By George Friedman
The North Koreans launched a ballistic missile from a submarine on April 23. This followed what appeared to be a failed launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in March. Also over the weekend, the North Korean foreign minister, in an interview with the Associated Press, said that North Korea would halt its nuclear tests (missiles weren’t mentioned) in return for the U.S. ceasing its major annual military exercises with South Korea. These are major, combined armed exercises designed to practice halting a North Korean invasion of the south.
The offer was unofficial and, given North Korea’s prior behavior, it might be retracted. But it does give us a sense of why the North Koreans are pursuing a nuclear program. First, as it crosses the line beyond which it is likely to acquire the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles, the probability of pre-emptive strikes against North Korea – not necessarily nuclear – mounts. Given China’s recently expressed dismay at North Korea’s program, the Chinese might not object to such a pre-emption, and possibly neither would Russia. In other words, for all the effort the North Koreans are putting in to developing the system, being able to complete it requires an intelligence failure on the part of the West, especially the United States. And in this case, since technological means of gathering intelligence (satellites, intercepts of information flows and so on) are involved, an intelligence failure is somewhat less likely than if they were using only human intelligence.
Second, if North Korea succeeded in launching its weapons, and destroyed a Japanese or American city, North Korea would have to expect that it would be hit with a substantial nuclear strike. North Korea is a small country and its leadership has shown few suicidal tendencies. Therefore, from a North Korean point of view, a successful launch would mean catastrophe for the country and likely the leadership as well.
It is possible that the North Koreans are crazy. Whenever American analysts encounter someone they don’t understand, or someone who delivers messages they wouldn’t deliver, the default assumption is that the leader, and likely everyone around him, is crazy. This relieves the analyst from the obligation of trying to figure out the intention behind the leader’s actions. Crazy means unpredictable, and unpredictable means that he is beyond understanding. And that in turn means that he is capable of anything. Therefore, assuming a leader is crazy takes his file off the analyst’s desk because it means he is beyond understanding and anything is possible.
Looking at Kim Jong Un, it is certainly possible to say that he doesn’t look like a rational leader, particularly given the unconfirmed report that he executed his uncle with an anti-aircraft gun. But the fact that he doesn’t look or act like any of the American candidates for the presidency doesn’t make him crazy. And if he actually evaporated his uncle, it simply means that he is a nasty piece of work. But he can’t be said to be crazy, and the analyst can’t abandon his obligation to figure him out.
It is important to note that while the North Koreans have been developing nuclear capability, they have been careful not to cross the line of erecting a missile on a launch pad with a nuclear warhead attached. Everything they have done to date has been designed to demonstrate that they might shortly develop a deliverable nuclear weapon, but that they have not yet done so. They have developed the possibility of the threat, without crossing the line where a country, the United States in particular, would find it necessary to launch a pre-emptive attack. This means that they are aware of the line and are extremely controlled in not crossing it.
They have a rational reason for this program, not dissimilar to Iran’s: it is a negotiating tool. It is obvious to any country that the United States will give its undivided attention to a nation developing a nuclear capability. It is also obvious that the United States does not act until it is forced to. The American response to a nuclear program is obsession, anxiety and the development of contingency plans.
During the time after serious development of a nuclear weapon has begun, and before deployment, the United States is inclined to negotiate. Without a program, the U.S. is indifferent. After deployment, the United States will act. In between those two poles, the United States is constantly seeking solutions that do not involve military action. Premature action might fail to destroy the program and harden the other side’s conviction that it must have nuclear weapons. Pre-emption after deployment might require a nuclear strike, and the United States doesn’t want to reintroduce that as an option.
Therefore, a nation having developed a program is in an optimal position to achieve concessions from the United States. Thus, the North Korean foreign minister’s offer to exchange nuclear tests (not the program itself) for a halt in U.S.-South Korean exercises is a very logical, if exploratory, move. Not surprisingly, the United States rejected the idea out of hand. The Americans undoubtedly expected some sort of offer and the North Koreans undoubtedly expected the American refusal. The U.S. doesn’t want North Korea to only halt tests but to halt the program. But the North Koreans will not trade the program itself for anything as minor as annual military exercises.
The North Koreans’ problem is that they have already double-crossed the United States several times, having exchanged the program in the past for money and food. In due course, they resumed it. They have used the nuclear program as a kind of ATM, where they can withdraw valuable concessions from the United States and then fail to fully implement their promise. But that is simply dishonest, not crazy.
It is particularly not crazy because it displays an accurate North Korean read on the United States. The United States is focused on the North Korean threat, but will not act decisively. North Korea, therefore, has room for maneuver. It can in any case use the program to build its credibility at home. The unknowns of the nuclear program will deter any conventional action, regardless of how unlikely it is the program will be completed. And with care, it can kick off another round of negotiations, possibly with goodies at the end.
For North Korea, this is a rational calculus of the behavior of its major potential enemy. And talking in ways Americans regard as crazy is simply a convincing way to freeze the Americans in place. Put simply, being a jerk doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It is not a bad negotiating posture in any market. But this is also not a nuclear program that is going to deploy a target for the United States. It is a way to manage the United States.