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Tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to rise as North Korean leaders proclaim their intention to restart nuclear facilities in the latest in a series of bellicose statements seemingly aimed at the United States and its allies. John Park is an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an expert in Northeast Asian policy. We spoke with him this week about the most recent developments in Korea.
Q: How do you assess the most recent moves taken by the North Koreans?
A: The current escalation cycle can be traced back to the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2094 in early March. This measure was in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test. Citing UNSCR 2094 as well as annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, the Kim Jong-eun regime threatened to attack the U.S. and South Korea. These threats have captured world headlines. In the past, the North Koreans have engaged in brinkmanship to raise tensions in a bid to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table for concessions. Their recent moves appear to be quite different – especially walking away from military hotlines amid an increased tempo of large-scale military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
Q: What are the response options for South Korea? And how is the U.S. responding?
A: On April 1, South Korea’s new president Park Geun-hye directed her senior defense officials to retaliate immediately to any future military provocation from North Korea without any political considerations. This statement has been the most direct reaffirmation of the Proactive Deterrence policy unveiled during her predecessor’s administration. Former president Lee Myung-bak used this policy to respond to the two North Korean attacks on the South in 2010 that led to the death of 48 South Korean military personnel and 2 civilians.
In an effort to demonstrate a strong deterrent capability to North Korea, the U.S. has responded with over flights of B-52 and B-2 bombers during annual military exercises with its South Korean ally. The use of these nuclear-capable bombers was also intended to reassure South Korea of the potency of the U.S.’ extended deterrence.
Q: What role can the Chinese play in diffusing the tension?
A: In an immediate sense, China has a unique role to play. It can leverage its diplomatic relations with both Koreas to fashion an indirect military hotline between North and South Korea. In order to deal with a potential accidental exchange of fire, China should initiate frequent independent communications with Pyongyang and Seoul. By establishing this regular interaction, China may be able to develop a nascent capability to engage both capitals during the early phase of an accidental escalation.
Q: What are the possible scenarios for how this crisis will play out?
A: While the constant stream of threats from Pyongyang seems to be boundless, the North Korean regime has finite resources to maintain an elevated military alert level. With no source of national revenue – i.e., taxation or tariffs – the Kim regime has developed and refined the operation of a web of state trading companies affiliated with the military, the party, and the cabinet. The largest of these companies are linked to the military. They generate funds that largely go into operating budgets for key military groups and their senior generals. The reality of the situation is that there’s an opportunity cost for commanding troops into bunkers to give credibility to Kim Jong-eun’s threats of attacking South Korea and U.S. military personnel stationed there. Every day in the bunker is a day of lost revenue from activities ranging from harvesting rare mushrooms to mining gold.
In the next phase of the crisis, we’re likely to see the Kim regime engage in a subtle form of de-escalation – what North Korea watchers refer to as a “cooling-off period.” During this time, North Korea has traditionally prepared and conducted long-range missile or nuclear tests. Despite a third nuclear test that produced a larger explosive yield and a successful satellite launch, technical experts point out that North Korea needs to conduct more tests to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mate it to a proven delivery platform. The next hurdles are improving the guidance capabilities of a fully weaponized nuclear arsenal. The stakes will be much higher in the next escalation cycle.
John Park, associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
"In the next phase of the crisis, we’re likely to see the Kim regime engage in a subtle form of de-escalation – what North Korea watchers refer to as a “cooling-off period.” During this time, North Korea has traditionally prepared and conducted long-range missile or nuclear tests." -- John Park