The real possibility of conflict with North Korea

Conflict with North Korea is too often assumed to be an all or nothing issue, with nuclear Armageddon as the inevitable result.

In a hurricane, there is a peaceful lull when the eye of the storm arrives, but it is just an illusion. This is where we are with North Korea. 

We think we have been seen the worst: Pyongyang tested an H-bomb and launched missiles over Japan; America has flown its bombers off North Korea’s coast; and both sides have traded insults and threats. 

Now the eye of the storm has arrived. We hear that American and North Korean diplomats are in contact, and Trump is talking up China’s positive but unspecified role. But any sense that this crisis has been averted is illusory.

Conflict of some sort is a realistic outcome of the current standoff. This is not properly understood in Europe, where any potential conflict is seen as an all-or-nothing affair, with nuclear Armageddon the almost unavoidable result of a clash.

That may become the case once North Korea finally acquires a credible nuclear and ballistic force. But it is not yet so, and that is precisely why conflict is more likely now than later, when the consequences for regional allies and for the United States itself will be too great for them to risk.

The twin logics of confrontation

As the weaker party, North Korea’s credibility and perception of security rests on continually demonstrating military progress. Halting the nuclear and ballistic program in exchange for economic relief is seen by Pyongyang as long-term suicide. 

Conversely, the United States can ill afford to stand by and allow that progress to continue its evolution. Washington is fast losing credibility and risks emboldening other adversaries, especially Iran. 

Commentators talk about the risk of a crisis being sparked by an accident or misunderstanding between the two leaders or their militaries. But the truth is that the dynamics above provide ample grounds for conflict even without such a mistake.

A realistic vision of conflict 

For Pyongyang, repeating the recent nuclear and ballistic tests would achieve little. In fact this could inadvertently confirm doubts about remaining hurdles such as miniaturization and survival to flight and re-entry.

An alternative way of demonstrating progress would be a nuclear missile test resulting in a high altitude electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, presumably over the Pacific. This would demonstrate a novel capacity, and one which solves the problem of re-entry. (An EMP detonation would take place in the outer atmosphere.) 

The North Korean regime may bet, given America’s repeated failure to enforce red lines, that this would not cross the threshold provoking direct retaliation. They could also justify an EMP test on the grounds that the United States conducted similar tests in the early 1960s.

But it is hard to see the Trump administration letting another provocation stand. As to how it might respond, intercepting North Korean missiles remains difficult, but the United States could certainly take out one or more of the regime’s missile launching pads.

A direct U.S. strike on North Korean soil such as this would likely provoke Pyongyang to retaliate against its American-allied neighbor to the south, resulting in a conventional weapons barrage across the 38th parallel. U.S. bunker-busters and the Air Force could take out North Korean artillery. But should this take too long to prevent mass casualties in South Korea, it could even resort to using tactical nuclear weapons on North Korea. This would also serve as a warning against a potential nuclear missile launch by Pyongyang.

At this point, a pause might finally set in. But a battered and weakened North Korean regime could nonetheless bank on patriotism to survive. The U.S. Army famously does deserts better than mountains, and there are good reasons not to attempt an occupation. 

China is also a key factor: The presence of U.S. or South Korean forces in Pyongyang would be no more acceptable to Beijing today than it was in 1950. Should the Kim regime fall – an improbable event as conflict would reinforce its legitimacy in the short term – China would want to be directly involved in the next stage. Equally, should the regime continue to rule in a diminished state, China would have much more leverage than it does at present and would again defend the regime in principle, while congratulating itself on the fact that Kim Jong Un has been defanged. 

Will it happen?

The above is an awful scenario in human terms. But it is not the nuclear armageddon assumed as the unavoidable outcome of any conflict. Indeed, for neighbors such as Japan it is actually less dangerous than the current gradual drift toward a full North Korean nuclear capacity. 

The main cause for American restraint at present is South Korea’s aversion to any conflict. But a major North Korean action, such as an EMP test or an attack on civilians in the South, could change Seoul’s calculus. Ultimately, Kim Jong Un’s next action is the deciding factor, and that is definitely not reassuring.

What can Europe do?

Europe should be aware of the realistic possibility of conflict. While strengthening sanctions and compelling others to do the same is the right course, it should be aware that increased sanctions strengthen the rationale for conflict in Pyongyang. Much as imperial Japan in 1940, North Korea may prefer to engage in conflict with little chance of victory, rather than accepting a slow asphyxiation. 

Europe has to protect European lives and interests in the vicinity of the 38th parallel. By addressing this potential scenario, and by openly discussing the aftermath of such a conflict, it would help to remove doubts in the North Korean leader’s mind that the United States will use maximum force in the event of further provocation.

An old Japanese proverb says that “only after seeing the gates of hell does one turn back.” Helping Kim Jong Un see those gates clearly may be the best way to secure peace.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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