Tag Archive | "security"

Preparing for Megacity Warfare: Seoul after North Korean Artillery and Chemical Attacks

By Paul Sung

Amidst all the ongoing discussions about a military conflict between North Korea and the U.S., we need to think beyond missiles, preventative strikes, and nuclear weapons to talk about the potential consequences of a war in the megacity of Seoul. Looking into the hypothetical scenario laid out in this article published by The Diplomat, we need to examine the multifaceted, complex challenges of megacity warfare if a conflict resulted in DPRK boots on the ground in Seoul. Although some literature introduces basic ideas of megacity warfare in the world, we need deeper discussions about such contingencies in the particular context of South Korea to help prepare better interagency coordination and security in a homogenous megacity like Seoul.

The Situation

As much as military leaders may want to bypass conflict in an urban environment, North Korean military forces may very well bear-hug the most vulnerable hubs of Seoul after the initial artillery and chemical strikes. This maneuver would provide the DPRK tactical advantages in the event of invasion, such as limiting the full potential of large vehicle weapons systems and holding hostages. Given the finite resources available to handle such an enormous threat, the ROK would have to utilize civilian networks and other tools at its disposal to coordinate security measures in dense high-rise environment.

The mere size of the infrastructure and population of Seoul multiplies crowd control challenges. If the ROK applied the U.S. Army’s FM 3-24 counterinsurgency recommendation of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents to work against North Korean conventional or Special Forces units, then it would need more than 400,000 soldiers on the ground in Seoul alone. This number is further exacerbated if leaders take into consideration the number of personnel needed to logistically support each individual soldier. Even a troop ratio of 3-1 in South Korea’s favor would still be burdened by a fraction of North Korea’s special forces units alone.

A comparison between Seoul and Baghdad gives a picture of the enormity of this challenge. Among the existing buildings in Seoul, there are about 180 existing skyscrapers that have at least 21 floors (331 feet). This does not include 34 unbuilt skyscrapers, 7 currently under construction, and 10 being planned. In addition to the 224 skyscrapers there are about 12,500 high-rise buildings of 12 to 20 floors high. Baghdad, in comparison, is nowhere near as developed as Seoul. Even years after the 2004 conflict, the city currently has only eight high-rise buildings –one currently being planned and the other unbuilt. The doctrines that worked in a low and flat urban environment like Sadr City in Baghdad would have to be reevaluated for a mountainous megacity environment like Seoul.

The Challenge of Dealing with the Population of Seoul

One of the first priorities for government and military officials is the safety of the population. Evacuating South Korean civilians southward is much more complicated now than it used to be during the early years of the Korean War. Back then, Seoul was an underdeveloped city without the tall, tech-savvy buildings that it has today. The population size in Seoul was also only a fraction of today’s demographics. According to U.S. military experts John Amble and John Spencer, the ROK would require about 128,000 fully loaded eighty-passenger buses to relocate the civilian population away from Seoul. This number is almost twenty times as many existing buses in the city as of 2014. It does not take into consideration the total metropolitan region as a whole, which constitutes half of South Korea’s population of 51 million people and therefore increases the number of buses needed to 320,000. The number of people who may not respond to emergency messaging in a sudden and limited timeframe would also hinder evacuation. Taking into consideration challenges such as traffic congestion, potential traps on transportation paths, and a lack of adequate transportation, the South Korean government cannot realistically expect a full evacuation to move efficiently.

From the medical side of human security, chemical and biological weapons will cause damage not just in terms of casualties, but also in terms of the psychological affects left on survivors. This will further burden the South Korean government and NGOs, who must deal with the logistical challenges of supporting these survivors. Many victims do not necessarily have to be physically mutilated by chemical and biological weapons to overwhelm doctors; as seen in the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway attack, victims can be psychologically convinced that they have the symptoms of diseases, which could inflate the number of patients that doctors must treat. South Korea will also be severely understaffed to take care of them. As the data shows, South Korea has the lowest ratio of doctors to population among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with 2.2 doctors per 1,000 people as of 2015.

The Population as Part of a Solution

Although there are severe challenges with extraordinarily large concentrations of people, Seoul residents can also be valuable assets to counter the North Korean threat. Aside from the fact that males already have basic training as a result of mandatory military service, the population as a whole can provide valuable big data through the Internet. Although South Korean cyberspace is vulnerable to cyberattacks and disinformation, it can also be an asset for public coordination and intelligence sharing. Many innovative apps already have various functions that can help civilians report shootings and sexual assaults and provide video data. High concentrations of people can give more accurate updates for tactical application such notifications of troop sightings. If South Korea is not too severely crippled by a North Korean EMP strike or the attack more generally, innovative apps may play an important role for civilian support, even if North Koreans successfully jam GPS systems.

It is precisely because of these threats that South Korea should promote a diversity of online programs. If South Korea wants to improve its security, it should consider lifting bans on certain apps like Google Maps that may be essential for community-based information sharing. Limiting online resources to domestic services like Naver and KakaoTalk restrict the online options for Seoul residents and therefore limit the number of targets for North Korean cyberagents. Diversifying online resources, on the other hand, reduces the risks and provides alternative programs to supplement domestic products.

