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Less than two years ago, in his valedictory State of the Union address, Barack Obama declared that “No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin . . . and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.” The truth of his words was debatable at the time, contradicted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and divisive engagement in Syria, not to mention Obama’s own preference for “leading from behind”. North Korea’s bellicose arrival into the club of thermonuclear-equipped countries and Trump’s maladroit response poses an even more fundamental challenge to once straightforward questions of American hegemony.



Trump at the UN on September 19: He exhorted the international community to do more, and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” (©JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama famously declared himself “America’s first Pacific president” and spent a great deal of energy shifting America’s strategic focus and resources to south-east Asia. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was tasked with authoring a 2011 vision for an Asia-focused foreign policy entitled “America’s Pacific Century”. The irony is that the crisis engulfing Asia this autumn may well prove Clinton’s title unexpectedly prophetic, but not in the manner she intended.
 
The Korean missile crisis has become a microcosm of the mounting difficulties America now faces in asserting power globally. Played out further afield this has consequences on future nuclear proliferation and beyond. The world is sliding from unipolar power to multi-polarity; Trump is as much symptom as cause of this new international reality. Nonetheless, the lack of a coherent Trump strategy or even the worldview necessary to form one significantly worsens all of the international challenges America faces. In the case of the Korean crisis Trump seems to be engaged in a war of rhetoric that emphasises outlandish threats and punishment but has no basis in concrete policy. It remains unclear what specific demands he is making of the North Koreans. Trump’s threat to inflict “fire and fury” on Pyongyang was based on the ultimatum that they “not make any more threats to the United States”. Given that North Korea makes these threats routinely it is not clear what red line Trump was invoking. On the list of threatening activities Pyongyang is currently engaged in, rhetoric should be at the bottom of the list and the cessation of the nuclear programme at the top. Trump’s inverted prioritising of rhetoric over action looks dangerously naive. This conclusion is presumably not lost on North Korea, a state which despite its own outlandish rhetoric is pragmatic enough to have survived since the cessation of combat in the Korean War. Despite years of economic sanctions, North Korea is close to achieving the unthinkable and progressing from being a regional problem to directly challenging US territory, outmanoeuvring America and the rest of the international community.

America’s current fragility was illustrated by several high-profile naval accidents that beset the Pacific Fleet over the summer. The accidents occurred against a backdrop of mishandled relations with Australia and a public undermining of Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” by his former strategist Stephen Bannon, who declared that “there’s no military solution” to North Korea. More importantly, while America withdrew from a series of international agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, Beijing rushed to fill the vacuum and position itself as the champion of free trade. Beleaguered by the scandal of alleged Russian political interference and internal division, the White House has been too distracted to focus. As one prominent Asian op-ed writer, Joseph Chinyong Liow, noted, this has “disrupted the administration’s ability to think strategically about global affairs”. The less charitable interpretation is that Trump’s intemperate response to North Korea, like so many of his outbursts, seems principally motivated by a personal sense of outrage at challenges to his executive power. Almost by definition Trump is not railing against threats to the liberal internationalism that America should be leading. His own rise to power was an equally explicit challenge to that world order. Trump’s opaque slogan “America first” should not be understood to imply global leadership but is better understood as an inward turn.

For keen analysts of the ebbs and flows of American power, the most important aspect of America’s response to the latest North Korean missile test was that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Russia and China to take “direct action”. His words almost passed without further analysis but they represent a curious attempt to outsource America’s global hegemony. Why, after all, should Tillerson reflexively suggest that Moscow had as much of a global responsibility as the US?

 This is probably a question being debated in Tehran, Beijing and Moscow, not to mention in the capitals of US allies in Asia. If America cannot prevent nuclear proliferation and is commanded by a president who has substituted rhetoric for policy, what is the value of its security alliances?

America is suddenly faced by another direct nuclear threat, hitherto only coming from either Russia and China. This makes the US something of a liability to its alliance members, not least the European Nato members. None of them would want to be drawn into an extra-territorial conflict in Asia. Suddenly the Hermit Kingdom has become the most significant threat to US security, fulfilling Obama’s national security warning to his successor.

