Beware the Guns of August in North Korea

The dangers of assumptions, miscalculation and brinkmanship

Daniel Fazio

PHOTO: AP/Lee Jin-man

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

30 May 2017

Brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula can only go so far before a crisis occurs, or war breaks out, Daniel Fazio writes.

North Korea’s three missile launches over the past two weeks are a cautionary warning about the inherent dangers of actions based on assumptions, miscalculation, and the risk of brinkmanship. Whatever the reasoning behind Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the regime appears intent on thumbing its nose at the regional powers, testing their patience and resolve.

The US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are all at least in agreement that North Korea’s missile tests are destabilising to regional security. However, beyond condemning Pyongyang and threatening further sanctions and the possible use of force, it seems there is little the powers can do to curb Kim Jong-un.

Although North Korea appears immune to outside pressures, it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Just what the regime intends to gain by continuing with its nuclear and missile programs is problematic given it cannot use these weapons without inviting its destruction.

North Korea appears intent on calling the regional powers’ bluff. Kim will continue with the nuclear and missile program possibly on the assumption that despite their opposition, the regional powers will not go to the brink and force a confrontation. If these regional powers are unable to find a way to respond in a strong and concerted manner to Kim’s continuing provocations, he will become ever-more emboldened as the powers appear ever weaker.

This brinkmanship is a recipe for impending disaster. Sooner or later, if the increasing tensions are not diffused, they are likely to result in a military confrontation no one wants. Despite its rhetoric and bombast, Pyongyang’s brinkmanship is bewildering because it must know it cannot sustain let alone win a military confrontation.

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President Trump has deployed the USS Carl Vinson carrier battle group in the area. However, having threatened the use of force, if the North Koreans continue firing missiles and the US does nothing, it risks creating the perception it is unable or unwilling to act. Further provocations from Pyongyang could see an escalation of tensions to a point whereby politically, the US will have no option but to respond with a military strike against the regime.

This would precipitate a series of unintended and unwanted consequences: a North Korean missile strike against Seoul and/or Tokyo, an overwhelming US response backed by Japan and South Korea, the destabilisation and perhaps the collapse of Kim’s regime, and an ensuing economic and humanitarian disaster. And it’s incredulous to think China and Russia will be bystanders.

Kim Jong-un’s gamble that the regional powers will ultimately do nothing may pay off. Indeed, it’s possible Pyongyang may be calculating that they can get away with missile launches but another nuclear test would be a step too far.

Perhaps this is why the regime has continued launching missiles but hasn’t conducted another nuclear test since the two in 2016. The international political pressure for the regional powers to respond to a nuclear test would be far greater than the current pressure to respond to missile launches.

Each missile launched by Pyongyang on the assumption that the powers will not retaliate increases the potential for miscalculation and unintended consequences for the regime. If tensions continue to escalate, so too will the risk of a military confrontation.

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The accuracy and reliability of North Korea’s missiles remain problematic. The two North Korean missiles launched on 14 and 29 May that, respectively, landed very close to Russia and in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, should be ample warning that a strike caused by a misfire is a very real prospect. If such an incident occurs, a military strike against the regime is almost inevitable.

The danger with brinkmanship is that tensions cannot continue to ratchet up without causing hostilities. Either Kim’s regime or the regional powers or both will have to back down to prevent a confrontation.

American historian Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August details how the great powers ended up at war in 1914 because each acted according to preconceived assumptions about how the others would respond to their prospective actions. Their miscalculations resulted in World War One.

President Kennedy referred to Tuchman when he refused to launch an invasion of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby preventing a nuclear war, and reaching a negotiated settlement.

Indeed, the North Koreans need only look back to their own history. In June 1950, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding leader and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, precipitated the Korean War by invading South Korea, intent on reunifying the peninsula by force under his rule. Kim gambled by assuming the US would or could not intervene in time to save South Korea. His miscalculation resulted in a conflict that devastated the peninsula and perpetuated its indefinite division with consequences that continue to reverberate.

Pyongyang, Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo should read and heed the lessons from The Guns of August before another unwanted crisis unravels.

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