Before conflict arises, creative storywriters could play a role in logically assessing solutions in reaction to an impending megacity conflict and spreading such information through manhwas (comics), dramas, or even videogames. The idea of utilizing the entertainment industry for information-based strategies on North Korean issues is not new, but creative writers should seriously consider stories that make informative assessments and antidotes to complex megacity warfare.

South Korean leaders in the public as well as private sectors should study urban conflicts in populated settings more complex than Mosul and Marawi to devise strategies that make up for the weaknesses in military personnel numbers and experience. Although U.S. deployments of strategic assets are useful for conventional warfare against North Korea, the U.S. should work with South Korea on efforts related to enhancing humanitarian readiness and ground force capabilities in the event of a conflict with North Korea.

Paul Sung is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from dconvertini’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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New Sanctions Aim at North Korean Economy, Less so Missiles and Nukes

Won hold steady as gasoline prices soar, but for how long?                                               

By William Brown

China and Russia watered down the new UN sanctions, imposed after North Korea startled the world with its apparent thermonuclear test September 3. However, their impact on the economy still could be severe, even crippling eventually.  By accepting tough rules on textiles, joint ventures, and overseas employment, both former communist capitals seem to have tossed out their previous, probably pretend, concerns for the well-being of the people and aimed squarely at the general economy.

Meanwhile, specific U.S. sponsored sanctions that would have disproportionately hit state enterprises and the government were denied, especially in the oil sector.  Kim Jong -un predictably reacted to the outside world with more bluster and yet another intermediate range missile test over Japan on September 14.  But we don’t know as much about what he and his circle of leaders are thinking and doing domestically, something probably of far greater importance.

One thing is for sure; big adjustments in economic policy are needed if he is to maintain progress on the two byongjin fronts—the nuclear program and economic growth. If he isn’t careful, inflation caused by commodity shortages will come roaring back to crack what remains of his command, or fixed-price economic system. This would undo what so far has been Kim’s crowning domestic achievement, getting a handle on a monetary system left in chaos by his father and grandfather (see byongjin blog).  As the leadership learned in a monetary panic in 2009, just as young Kim was being prepared to take over the government, nothing will bring people, even North Koreans, to the streets faster than an assault on their money. And if true nearly ten years ago, it is far more important today given the wide expansion in the use of money and markets that is contributing to economic growth.

If Kim needs any reminders of this predicament, all he needs to do is look down the street. Diplomats, and Daily NK reporters are saying the price of gasoline in Pyongyang has nearly doubled just in the past three weeks. A kilogram of gasoline is reported to cost W23,000 on September 9th, the equivalent of about $8 a gallon at the widely used black market exchange rate, up from W18,000 at the beginning of the month, W14,000 in late August, and 8,000 won in January.  Unlike a price jump in April, this time taxi and auto activity in Pyongyang is said to being impacted, and business is slowing.  Likely even more concerning to the government are similar jumps in diesel and kerosene prices, just as the important and fuel-intensive harvest season is beginning.  Diesel is widely used in portable generators providing essential electrical services in Pyongyang as the national grid supply remains unreliable. Complaints are bound to be rising, especially among the newly enriched entrepreneurial classes who need electrical generators to pump water for their high-rise apartments.

Petroleum though might be among the least of Pyongyang’s new concerns. The price jumps occurred despite what appears on paper very modest oil sanctions, suggesting prices may come down if the inflow is not actually squeezed.  The U.S. had hoped for an embargo of Chinese crude oil deliveries though few expected that would happen.  Instead crude oil will continue at its historic rate of about 4.4 million barrels a year (about 600,000 tons) and will likely remain free to the North Korean government based on a secretive Mao-era aid agreement. (I argue elsewhere that ending this aid is the key to pressuring Pyongyang.) Refined petroleum product sales to North Korea are capped at 2 million barrels a year, 500,000 barrels a quarter beginning in October, slightly less than the 2.2 million barrels China exported last year, but more than what China reports as having provided through July of this year.

Apparently, as reported by western news agencies, foreign exchange shortages are squeezing the North Korean importers so Chinese suppliers, such as the giant China National Petroleum Corporation, are withholding normal export credits, this was occurring even before the new sanctions.  If so, it may be that finance, rather than sanctions, will be the limiting factor on oil deliveries.  The U.S. government, on the other hand, asserts Pyongyang imports more than twice what North Korea’s trade partners admit to selling North Korea and that somehow all of this will be subjected to the 2-million-barrel a year cap.  This would mean that the total annual petroleum supply from all sources would fall from about 8 million barrels to about 6 million, a significant but not a drastic drop, and it would save Pyongyang precious foreign exchange.

Much more damaging to North Korea would be a collapse in the NK won, and attendant inflation, a logical outcome of the new embargos on North Korean textile and apparel exports and fish products.  According to Chinese customs, textiles have risen from almost nothing ten years ago to $330 million in the first seven months of this year. This is already down about 20 percent from the same period in 2016 and, if the sanctions are enforced, will drop to nothing in coming months. The foreign exchange cost to North Korea will be much less than that, since North Korea imports more textile related materials from China than it exports and much of these will no longer be needed.  Still, the disruption to the industry, one of the country’s largest employers, will be severe.  In recent years, textile factories have retooled to serve the export market and now will have switch back to a much less viable domestic market. Workers in the large, unproductive state factories will be generally unaffected but thousands, maybe tens of thousands of productive workers not in the socialist system will be forced out of their private or foreign joint venture workplaces. Many may try to go to China where factories will be in even greater need of cheap labor, but the new overseas employment restrictions will make that hard to do, at least legally.  How the regime responds to this soon to be hard-hit labor and export intensive industry should thus be watched very carefully.