The most succinct geopolitical analysis of the situation has come from an unexpected source — Vladimir Putin. In a recent press conference he suggested that the core of US policy under Trump, Obama and Bush, attempting to apply pressure to North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, had comprehensively failed. Putin does of course have a vested interest in undermining US power and his view is not shared by the Trump administration. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called instead for “the strongest sanctions” to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear programme before “it’s too late”. Nonetheless, Putin may well be correct: it probably is too late. There seems little that the US could do to offset the obvious deterrence and disruptive value of its nuclear programme to North Korea, a state driven by the quest for survival by its ruling dynasty. Pyongyang cannot have failed to notice that Moammar Gaddafi was toppled by US proxies a few years after agreeing to abandon his missile and nuclear programmes. Obama’s ill-conceived and poorly-executed Libya strategy was an illustrative lesson for dictators that if you give up your military capability, you shouldn’t be surprised if you subsequently pay with your life.

The problem in Asia extends far beyond the possibility of North Korea targeting US territory with nuclear weapons. The reconfigured strategic situation has the potential to quickly escalate into great power conflict, despite the reluctance of the two principal powers involved, China and the US. The scholar Graham Allison recently reminded us of the so-called “Thucydides trap”. Thucydides described the dangerous dynamic between rising Athens and ruling Sparta, who were ultimately dragged to war by otherwise inconsequential small powers. Although America is probably North Korea’s only real intended target, the regional situation is complicated by the competing interests of a large number of states. It was strange that Defense Secretary James Mattis’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June made no mention of China’s role in any possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula. China already sees US dealings with North Korea as part of a larger strategic threat in her backyard. Most importantly, China views the US provision of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and Aegis missile defence to South Korea and Japan as an attempt to erode its nuclear deterrent against the US. This is a deliberate US “hedging” strategy that now takes on a different dimension in protecting her allies from North Korea. Therein lies an unfortunate paradox. While America will face greater pressure to provide a defensive shield, doing so will exacerbate tensions with China and increase regional instability.

The Thucydidean analogy was most evident in the build-up to World War One but also applies to contemporary Asia. South Korea’s priority is to avoid a peninsular war. Japan wishes to avoid any US action which will lead to North Korean recrimination against her. Simultaneously, prime minister Shinzo Abe is utilising public fear to pursue remilitarisation commensurate with Japan’s economic standing. As Allison also noted, with so many competing interests, the risks of each party misinterpreting the blunt facts of military and political activity increases the risk of stumbling into great power conflict.

The latest combination of thermonuclear and missile test might well ignite a regional nuclear arms race. America suddenly has a much harder job in convincing her Asian allies of the value of her “nuclear umbrella”. The open-source intelligence picture is far from clear, but it appears that although North Korea has both a thermonuclear capability and a rapidly advancing long-range missile platform, it probably does not yet have the capability to fuse the two. However, the assumption must be that its resources are focused on getting a nuclear-tipped missile as quickly as possible.

Although it has been a fringe debate on the far Right of South Korean politics for many years, for the first time a majority of South Koreans want either an indigenous nuclear capability or the repositioning of American tactical nuclear weapons in their country. Militarily, the appeal is glaringly obvious. Nuclear weapons offer international prestige. Although the nuclear umbrella was always extended to South Korea by the US, their physical presence would be a much more tangible reminder of mutually assured destruction. However, there is a huge operational difference between weapons under US control and those under local control. South Korea now faces two difficult strategic questions. First, is current US defence adequate to deal with a nuclear attack? Second, now that the North has thermonuclear capability, a more fundamental question arises — would the US “risk San Francisco for Seoul?” In other words, if the North were to simultaneously attack the South and threaten the US if it came to its ally’s aid, would the US risk its own territory? This is exactly the same debate that took place in early Cold War Europe. The conclusions drawn by the Europeans resulted in the UK and France seeking their own nuclear capabilities. The same argument is now playing out in South Korea and Japan.

Currently, cooler heads are prevailing and both the US and South Korea realise that the stationing of either indigenous or US nuclear weapons would cause unacceptable escalation of the situation, not least with China. Military logic makes it seem unlikely that the South would ever seriously want to actually use nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Their use would immediately assign responsibility for the resultant death and chaos. It would also pose the problem that they would presumably have to invade and hold territory that had just been irradiated. This is the ultimate distinction between the Korean example and other current nuclearised conflicts such as India and Pakistan. In all other cases the other side does not seek to absorb the other, meaning the use of nuclear weapons is less costly. In the Cold War the cost of rebuilding would have been borne by the side which was attacked. This is not the case in Korea, where the absorption of the North is written into the constitution of the South.

