By George Friedman
The North Koreans took a step back from the U.S. red line last week by announcing that they would halt, at least temporarily, the testing of nuclear weapons and missile systems. They also said they would dismantle an important missile launch site. The willingness to state this publicly is in some ways more significant than the actions. The North Koreans have not tested a nuclear weapon in more than seven months or an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five months, and at this point those tests are the key to further development. They need to know that the configuration of their nuclear weapons will fit on their missiles and that their guidance system – which has troubled them before – is functioning. To determine those things, they must do tests.
Promises in politics aren’t worth much, and just because North Korea abandoned one missile test site doesn’t mean it can’t just test at one of its other existing sites. But still, there is something more in this decision than simply trying to shape the political landscape.
The question is what North Korea is trying to achieve. A pre-emptive U.S. attack was taken off the table by the South Koreans, who were not prepared to see Seoul destroyed by North Korean artillery. The U.S. would consider an attack now only if intelligence indicated an imminent North Korean strike against the United States. Having taken that off the table, the North Koreans have given themselves and the U.S. room for maneuver in what appears to be impending talks.
Retiring an Old Strategy
My initial reaction when North Korea accelerated its nuclear and missile programs a year ago was that it made a U.S. attack likely. Later, as South Korea’s opposition to such an attack became clear, I returned to a view I had held for years: that North Korea is a brilliant negotiator, using nuclear weapons as a tool to both focus and frighten the world. I called this the “ferocious, weak and crazy” strategy. North Korea’s greatest fear has long been regime collapse, triggered by outside forces. So it showed itself to be ferocious and, therefore, not to be toyed with. It showed itself to be weak and, therefore, not worth toying with because it will collapse anyway. Finally, it showed itself to be crazy and, therefore, unpredictable and liable to disproportionate responses. This was the strategy, but what North Korea was really doing was buying time to build up its strength so that it could move beyond the game.
The nuclear program and the failure of the United States in particular to take steps to block it followed from the ferocious, weak and crazy strategy. It paralyzed the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, which could not figure out how to deal with a power so difficult to read and potentially explosive. This gave the North Koreans the cover to nearly complete a comprehensive nuclear weapons capability.
At this point, North Korea doesn’t have to bluff being dangerous. It has a conventional arsenal capable of terrifying South Korea and enough real nuclear capability to cause Japan and South Korea to take it very seriously. Even the U.S. can’t be entirely sure of its immunity. North Korea no longer needs to be seen as weak. And above all, it must not appear to be crazy. The unpredictability North Korea needed to have from 1992 to the present has become a liability. The greatest threat to North Korea is that the U.S. will regard it as unpredictable and launch an attack, regardless of South Korea’s wishes, to protect the United States. At this point, as a nuclear power in some respects and a near threat to the United States, North Korea must start behaving as utterly rational, leaving the craziness behind.
Is Survival Enough?
With talks with South Korea scheduled for April 27, and the American president coming to visit, North Korea has achieved regime survival. If the regime is cautious, no one is going to try to topple it. Therefore, the decision to stop its nuclear and missile development and dismantle launch facilities decreases the threat of war – while not taking it off the table altogether. After all, what is stopped can be resumed, overtly or covertly.
Still, North Korea has created room for an agreement. No one wants war in the Korean Peninsula, which is a stable platform for moving forward. The issue now is whether North Korea wants more than regime survival. One thing it could press for is a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea and some sort of weak confederation with the South. But South Korea is hardly likely to put all its eggs in a Korean confederation, nor does it want to confront a Japan that would be very unhappy with such an agreement. As for the United States, anything that would force it back from the Korean Peninsula would weaken its position relative to China, which may be an unacceptable trade-off.
So long as North Korea stops being unpredictable, it gains security but loses the ability to terrify. If North Korea wants to force a break between South Korea and the U.S., it is pushing into territory where its new rational strategy won’t take it. If what it wants is recognition of the legitimacy of its regime, it can have that. This is undoubtedly what U.S. Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo discussed in North Korea, what the South Koreans will discuss with the North and, ultimately, after all the preliminaries are done, what President Donald Trump will discuss. The U.S. had a chance to topple North Korea in the 1990s. It didn’t take that chance because it seemed too risky and unnecessary. Now it is no longer an option, so formalizing the reality is the next step. The mystery is whether the North Koreans want more. They have a great deal to lose if that gamble fails, and in fact they have always been cautious, however they appeared.