This weekend diplomats in Pyongyang reported that about W8,000 will still buy a dollar in local exchange markets, no change from over the past few years, making the dollar price of gasoline among the highest in the world.  This stability is remarkable given the drop in exports, and indicated further drops on the way.  But here again North Korea, and its half-market, half-command economy is anything but normal.  This stability is probably the result of extreme caution in providing new credit, effectively preventing new investments, or wage increases for impoverished state workers, and in allowing foreign currency, U.S. dollars, to invade the economy at all levels. Pyongyang may even be intervening in the new foreign exchange markets to support the won, expending precious dollars to do so.  North Korea, quite amazingly, thus seems on its way to becoming a dollarized or currency board type economy, one in which the government has little control over the money supply, the banking system, and even its own budget.  If North Koreans are like people the world over, and there is no reason to think they are not, once a small break in the value of won occurs, they will panic and sell their won for available dollars in a downward, self-realizing, spiral.  The government knows this and is valiantly holding the line.

Sooner or later we can expect the rate to crack, just like ancient Korean houses  in Ryanggang province reacting to the September thermonuclear explosion. How then will the young Marshal respond?

William Brown is an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is retired from the federal government. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Roman Harak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-In and French President Charles de Gaulle, both 360 presidents

Les Présidents: Moon Jae-in, Charles de Gaulle, and the 360 Presidency

By Mark Tokola

Historical analogies are fraught. Things never happen exactly the same way twice, and assuming they do can be misleading.  Nevertheless, historical parallels can offer useful perspectives.  For example, an advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in who recently visited Washington remarked that one element of President Moon’s philosophy for South Korea was a “360 degree defense.”  This sounds commonsensical; nations prudently should be prepared to defend themselves against potential threats coming from any direction.  But, for those old enough to remember, it also pushed the memory button of French President Charles de Gaulle’s January 1968 announcement that France would pursue a policy of “defense tous azimuts,” or all-around defense. The parallels between Moon Jae-in and Charles de Gaulle do not stop there.

Charles de Gaulle always had an uneasy relationship with the United States. On one hand, President de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO and obstructed European integration.  On the other, he was the U.S.’ strongest ally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, accurately predicted German unification and the fall of the Soviet Union, and presided over an unparalleled period of French economic growth.  Presidents Kennedy and Nixon both held de Gaulle in high regard.  He has topped polls as “the greatest Frenchman of all time.”  (One assumes Napoleon did not earn the accolade because of being dictatorial and, in the end, losing.)  The lesson of the comparison between de Gaulle and Moon may be that it is possible, perhaps even advantageous, for the United States to have an ally with which it sometimes disagrees.

One contextual parallel between the two presidents is that Moon and de Gaulle both came to power following a domestic political crisis. The collapse of the ineffective French Fourth Republic in 1958 was followed by the de Gaulle presidency and the founding of the Fifth Republic.  Charles de Gaulle promised, and delivered, constitutional reforms which have endured.  Moon Jae-in similarly has taken power following a crisis of governance and has promised constitutional reform.

Charles de Gaulle generally is perceived as a conservative, but on the economic front he favored state intervention in the economy, including a move to rein in the largest French companies by requiring that they share profits with their workers.  By 1964, France had overtaken the UK economically for the first time in modern history.  In a similar vein, Moon Jae-in has promised government action to boost economic performance, and his attitude toward Korea’s largest corporations, like de Gaulle’s, is that they should contribute more to the well-being of the citizenry.

But it is in the foreign policy arena that the comparison might be most instructive.  De Gaulle believed that the Soviet Union posed a threat to Europe, but also believed that it was necessary to engage with the Soviets as well.  He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964 in an early attempt at détente, all the while believing that the Soviet system had no future.  De Gaulle did not have complete faith in what he considered a weakening American extended nuclear deterrence, and eventually concluded that France needed an independent nuclear arsenal with which it could defend itself.  De Gaulle chose to balance France’s U.S.- and UK-oriented Atlanticism with a European “Continentalism” that he defined as stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.  He sought the closest possible ties with France’s old enemy, Germany, and held out the possibility of cooperation with Russia (de Gaulle never called it “the Soviet Union”).

It appears that Moon Jae-in has a similar instinct towards broadening the foundation of South Korea’s foreign policy stance.  He favors an enduring, close relationship with the United States, but also believes that South Korea could simultaneously have a positive relationship with China in a more closely integrated Asia, balancing a continuing U.S. Pacific-orientation with a new Asian “Continentalism” among countries of the region.  Continuing the parallel between the two presidents, Moon may view Japan with the same skepticism with which de Gaulle viewed the U.K., cooperating when in both countries’ interests but watching it with a wary eye. Though he doesn’t share de Gaulle’s uncertainty about the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

