometres, and possibly further, Pyongyang has brought Alaska and probably Hawaii within ballistic missile range. Before long North Korea will realise its long-cherished strategic goal of delivering a nuclear-capable payload to the lower 48 states. As that unpalatable fact sinks in, US public opinion is also set to become a more influential variable on the Trump administration's North Korea policy.

As North Korea advances ever-closer to an operational long-range nuclear missile force, strategic pragmatists argue that the least-worst option for the US is to negotiate a freeze of the North's existing capabilities, learning to live with Pyongyang's de facto nuclear status, while relying on deterrence to keep the peace in north-east Asia. They tend to view Pyongyang's nuclear motivations as defensively framed around regime survival. But this would be no more than a temporary salve.

While the logic of regime survival is undoubtedly true, as Rod Lyon of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently observed, for the US "accepting a long-term relationship of mutual vulnerability" with a rogue state like North Korea "is a more difficult proposition than it first appears".

One fear is that Kim will be tempted to explore the strategic latitude afforded by its expanding nuclear capabilities, upping the ante by provoking South Korea, or perhaps Japan. Both are US allies, like Australia, that depend on the US nuclear umbrella. Once Pyongyang can credibly threaten major US population centres, will Seoul and Tokyo continue to have faith that Washington has their back? In contrast to Russia and China, which possess both strategic depth and conventional capabilities in abundance, it is North Korea's very weakness that makes it so dangerous, forcing it to escalate in the early stages of a crisis.

So, are we worrying too much about North Korea? I would argue not, since strategic stability is likely to prove elusive, whatever course the US follows. That, unfortunately, is the accumulated cost of policy failure to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, straddling several US administrations.

Alas, North Korea is not the only potential nuclear crisis in the offing. Casting a strategic glance westwards, we must not lose sight of the fact that as the North Korean issue looms large at the UN and risks overshadowing the G20 summit in Hamburg, China and India are locked in steely-eyed confrontation over territory high up in the Himalayan tectonic crumple zone.

Two nuclear powers, both ruled by strong leaders, with a combined population of 2.5 billion people, are strategically manoeuvring around a literal and figurative precipice, close to where they fought a war 55 years ago. Serious as the situation on the Korean Peninsula undoubtedly is, a potentially graver crisis in international security is unfolding in a near vacuum of international attention. As global leaders gather in coming days, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, tackling that crisis should also be given priority.