The most recent North Korean missile tests have also exposed the vulnerability of existing missile defence. Seoul responded to the North’s firing of a missile over Japan by testing its own Hyunmoo-2 missiles minutes later. Not all of the South’s missiles hit their targets, bringing into question the South’s state of military readiness and capabilities. Equally, the North’s tests raised the glaring question of why Japan did not try to shoot down the missiles with its Aegis radar missile destroyers in the Sea of Japan or Patriot anti-air missiles. Both were intended for just that purpose. There has been considerable press speculation that this was deliberate intelligence-gathering by the US. The reality is that there are no THAAD batteries in Japan, the Patriot system is not designed to deal with this kind of missile, and the Aegis systems would have had to be removed from their position for protecting land targets. The Japanese were perhaps also quick to realise the consequences of failing to hit their target.

Missile defence experts question whether even the vaunted THAAD system could effectively counter North Korean missiles. Certainly it will never offer failsafe protection from a mixed barrage of conventional and nuclear warheads. That task would be akin to finding, and neutralising, a needle in a haystack.

The latest tests change the deterrence logic at play in the region, so even if South Korea or Japan are unlikely to use nuclear weapons that doesn’t mean they won’t try to acquire them as a deterrent. That in turn carries a clear risk of regional escalation and unintended consequences. North Korea’s suddenly increased pace of testing seems to be exploiting this vulnerability in order to keep the US, South Korea, Japan and China continually off-balance, even before Pyongyang has a fully-working strategic weapon. The analogy is with Kim Jong-il’s pursuit of a nuclear capability even while negotiating with the Bush administration, resulting in their first nuclear test in 2006.

Clearly Pyongyang feels that the bar against preventative war remains so high that it is safe from allied attack and, because no red lines have been imposed, that there is little danger of miscalculation. In short, there are no red lines to be crossed. Kim’s rapidly increasing schedule of bomb and missile tests is designed to exploit the space between diplomatic engagement and military strikes. His aim appears to be to normalise the idea of North Korea as a nuclear- and missile-armed state. So far, his strategy appears to be working.

The US has to consider whether now is the time to fully switch to a policy of nuclear deterrence. In theory, that policy has been in place on the Korean peninsula for a considerable time but it has done nothing to deter the North from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is a considerable gamble to see if it will prevent a nuclear exchange in Korea. Although deterrence worked during the Cold War, it was predicated on a certain type of specific rationality shared between the actors. The burden of history suggests that North Korea is a rational actor. However, Pyongyang has an intransigent hostility to the US, unlike Russia or China. The Hermit Kingdom’s isolation and lack of participation in the international community make it a more unpredictable nuclear power. If the world accepts North Korea as a nuclear power, deterrence will require some degree of normalisation of relations with a dictatorship that most countries find morally repugnant. Equally, there is the unknown quantity of the North’s command and control function and whether an over-zealous local commander might inadvertently unleash a nuclear exchange.

Modern deterrence theory is about more than an implicit nuclear threat. Both American and South Korean conventional forces require considerable bolstering to provide the unequivocal message that any attack would be met with an overwhelming response. There is potentially still a small window of time for the US to introduce an effective conventional deterrence policy in the interregnum between the North’s current capability and the actual mating of their thermonuclear capability with a missile. While it is unlikely to reverse the North’s nuclear programme it might halt or at least retard it. The sanctions regime is necessary but insufficient on its own to bring change, largely because it is being hampered at the UN by China and Russia.

Deterrence on the Korean peninsula must still hinge on the premise of a conventional military strike. Much of the commentary on the crisis has done the West a great disservice by stressing that a conventional military strike would bear a catastrophic price, without fully exploring the logic. The assumption may be correct but if the US is to switch to a credible policy of deterrence in the region, there needs to be a serious conventional military plan in place. As we know from the Cold War, deterrence is impossible without it. The conventional wisdom is that war would result in the near-immediate destruction of Seoul by the North’s artillery. Indeed, this was probably the single most challenging problem facing the US in terms of deterrence in Asia, until the arrival of Pyongyang’s thermonuclear weapon. The problem is that the artillery threat is overstated, primarily by the conflation of the total number of artillery pieces possessed by North Korea with the number of long-range systems that can actually reach downtown Seoul.