De Gaulle’s assertiveness in promoting what he perceived as France’s national interest sometimes strengthened and sometimes undermined American diplomacy. But, taking the long view, it also demonstrated that countries that share basic values regarding democracy, free markets, and human rights generally will support each other’s strategic direction and foreign policy interests — even if they disagree from time to time on specific policies.  Similarly, the U.S. government may not always agree with President Moon’s perception of South Korea’s national foreign policy interests.  This may not lead to the most comfortable kind of alliance, but it is still one that can endure, even beyond the temporary issues raised by North Korea.  It is worth recalling that throughout their long and sometimes awkward history, the United States has never been at war with France or with South Korea, a rare distinction.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Images from wikicommons and arif_shamin’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Responding to North Korea’s Sixth Nuclear Test

By Mark Tokola

Now that North Korea has defied warnings from the international community not to conduct a sixth nuclear test, including from its friends China and Russia, the challenge is, how to respond?  North Korea knows it has made a hugely provocative step.  The September 3rd test was by orders of magnitude larger than any of its previous tests, indicating a thermonuclear capability.  It comes after a relatively long pause, the last test was in September 2016.  It collapsed a tunnel, showing either by design or by mistake, that it was even more ‘successful’ than intended.  And the test came hours after North Korea broadcast a picture showing Kim Jong-un admiring, up-close, a nuclear warhead (or model thereof) designed to fit into a missile nose-cone.  North Korea must be expecting an international response, or if need be a unilateral response from the U.S., in consultation with South Korea.  What should that response be?

Russia has called for “immediate talks” and talks would be desirable if North Korea was prepared to offer anything, which it has not signaled.  The September 3rd test would seem to indicate that North Korea is still on its path of acquiring a credible, reliable nuclear weapons capability capable of striking the U.S. and its allies, and perhaps to gain a second-strike capability, before it will be willing to talk – if Kim Jong-un is willing to talk at all.  The international community has assumed that North Korea would eventually want to talk to see sanctions lifted.  There is a possibility that Kim Jong-un is relying on the sanctions to internally justify his weapons program.  In that case, Kim Jong-un would only want to talk for the purpose of being welcomed to the international nuclear club.

Following the September 3rd test, the main question is whether there can be a response stronger than the one North Korea undoubtedly expects.  The last, impressively tough, round of sanctions was not enough to deter North Korea from conducting its sixth test.  What kind of response would get their attention?  Among the options are a diplomatic response, an economic response, and a show of deterrence.

A diplomatic response could be to expel North Korea from the United Nations.  This is possible under the U.N. charter and would be a serious blow to North Korea because it cares about international prestige.  This response would show Pyongyang that it lacked any international support, including from Russia and China who could veto the expulsion if they chose.  The grounds are clear enough.  North Korea has repeatedly defied U.N. Council resolutions through its weapons program.  The U.N.’s patience should have limits.  China and Russia would be reluctant to expel North Korea from the U.N., but their patience should have limits, too, and they may prepared to go along with a diplomatic step rather than the alternatives.

An economic response may be to move beyond sanctions and to impose an economic embargo on North Korea, as has been advocated by former South Korean national security official Chun Young-woo.  If no degree of stepped-up sanctions have applied sufficient economic pressure, an embargo would be the last step in the escalatory chain of economic measures.  Would this cause the North Korean people to suffer as well as the North Korean regime?  It would, at least in the short run, but not as much as it would have in the past because of North Korea’s market liberalization of recent years.  Domestically produced food and other necessities would still make their way to the markets.  An embargo might even accelerate the pace of de facto privatization of the North Korea economy.  An exception could be made for medicines and other strictly humanitarian requirements.  It may be worth giving economic measures one last chance to work.

A strong deterrent measure might be to overfly North Korea with short or intermediate range U.S. or South Korean missiles.  North Korea has not hesitated to launch missiles over Japanese territories, so it cannot argue that there is a taboo against such a step.  The North Korean air defense system probably is robust enough that overflying North Korea with military aircraft would be too risky.  They probably would not have the ability to intercept a missile over-flight, and even if they did, the interception of a missile within North Korean air space would still show that its weapons program was not making North Korea any safer.

The goal is still to bring North Korea to a negotiating table.  A strong response to the September 3rd test may be more likely to make that happen than no response at all.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Russ Allison Loar’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Might a Conflict with North Korea Look Like?

By Troy Stangarone

In recent weeks tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula as North Korea becomes increasingly bold in its missile tests. In July it tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and recently conducted an intermediate range ballistic missile test over Japan,the first North Korean missile to fly over Japan since 2009. At the same time, President Donald Trump has suggested that North Korea could see “fire and fury” for its actions and recently suggested that “talking is not the answer” for dealing with North Korea. The rise in rhetoric on both sides and the increasing daring of North Korea’s missile tests, and the possibility of North Korea deploying an ICBM, have raised concerns that the United States might engage in preventative actions against North Korea. But what would a conflict between the United States and North Korea look like?

If the United States were to engage in a preventative attack rather than a preemptive attack, the goal would to destroy or at least severely degrade North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. What would be unknown in any operation is how North Korea would respond. While North Korea’s actions cannot be known, we can break down the possibilities.

North Korea Doesn’t Respond to a U.S. Attack

If the United States attacks North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, there is the possibility that the regime may not respond. If North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems were successfully taken out by the U.S. attack, North Korea would find itself at a significant strategic disadvantage in regard to the United States and South Korea. Despite China’s suggestion that it would support North Korea if the United States attacked, the regime could judge that China’s support is unreliable and that retaliation could lead to a wider conflict that ends the regime. In this scenario, there would be no response by North Korea. While the likelihood of outcome is very low, it is one potential outcome of a U.S. preventative attack on North Korea.  North Korea would never admit a defeat, of course, but could spin its lack of retaliation by saying, “We’ve withstood the worst the United States could do to us and we have not been defeated.”

