How do you avoid a war on the Korean peninsula that could be triggered not by a rational decision but by an accident or misperception? Deterrence is about something else. It targets the cost-benefit analysis behind the decision to start a war. Crisis management addresses more restrictively the military incidents that could lead to an escalation of hostilities.
The lack of crisis management talks is an obvious problem in US-DPRK relations; but it also exists in US-China relations, adding a layer of volatility to the Korean security equation. Of course, political talks take place regularly and at a high level between the US and China – most recently between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and China’s state councillor, Yang Jiechi.
But these discussions do not address specific contingency plans because the issue is politically too sensitive for China. This limitation is problematic because misperception and miscalculation caused by uncertainties and lack of intelligence regarding how other parties will respond are major factors in crisis escalation.
Thinking in terms of scenarios illustrates how the absence of such talks between the US and China aggravates risks of unintended escalation on the Korean peninsula if an accident occurs.
Many scenarios are worthy of careful anticipation and planning owing to their potential to lead to a major confrontation. Think first of North Korean missile tests going wrong. There has been an element of luck as North Korean missile tests so far have not caused any foreign fatalities, be they on fishing boats and commercial ships in the Pacific Ocean or on Japanese soil.
Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera told Financial Times that the option of intercepting a North Korean missile passing over Japan had been ruled out due to the government’s interpretation of Japanese defence legislation.
But it would become a potential alternative if Japan were to assess that the trajectory of a missile posed a direct threat to civilians. An accident not only would lead to adjustments in Japan’s defence policy – pertaining to the acquisition of land attack cruise missiles, for instance; it would also likely invite some degree of US retaliation, and possibly trigger escalation.
Consider also the chain reaction that a US interception of a North Korean missile test could provoke. The missile defence option has been in the cards for a while and gained more support in the US this year. If successful, an interception would deny North Korea the reliable nuclear deterrence it aims to develop. If interception could invite more tests, it would be premised on the idea that North Korea would not retaliate – because an interception would not be a strike on Korean soil, and because, as the logic goes, as a rational player seeking deterrence and survival, North Korea would have an incentive to avoid escalation.
But North Korea’s response also would depend on its assessment of Chinese and Russian positions. And China tends to consider US missile defence and North Korean proliferation as two sides of the same toxic coin.
Of all conceivable scenarios, the worst would be a US or a South Korean military action that Pyongyang would misinterpret as the first move in a decapitation strike. North Korea has made it clear that it was considering nuclear pre-emptive strikes in response to an attempt at decapitation – be it a targeted strike against the leadership or a massive attack against the country’s military facilities (including its weapons of mass destruction).
South Korean intelligence recently released an assessment that North Korean air defence radars had failed to detect flights of US bombers close to the North Korean coast. True or not in that specific case, the weakness of North Korean intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities adds to crisis instability. It is a major source of miscalculation.
Crisis management talks should aim at lowering the risk of incident, but also prevent escalation in case of an accident; accomplishing this end requires coordination between major players.
The US has been suggesting contingency talks to China for more than a decade. China still rejects the proposition, for two main reasons.
The first is internal division in China regarding threat assessment. Many conservative strategists perceive the US military presence in Northeast Asia as the main long-term threat to Chinese security interests. Even though most would agree that North Korean proliferation activities undermine Chinese interests, if only for the US response they provoke, strategic mistrust towards the US still dominates and explains Chinese inertia, despite risks that also threaten China’s own national security.
The second is even more fundamental because it touches upon a core belief of the Chinese Communist Party. By talking crisis management with the US, the PLA would indirectly acknowledge the US endgame – regime change in North Korea. Indeed, in all three scenarios, how does one envisage that the conflict a move would provoke would not end with the demise of the Korean Workers’ Party?
This is where North Korean perceptions matter enormously. Crisis management talks, if their existence were leaked to the media or detected by the DPRK, would be interpreted in Pyongyang as a Chinese endorsement of a regime change strategy. This in turn would put a final end to any prospect of China playing a diplomatic role between the US and North Korea. In addition to ideological self-betrayal, China would also kill what remains of its leverage.
China has long debated the need for crisis management talks with the US, and so far the conservative approach has prevailed. A recent piece by Peking University Professor Jia Qingguo has put that debate in the public spotlight, suggesting that the debate was reaching a climax in the context of heightened risks of clash.
This state of affairs opens up an opportunity for discreet diplomacy. The US and China may have enough military-to-military channels to hold such talks bilaterally, but there is an opening for third parties to lessen Chinese concerns. Europe is in a good position. On the one hand, it shares with the US the understanding that tensions on the peninsula are the result of North Korea’s illegal behaviour and brinkmanship. On the other hand, Europe’s calls for restraint and dialogue place it closer to the Chinese position than to Trump’s approach, which is centred on deterrence, pressure and veiled threats of military action.
The lack of US-China contingency planning weakens the response of the international community to the proliferation activities of the DPRK. By contributing to the perception gap between the US and China, it widens strategic space that North Korea can exploit for brinkmanship and for advancing its capabilities. Third parties such as the EU or European states should make openings to host such talks to contribute to crisis management on the Korean peninsula.
This article originally appeared in South China Morning Post.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.