Thursday, May 18, 2017

The DPRK Problem: Decision-making

While we are distracted by the events of the day: a missile launch, a political statement, or a foreign visit, there are a couple of more important decisions that have been made that will define the course of events yet to come. The first is the decision by the ROK to retain the THAAD system. The second is the decision by the DPRK not to initiate the sixth nuclear test.

Each of these decisions are perceived by their makers to be critical to the evolution of events in the future by the other players, notably the US and PRC. The fact that they have not been made by this point indicates that a positive decision has been made not to make them. And from that we can infer the position of two of the major players of this drama: the ROK and DPRK.

Ahead of the Presidential elections in the ROK, President Trump issued a statement that South Korea should pay approximately $1B USD for the THAAD system. This statement was quickly withdrawn. Nonetheless, the THAAD system remains in the ROK, operational. Should the ROK have the system removed, it would of course be folly. However, by not removing THAAD the ROK links itself to the decisions of the US which do threaten to create hostilities with the DPRK in order to set back the DPRK nuclear and missile programs and/or destabilize the North Korean regime.

So the ROK is under a primary threat of nuclear attack by not subjugating itself politically to North Korea. Of course, this is North Korea's primary purpose in developing nuclear ICBMs that can possibly drive a wedge between the US and the ROK. During the Cold War, France faced a similar decision and decided to develop its own nuclear deterrent and only then drop out of NATO. The thought the French had was that the Russians would be content to invade just West Germany. Soviet warplans discovered in their archive showed this cowardly betrayal to be mistaken. France would be invaded regardless.  Both the ROK and the US face a similar decision today. Either can attempt to cut and run. For the time being, both are allowing themselves to be backed into a common fight. The immediate cost may be enormous and the long term cost of appeasement, even higher.

On the other hand, the DPRK has forestalled its previously scheduled sixth nuclear test. This test would have likely have been a bridge too far for Sino-North Korean relations under pressure from the US. And it may have triggered an immediate US preemptive strike against the DPRK nuclear and missile facilities. By putting this test on hold, the Kim regime shows weakness which may lead those within the regime to doubt its wherewithal. To shore this confidence up, the DPRK has conducted two additional missile tests which also have the benefit of moving its ICBM program ahead. There is simultaneous work to advance the SLBM program. Both programs are aimed at Japan and the US.

The DPRK's decision to delay the sixth test validates the fact that the PRC has sufficient control over the DPRK's future that the DPRK believes it must acquiesce to Chinese demands.  Ninety percent of North Korea trade is with the PRC. The DPRK is not nearly as self-sufficient as it would have its people believe especially in terms of fuel, food, and the luxury items that are paid as bribes to Kim's various cronies that help him control the country. Should North Korea conduct the sixth test, it would likely signal to the US that the PRC cannot or will not control North Korea. This would greatly diminish China's role in any resolution of the DPRK problem and increase the likelihood of US preemptive action.

Both decisions show that it is the United States' game to lose. The US loses by backing down or by excessive delay in forcing the elimination of the DPRK's ability to deliver nuclear weapons.