North Korea Conducts a Cyberattack

Similar to the prior scenario, the leadership in Pyongyang calculates that the risks of engaging in a kinetic response are too great to risk the regime’s survival and decides to seek asymmetrical methods for retaliation. Having previously engaged in cyberattacks on Sony Pictures, South Korean private and governmental entities, and on the international financial system, responding in the cyber domain may be appealing to the regime. North Korea could attack infrastructure, financial, or other institutions in the United States and South Korea. Attribution can be difficult in the cyber domain, and even with a general consensus that North Korea was behind any attacks, it might be difficult for the United States to respond kinetically since cyberattacks might be viewed as a proportional response to a U.S. strike.  We do not know the extent of North Korea’s cyber capabilities, but it would be prudent to assume that they could cause a major disruption.

North Korea Responds with a Limited Attack on South Korea

In the event of an attack, North Korea may decide that it needs to respond with a kinetic attack. With concerns weighing on the regime about China’s reliability and about the regime’s ability to withstand escalation in any conflict, it could choose a limited attack on South Korea. The northern end of Seoul is well within North Korean artillery range and other parts of South Korea are within the range of North Korean ballistic missiles. Since it is unlikely that a preventive U.S. attack would take out all of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, North Korea would most likely be able to select targets from around South Korea. North Korean might attack ROK naval vessels, invade one of ROK’s nearby islands, or attack ROK forces close to the DMZ.  Pyongyang’s rhetoric in this case might be to claim that their victorious forces have halted an attack on North Korea.

North Korea Responds with a Limited Attack on South Korea and Japan

In previous North Korean rhetoric, Japan has often been a potential target for North Korean retaliation. With U.S. and UN rear forces for any conflict on the Korean peninsula based in Japan, responding with missile strikes on both South Korea and Japan is another possibility. North Korea may choose to include Japan in any response to try and divide the allies in the future by reminding the Japanese public that they could be caught up in a wider war with North Korea.  Another North Korean approach towards Japan might be to threaten Japan with a nuclear attack unless Japan declares neutrality.

North Korea Responds with a Nuclear Weapon

One of the dangers of a preventative attack on North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites is that imperfect intelligence could preclude the United States from being able to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear warheads or delivery systems. If the regime in Pyongyang feels that it must respond and that any conventional escalation could endanger the regime, it could launch a nuclear strike on either Japan or South Korea coupled with the threat of additional nuclear strikes with the hope that the uncertainty of North Korea’s remaining nuclear capacity could deter additional U.S. strikes and be able to declare victory in the confrontation.

China is Drawn into the Conflict

During the recent tensions, China has suggested that if North Korea attacked the United States it would not support Pyongyang, but that should the United States attack, it would defend North Korea.. China could support North Korea in any conflict with the United States in two ways. If Beijing was determined to try and stay out of any fighting should escalation occur, it could decide to supply Pyongyang with the supplies it would need for any sustained conflict. Alternatively, it could choose to provide troops, naval, and air support, though both the United States and China would likely try to avoid any direct conflict. China might attempt to deter the U.S. from further attacking North Korea by placing Chinese assets in the way of U.S. attacks, assuming that the U.S. would not attack them to try and avoid a direct confrontation.

Once the United States engaged in a preventative attack on North Korea, there is a risk that North Korea would be able to choose its means of retaliation, perhaps counting on China’s support and that any retaliation could lead to a wider conflict in Northeast Asia. In a best case scenario, North Korea would choose to not respond to U.S. attacks, but would likely try to reconstitute its nuclear program in secret. Should a conflict break out, it would likely consist of a combination of conventional and cyber weapons.  However, in a worst case scenario, all of the major powers in the region – the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China, as well as perhaps Russia – could be drawn into a conflagration.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Missiles Over Japan – What are the North Koreans up to?

By Mark Tokola

At 5:58 a.m. on August 28, North Korea launched what was probably an intermediate range missile that passed over Japan and landed in the Pacific after a flight of 1,700 miles.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “North Korea’s reckless action of launching a missile that passed over Japan is an unprecedented, serious and grave threat.”  Abe also said that he had spoken by telephone with President Trump and the U.S. and Japanese stances “are completely matched.”  Was this North Korean launch indeed unprecedented and what kind of threat does it pose?

This was not the first time North Korea has launched a missile that flew over Japan.  The first time was in 1998, when North Korea attempted to launch a satellite.  They claimed success, but because no satellite could be tracked most observers believe the launch was a failure.  It may have been significant that the 1998 launch was only a few days in advance of the 50th anniversary of North Korea’s independence from Japan.  In 2009, North Korea again attempted to launch a satellite with a missile trajectory that passed over Japan.  That launch also failed, with the missile falling into the Pacific east of Japan.  Since then, there have been other North Korean missile launches that have passed over the Japanese Ryukyu island chain

There are three aspects of the August 28th launch that qualify it as “unprecedented.”  First, North Korea has abandoned any pretense that their missile program is non-military.  It had claimed that its 1998 and 2009 launches were peaceful satellite launches.  Its 2017 launches are overtly for the purpose of threatening other countries.  Secondly, in 1998 and 2009, North Korea announced its launches in advance, providing warning to shipping in the areas where the boosters would fall.  The August 28th launch was a surprise, reinforcing its non-peaceful nature.  Finally, the site of the August 28th launch appears to have been near Pyongyang, rather than in the remote launch sites previously used.  This may have been a signal from Kim Jong-un that in any attempt by the U.S. to carry out a preventative strike, it could not assume it would be able to operate only in non-populated areas of North Korea.  There would be nothing surprising about Kim Jong-un holding his own population hostage.

