The North Korean Threat: Diplomatic Ping Pong or Need for a Deterrent Strategy?

By Robbin Laird

North Korea is ramping up the rhetoric over the Korean Peninsula.  It is also evolving its missile capabilities to cover a wider range of target sets.

What is the proper military response to convince the North Koreans that any action on their part what be short sided?

The military question is often off the table while it is discussed largely as a diplomatic game, which requires folks like the Chinese to come round and help constrain “their ally.

Growing North Korean Threat Envelope. Credit: USA Today

But what is the military set of responses to deterrence in a period where the United States has clearly downgraded the nuclear element in its arsenal?

And with weapons like the F-22 declared Cold War weapons, just what does the Administration have in mind to do the job to convince North Korean that we can take their slingshot away?

Simply trying to defend against missile volleys is not enough.

Regime decapitation has to be credible and on the table.

When you are dealing with a regime of thugs, the only thing they will value is their ability to exist, extort and be wealthy as a result of their activities.

As recent USA Today piece highlighted perceptions of the crisis, which still place this in domain of diplomacy, not military deterrence.

On Tuesday, the North Korean army’s Supreme Command said it will take “practical military action” to protect national sovereignty and its leadership in response to what it called U.S. and South Korean plots to attack.

“From this moment, the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army will be putting in combat duty posture No. 1 all field artillery units including long-range artillery units strategic rocket units that will target all enemy object in U.S. invasionary bases,” the KCNA news agency said.

The North Korean military statement referred to the B-52 flights as a provocation. The Pentagon said it is confident that it can handle any military capabilities that the regime of Kim Jong Un can come up with…..

The North Korean statement came on the third anniversary of a North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea denies the warship sinking.

The two Koreas have clashed repeatedly in recent years and North Korea has vowed in the past to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea has expressed anger over recent joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea and crippling United Nations-endorsed sanctions in the wake of the North’s Feb. 12 nuclear test.

The United States and its allies should respond to the latest North Korean threats by urging China to restrain its ally before the situation escalates, a former U.S. intelligence official says.

U.S. diplomats should talk to their Chinese counterparts and say “your ally North Korea is acting in a very belligerent and destabilizing way,” said Richard Bush, an East Asia specialist at the National Intelligence Council under President Clinton who now heads the Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.

“They’re acting in ways that are contrary to the principals you (China) have laid out. The situation is somewhat dangerous. You need to restrain your ally.”

So the deterrence answer lies in getting Bejing to realize what its true interest actually is?  And convinced by Washington about what that true interest is?  Talk about hope not a strategy, this is surely a case in point.

This reminds one of the White House warning to Russia that it was not following its “true interest” in Syria.  The global conflict is not a schoolroom for American “leaders” to teach others the rules of the game.  Hopefully, we don’t have to live the 1930s all over again, where Western leaders often lectured Japanese and Germans on proper behavior with the predictable results.

But not to worry because North Korea is only making empty threats.

The country has made nuclear threats against the U.S. and its allies in the past. But North Korea doesn’t have the capability to strike U.S. bases in Hawaii, Guam or the U.S. mainland with long-range missiles, says James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.

“From what we know of its existing inventory, North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles that could complicate a situation on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps reach Japan,” he said.

“They’re empty threats,” Bush said.

The reality is that the reach of North Korean missiles is significant and growing.  If intentions are demonstrated by tests and the evolution of capability, then they certainly are not hollow threats.

And as for help from the Chinese?

The US is getting this sage advice from descendants of Confucius. Chill out, Dude!

China’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Tuesday for all sides in the Korean peninsula to exercise restraint. The threats “are nothing new, they just want attention,” said Shen at Fudan University. “The U.S. is ready to intercept any incoming missiles anyway. Don’t let North Korea think that their threats get any reward,” or they will threaten more, he said.

There is indeed something hollow here but it is not the threats.



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