It appears that neither Boris Johnson nor Stephen Bannon had read the strategic estimates on North Korea before opining on the subject. Most of the North’s systems lack the range to cover the 40-50 kilometres from the DMZ to Seoul. The number that can actually manage this ranges from 500 to 1,100, about 70 per cent being self-propelled howitzers and the remaining 30 per cent multiple-rocket launchers. Reliable military estimates suggest that this is not an insurmountable threat to contend with. The North’s artillery is sheltered, making pre-emptive strikes difficult, although far from impossible for US “bunker busters”. A combination of pre-emptive strikes and counterbattery fire would rapidly degrade the North’s capability. Indeed the logistics of targeting Seoul mean that even the North’s long-range systems would have to be based in a relatively limited area, reducing the uncertainty of target selection. This is not to suggest that such an option is desirable or that it would not come at considerable loss of life in South Korea. Presenting this strike as credible is not the same as suggesting it should be undertaken. However, it does need to be presented as a credible threat to the North for meaningful containment and deterrence to work, hopefully before a thermonuclear warhead is miniaturised and placed on a strategic missile.

It is clear that the US policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea has ended in abject failure. Containment and deterrence remain the least bad option. However the US will need to persuade the North that it is less likely to survive by posing a nuclear threat than by cooperating with the international community. As with any foreign policy, or indeed sanctions, the first step is for Trump to envisage what he wants to achieve and to stop his counterproductive rhetoric. In other words, Trump needs to provide a specific, feasible proposition with which North Korea could comply to escape sanctions and to combine it with concrete military deterrence. The current Security Council resolution does include particulars of objectionable North Korean behaviour but the list is so exhaustive that it seems unlikely that, even under the harshest military and economic threat, Pyongyang would comply.

North Korea presents a crisis in its own right but its effects will be felt far beyond Asia. With the Iranian nuclear deal also hanging in the balance, Tehran must be watching their colleague’s manoeuvres with interest. North Korea is almost certain to sell on nuclear technology, and Iran’s links with North Korea’s nuclear programme have a long provenance. When Israeli planes destroyed Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor in September 2007, they killed a significant number of North Korean technicians working on the project. Iran reportedly channelled a billion dollars into that project. There is every reason to suspect that all parties intended to use the reactor’s plutonium for weapons. As Iran is poised to gain full control in Syria, a twin threat is emerging. In order to comply with the nuclear agreement, Iran outsourced much of its nuclear technology to North Korea. The new suggestion has emerged that North Korea may well be engaged in stockpiling nuclear material on Iran’s behalf in order to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the international deal. The head of North Korea’s parliament made a high-profile visit to Tehran in early September to cement the relationship. If the West’s nuclear deal with Iran fails, North Korea will rapidly be able to help Tehran to develop a weapons capability.

Trump’s foreign policy paralysis is matched by geopolitics which are swiftly spiralling out of America’s control. China, Russia and Iran have all played a part in this crisis. While America was able to secure a fresh set of UN sanctions that go deeper than their predecessors, they fall far short of the measures included in a leaked draft in early September. That draft included a full ban on oil products sold to North Korea and a ban on the assets and travel of top North Korean leaders. These broad measures, particularly the oil embargo, were unpalatable to both China and Russia. Neither of them want to see North Korea collapse. There is a greater geopolitical play at work here. The thought that either North Korea’s missile or nuclear capability developed so quickly without outside help “stretches the bounds of credulity”, as one Foreign Office source put it. Russia in particular has been engaged in sanctions-busting with North Korea and is strongly suspected to have sold them the rocket motors for their missiles. Analysis of missile fragments also suggest pieces from old Egyptian Scuds and from China.

The challenge from North Korea is an affront to regional security but it also represents a wider strategic problem for America. America must engage in structured talks with China about North Korea, at the very least to avoid inadvertent escalation between the two great powers. However, the reluctance of China’s leadership to pressure Kim is based on the fear that Washington ultimately seeks regime change that would lead to a pro-Western reunited Korea, a perceived threat to Beijing’s interests. As one Chinese academic put it: “How can we be sure we can trust you, since when you change presidents you also change policies?”