We know facts about the August 28th launch, but its meaning is open to speculation.  One interpretation would be that Kim Jong-un is pushing the envelope further.  The previous ICBM tests had avoided Japanese air space by falling into the sea west of Japan. One could interpret the August 28th test as highly belligerent and provocative, intended as a sharp, unyielding response to U.S., South Korean, Chinese and Japanese warnings.  It also could be taken as a rebuff to Secretary of State Tillerson’s public remarks that North Korea may be showing restraint, possibly creating an opening for negotiations.

Those looking hopefully for signs that North Korea may be signaling a tough negotiating posture rather than spoiling for a fight will point out that the missile’s path over Japan seemed intended to avoid populated areas passing over a northern stretch of Japan that is relatively sparsely populated.  They may also point out that this was an intermediate missile test, not that of another ICBM designed to reach the continental American homeland.  It also fulfills North Korea’s promise to react to U.S.-South Korean military exercises without threatening Guam, the most recent target of its rhetoric.

The August 28 test will upset Japan, but is likely to irritate China as well.  Giving Japan reasons to enhance military cooperation with the U.S., to strengthen its anti-missile defenses, and to work more closely with South Korea all run counter to Chinese interests.  North Korea’s actions not only roil the U.S.-Chinese relationship, but the Chinese-Japanese relationship.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Difference Between a Preventative Attack and Preemption Against North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

In 1994, then President Bill Clinton considered a military strike to take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities. He ultimately decided against the use of military force and in the two decades since the United States and the international community have primarily responded to North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and their component delivery systems with a mixture of sanctions and engagement. However, with North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in July, Pyongyang is nearing the point of being able to attack the United States’ mainland. As this prospect becomes increasingly more of a reality, there have been growing discussions of the option of the United States taking military action against North Korea.

In the most recent standoff between North Korea and the United States, President Donald Trump suggested that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to threaten the United States and North Korea responded that it might place the U.S. territory of Guam in an “enveloping fire,” increasing concerns that war could break out on the Korean peninsula. With the United States and North Korea now attempting to deescalate tensions the immediate concern of the United States undertaking military action against North Korea has receded somewhat. However, should the prospect of utilizing a military option return, in the absence of a direct attack by North Korea the United States would be left with the options of taking preventative military action or preemptive military action.

While at times used interchangeably, preemptive military action and preventative military action are actually quite different. In many ways the key differences between a preemptive and preventative attack relate to timing, capability, and intent. A preemptive attack is one where the state taking the preemptive action believes that an attack is imminent with a known capability and that there is no other course of action that would forestall the attack. While attacking first, that action is innately one of self-defense.

In the case of North Korea, the United States and its allies might undertake a preemptive attack if there was intelligence clearly indicating that Pyongyang was preparing to conduct a nuclear strike or undertaking troop movements that signaled that an attack on South Korea was imminent. Because of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and prior threats to conduct strikes on Busan or Tokyo, the costs of waiting for the North Korean attack before responding could be extremely high. The advantage of taking out North Korea’s weapons capabilities prior to an imminent attack is that preemptive action holds the potential of limiting the damage to South Korea, the United States, and potentially Japan, in any conflict with North Korea that seemed certain.

A preventative strike differs from a preemptive strike in that there is no immediate threat of attack. In fact, it may be unclear that the state in question intends to attack at all. Instead the attack is intended to prevent a state from developing a threatening capability. In contrast to a preemptive strike, the goal is not to strike first in a conflict that is expected to happen, but rather to fight a conflict sooner rather than later when the military situation may be less advantageous.

Applied to North Korea, a preventative strike would be designed to take out North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities before it is able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon, not because it is actually in the process of preparing to launch a nuclear weapon. It is less clear that a preventative attack would lead to a lower level of costs for the United States and its allies than refraining from a preventative attack since North Korea is already capable of striking South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons and there is less certainty about the regime’s intent in using the weapons. In this case, deterrence and diplomacy may be the lowest cost solutions.

A preventative attack also seems unlikely for political and legal reasons. While genuine preemption is viewed as a legitimate act of self-defense, a preventative attack is not viewed as legitimate in international law. International law may not always constrain the actions of states, but the perception of legitimacy of an attack plays an important role in the political calculations of whether to proceed with an attack. In the current situation, we can already see a pushback on a preemptive attack on North Korea by South Korea which has suggested that only it could authorize an attack on the North.

If the United States ultimately determines that it is unable to tolerate North Korea having an ICBM and nuclear weapon, an attack to remove that threat would be an act of prevention. However, if North Korea were to finish its weapons development and then look to use those weapons against the United States, an attack against an imminent threat from North Korea would be one of preemption.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Next Potential Flash Point with North Korea – August Military Exercises

By Mark Tokola

Although tensions with North Korea seem to have eased during the past few days with statements by Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis emphasizing diplomacy over military confrontation, the test of wills between Washington and Pyongyang continues with the U.S. government stating that it will settle for nothing less than talks leading to denuclearization, and soon, and North Korea continuing to say that it will never give up its developing nuclear arsenal.  There is urgency to the question, “What will happen next?”

What happens next could be another missile or nuclear test — the last nuclear test, the fifth, took place on September 9, 2016.  Or, it could be a conventional provocation against South Korean forces, although the last significant incident of that nature was in August, 2015, when North Korean forces planted a landmine where they knew it would injure South Korean soldiers.  Or, it could be another cyberattack against the United States.  North Korea cyberattacks happen frequently enough against South Korea that they attract little attention.  Or, what happens next could take place around the time of the U.S.-ROK military exercise scheduled for August 21-31, “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian.”

Annual U.S.-ROK military exercises have taken place for years, and for years have drawn fiery condemnations and threats from North Korea.  North Korea routinely condemns the exercises as proof of hostile intent towards the DPRK and on occasion has threatened retaliation if exercises proceeded.  China has suggested a “double-freeze”; that perhaps North Korea could refrain from further testing if the U.S. and ROK would refrain from their military exercises.  South Korean President Moon Jae-in has rejected this proposal on the grounds that whereas North Korea’s testing is in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, military exercises are perfectly legal.  We should not trade a legal practice against an illegal one, he says.  It is also reasonable to question North Korea’s sincerity when it has never offered to suspend its own military exercises.

It may not be a coincidence that North Korea claims that it will have plans ready in mid-August to send missiles in the direction of Guam.  The timing of the threat may be linked to the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises.  The exercises are almost certain to proceed, particularly at a time when the U.S.-ROK Alliance will feel the need to demonstrate its resolve to defend South Korea.  How North Korea deals with the exercises may be revealing.  It would be unremarkable if it used its normal, threatening language regarding the exercise.  That’s what one would expect.  If it elevates its rhetoric to specific threats or, in the worst case, carries out a provocation in response to the exercise, tensions could significantly increase.  If North Korea issues what appears to be little more than a pro forma objection to Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, that could be a signal that the stage is being set for negotiations.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from 210th Field Artillery Brigade, 2ID US Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Are the New UN Sanctions Enough to Slow North Korea’s Missile Development Program?

By Troy Stangarone

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously passed new sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests on July 4 and 28. These measures are long overdue. While the international community has taken steps to sanction North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons, its push to develop the delivery systems necessary to utilize those weapons has faced relatively few sanctions. That has now begun to change.

The new sanctions take important steps to significantly reduce North Korea’s efforts to earn hard currency. The key provisions in the sanctions relate to a new ban on exports of coal, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood products. The ban is a step in the right direction, as it continues to remove loopholes from prior resolutions that North Korea has been exploiting. In the case of coal, for example, North Korea was able to earn more from coal exports after the sanctions than it had prior to sanctions due to rising prices. To address this issue, the UN placed a hard cap on coal exports in Security Council Resolution 2321, passed in November 2016. The cap is now gone and a full ban is in place. These new sanctions also ban new joint ventures with North Korea and any additional investment in joint ventures that already exist.

However, the provision prohibiting an increase in the number of overseas laborers will likely have minimal impact. The trend was already in this direction — over the last year, many countries have been reducing their use of North Korean labor. The one significant outlier had been Russia, who earlier this year agreed to expand its usage of North Korean labor. That the new UN sanctions only place restrictions on increasing the usage of North Korean labor likely reflects the reluctance of Russia and China to cut off the usage of low wage North Korean labor completely. Additionally, much as was the case with earlier efforts to reduce Pyongyang’s earnings from coal exports, North Korea could earn increasing amounts from the laborers already abroad if their wages were to increase.

While the new UN sanctions are an important step to begin imposing a price on North Korea’s missile program, we should not expect the new sanctions to stop North Korea’s missile development. Pyongyang has demonstrated consistently that it is willing to bear the burden of sanctions to advance its weapons programs. Additionally, while some expect that these sanctions will result in a one third reduction of North Korea’s total earnings, the impact may not reach that level, as new sanctions primarily cover goods trade. North Korea likely earns significant amounts from illegal arms trade, smuggling, and other activities as well.

Despite the constraints that come from any new sanctions efforts, this move is an important step forward in sanctioning North Korea over its missile development. Prior to the current set of sanctions, there had been few UN Security Council resolutions explicitly in response to North Korean missile tests, despite a significant increase in tests under Kim Jong-un.  So far this year, North Korea has conducted two ICBM tests and has conducted a new missile test once every 2.6 weeks on average. Demonstrating to North Korea that there will be a cost for these tests is important. However, rather than simply reacting to these tests after they occur, the international community should consider pre-negotiating sanctions measures in advance of tests to make clear to North Korea the cost of its actions. At a minimum, the international community should not allow North Korea to continue to conduct new missile tests at this rate without additional sanctions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nations Photo photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Target of New North Korea Sanctions Bill: Finances

By Phil Eskeland

(“That’s Where the Money Is.”[1])

Last week, the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelming passed and sent to President Trump’s desk a new sanctions bill for his expected signature. The bill originally focused on Russia and Iran when it was first adopted by the Senate, but was expanded after bipartisan, bicameral negotiations to include sanctions provisions against North Korea as well.  With all the talk in Washington about the inability of different sides to work together, few issues unite more U.S. public policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum than getting tougher on North Korea.  Last May, the House of Representatives passed the Korea Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act (H.R. 1644) by another overwhelming bipartisan vote of 419 to 1.  Essentially, this new sanctions bill – Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (H.R. 3364) – takes almost every word from the House-passed North Korea sanctions bill to include it as part of Title III.