The Korean crisis also presents an opportunity for Russia. Its involvement intensifies the attempt to reclaim great power status, just as Putin is about to announce he is standing again for president. To this end, Moscow has a range of economic engagements with Pyongyang. Yet again Putin is inserting himself into a geopolitical stalemate involving the US. For Russia, sanctions that successfully force North Korea to alter its military choices or lead to regime change set a dangerous precedent. Equally, much as in Syria, Putin can tie up American resources and attention by fuelling chaos. He can also parlay his influence into helping to control the situation. This has two effects. First, it already seems to appeal to Trump, who has neither the inclination nor ability to handle international crises. Second, Putin will be able to use this power to further intensify divisions among the Western powers on Russian sanctions.

It is no secret that both China and Russia are opposed to the US-led international order and will dismantle as much of it as circumstances allow. There is, however, a worrying new trend. The Chinese foreign ministry recently refused to “quantify how closely China and Russia are cooperating on the North Korean nuclear issue . . . Just like China, Russia plays a pivotal role in maintaining global peace and stability . . . China is willing to strengthen its cooperation and coordination with Russia to jointly preserve peace and stability in the region and around the world.”

Trump delivered his maiden speech to the UN in September, a set piece intended to formally mark his introduction to the international community and clarify the Trump doctrine. He did achieve a measure of clarity in articulating his view of America’s global role, if not actual policy. Most important was his withdrawal from the global defence and spread of democracy. America will now lead by example, not international action. “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government . . . But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” This strong message of non-interference will be welcomed in Moscow and Beijing. Having stepped back from the universality of Western democracy, Trump’s trenchant critique of North Korea and Iran is no longer logically consistent with his own worldview. The implicit suggestion is actually that American non-intervention will be based on the caprice of Donald Trump, rather than any principle beyond “might is right”. So China and Russia can do as they wish, even if this falls foul of US values. In other words, America’s international relationships will be economically and militarily transactional, rather than based on values. Most surprisingly, given their mercurial involvement with North Korea, Trump thanked both Moscow and Beijing for their help in handling the crisis. Once again he conflated rhetoric with concrete policy outcomes. Exhorting the international community to “do more” is not the same as actually instituting workable deterrence in Korea or durable non-proliferation with Iran. His threat to “totally destroy North Korea” was another example of tough talk being confused with concrete red lines for North Korea or a roadmap to de-escalation. The Trump doctrine’s inward turn to focus on domestic renewal will ultimately mean pulling away from the post-war international system that America shaped and helped to enforce. Trump also answered the strategic question that must be foremost in Pyongyang and Seoul: “As President of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” While such statements should worry America’s allies, unsurprisingly this appeared to be well received by the UN general assembly. Tragically, such outsourcing of American leadership ushers in a terrifying prospect for the Korean crisis, the cessation of nuclear proliferation more widely, and indeed the defence of liberal democracy.

Even if Trump does not accept the burden of leadership imposed by American primacy, there is little doubt that he is faced with an unenviable situation. America now has direct challenges to its security present on multiple fronts. Trump does not have the luxury of simply refashioning his conception of security to ignore the health of global democracy. The history of the 20th century should have taught him this. All these global crises are now so intertwined that solving any one issue will require geopolitical rather than regional solutions. Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan are now joined by the slow collapse of the Iranian nuclear deal and the not so slowly emerging security crisis in Asia. The failures of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” are readily apparent and the list of foreign policy challenges facing Trump is growing. In its declamatory form the Trump doctrine is a terrifying abrogation of leadership and vision. Hopefully in practice it will not reach the rhetorical threat of disengagement. First and foremost, America needs to establish a diplomatic dialogue with North Korea, if for no other purpose than to establish “red lines” about the use, development or transfer of nuclear capability. Unlike Obama’s catastrophic Syrian “red lines” there should be no ambiguity about whether these would be enforced. Beyond the tough talk, it remains to be seen whether Trump has the inclination or ability to pursue such a plan. America is losing ground to a host of regional and international challengers. This is the logical consequence of the Trump doctrine. A nuclear arms race in Korea is the beginning of that process. Who dares to guess where it will end?
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