Much of the attention to this legislation has been directed at the first title of the bill affecting Russia.  The debate has primarily focused Congressional limitations on the flexibility given to the Executive Branch to implement the bill.  In the past, most sanctions-related legislation grants the President some discretion to waive or delay the imposition of sanctions, because the U.S. government may need flexibility in diplomacy and cannot wait for Congress to pass a bill to amend or end sanctions.  If there was any constraints on the Executive Branch, it was usually done when there was divided government (i.e., the Republican Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, when Democrat President Bill Clinton was in office, that placed into statutory law many of the presidential Executive Orders affecting U.S. trade with Cuba, and thus cannot be unilaterally lifted or altered by the President without the consent of Congress).  It is interesting to observe a Republican Congress reasserting itself as a co-equal branch of government by imposing a series of constraints on the ability of a Republican president to unilaterally waive part of the sanctions against Russia.

However, any additional Congressional limitations on the President’s ability to waive or delay the imposition of these new sanctions do not affect the provisions of the bill dealing with North Korea, despite a last-minute effort by some Senate Republicans.  Nonetheless, the primary purpose of Title III of H.R. 3364 is to close loopholes and target new areas to deprive the North Korean regime of the money it needs to operate.  The fundamental philosophy behind the effort is to “cut off the Kim Jong Un regime’s access to hard cash” and “to restrict North Korea’s ability to engage in illicit trade.”

How does this bill accomplish these goals?  First, the legislation mandates sanctions against foreign persons who engage in five activities that have been identified as major revenue-generating activities for the North Korean regime – high-value metals or minerals, such as gold and “rare earths;” military-use fuel; vessel services; insurance for these vessels; and correspondent accounts, which are used in foreign currency exchanges to convert U.S. dollars into North Korean won.

Second, H.R. 3364 increases the discretionary authority of the U.S. government to impose sanctions on persons who engage in one or more of 11 different activities that generate revenue for North Korea, including those who import North Korean coal, iron, or iron ore above the limits set by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolutions; who buys textiles or fishing rights from North Korea; who transfers bulk cash or precious metals or gemstones to North Korea; who facilitates the on-line commercial activities of North Korea, such as on-line gambling; who purchases agricultural products from North Korea; and who are engaged in the use of overseas North Korean laborers.

Third, there is a provision closing one loophole in the international financial system that would prohibit North Korea’s use of indirect correspondent accounts.  These accounts temporarily use U.S. dollars when converting one foreign currency into another, such as North Korean won.  The aim of this provision is to further cut off North Korea from the U.S. financial system and restrict the ability of the DPRK to conduct business with other nations.

Fourth, the legislation curtails certain types of foreign aid to countries that buy or sell North Korea military equipment in the effort to dry up another source of revenue to the regime.  Nations will have a choice: buy North Korean conventional weapons or receive U.S. foreign aid to help their people.

Fifth, H.R. 3364 augments sanctions that target revenue generated from North Korea overseas laborers who work under inhumane conditions.  It would ban the importation into the U.S. of any product made by these laborers.  The bill would also sanction foreign individuals who employ North Korean laborers.

The legislation also ensures that humanitarian aid destined for North Korea is not affected by heightened U.S. sanctions.  However, H.R. 3364 did not retain a provision in the original House version that contained an exemption for planning family reunification meetings with relatives in North Korea, including those from the Korean-American community meaning that family reunions will still be subject to sanctions.  In addition, the bill contains a reward for informants who report violations of financial sanctions on North Korea, in the hopes of increasing the government’s ability to enforce these sanctions.  Finally, it requires a report from the Administration within 90 days after the bill becomes law on the efficacy of putting North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The debate over reinstating North Korea on the list was revitalized in light of the assassination of King Jong Nam, the exiled half-brother of the ruling leader of North Korea, at the Kuala Lumpur international airport in Malaysia using the VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon.

H.R. 3364 should not be seen as an end-goal, but as part of a continuing process of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.  As this bill is implemented, North Korea will find new ways to evade sanctions.  Further legislation or action by other nations and the U.N. Security Council may be required to further clamp down on these loopholes.  However, the question remains unresolved if heightened sanctions from both the U.S. and the international community will produce the desired outcome – a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula – particularly before North Korea acquires the ability to launch a nuclear warhead on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the mainland of the United States.   Sanctions are only as strong as its weakest link.  Thus, North Korea’s main trading partner, China, needs to do much more if it is to live up to its rhetoric that “they will strive for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Image from Shawn Clover’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.      
[1] Response by bank robber Willie Sutton to the question as to why he robbed banks, January 20, 1951, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, “Someday, They’ll Get Slick Willie Sutton.”

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.