The Korean Peninsula Crisis (I): In the Line of Fire and Fury

What’s new? The threat of catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula is graver than at any time in recent history. North Korea’s neighbours – South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – are caught between Pyongyang’s sprint to expand its nuclear capability and Washington’s apparent determination to stop that dash at virtually any cost.

Why does it matter? Strategic calculations in the region are evolving, prompted not only by the fear of North Korean weapons but also by the spectre of chaos provoked by U.S. military action. All of North Korea’s neighbours believe that the risks of U.S. strikes against Pyongyang far outweigh any potential benefit.

What should be done? The window ahead of the Winter Olympics, thawing North Korea-South Korea relations and Pyongyang’s desire to shore up its economy provide an opportunity. A deal whereby Pyongyang freezes its most sensitive tests and Washington freezes some military exercises could help de-escalate the crisis and buy time for diplomacy.

Executive Summary

The threat of nightmarish war on the Korean peninsula is higher than at any time in recent history. As the pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing increased throughout 2017, so too did the U.S.’ bellicosity. North Korea’s neighbours – South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – are caught between Pyongyang’s sprint to expand its nuclear capability and an administration in Washington apparently determined to stop that dash at virtually any cost. Strategic calculations in the region are evolving, due not only to fear of North Korean weapons but also to the spectre of chaos provoked by U.S. military action. Yet opportunities for de-escalation exist: North and South Korea have reopened diplomatic channels, while the more U.S. aggressive posture has added urgency to China’s efforts to find a way out of the crisis.

The sense of peril owes much to confusion about why North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered his breakneck pace of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. There is good reason to believe that, like his predecessor, Kim is driven chiefly by worry that without such deterrence his country risks attack – and his regime risks ouster – by outside powers. He appears propelled by domestic dynamics as well. A greater nuclear capability shores up Kim’s internal support, burnishes his prestige and diverts attention from deep economic troubles.

What keeps U.S. officials awake is the possibility that Kim might have a third motivation: that acquiring the means to strike major U.S. cities would allow North Korea to dictate an outcome to the crisis on the peninsula. Those scenarios range from the lifting of sanctions to U.S. withdrawal all the way to forced reunification of north and south. Washington fears that Pyongyang’s better ballistic missiles will inhibit its own freedom of action: the U.S. wants to deter not be deterred.

Yet if there is unease about Pyongyang, so too is there puzzlement about Washington. The Trump administration veers from bombast to conciliation. It is squeezing the North Korean regime with a strategy of “maximum pressure”. This involves, first, sanctions and demands that China lean harder on Kim, despite pursuing a maximalist objective – denuclearisation – that no amount of pressure will achieve. More obviously, it involves the White House cultivating the impression it is ready to use force to slow Pyongyang’s weapons program, notwithstanding the catastrophic – indeed unthinkable – risks such action would entail. Then again, President Donald Trump at times broaches the option of diplomacy.

The game of nerves and one-upmanship places North Korea’s neighbours in a bind. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, supports harsh sanctions on Pyongyang but the last thing he or his citizens either want or can afford is military confrontation. Moon swiftly accepted Kim Jong-un’s 1 January 2018 offer of contact, which has since become a joint commitment to military-to-military as well as high-level political talks.

As the pre-eminent regional power and North Korean economic lifeline, China will have to be an integral part of any solution. President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership includes a tougher line with Pyongyang, which in turn has become ever pricklier at the exertions of Chinese influence. Xi has curtailed economic assistance and acquiesced to stricter sanctions. Still, and for now, Beijing’s core assumptions remain unchanged: it will not incur Pyongyang’s overt hostility by signing up to an American drive for denuclearisation at any cost. From Beijing’s perspective, a nuclear North Korea is a worry, but a manageable one, while a military conflict is a menace, and an uncontrollable one. China proposes to quell the immediate crisis with a freeze of North Korean nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a freeze of U.S. military exercises in the vicinity. But, thus far, it is confounded in that aim by Kim’s recklessness, on one hand, and Trump’s stubbornness, on the other.

Japan and Russia play less central parts, but their proximity – and Russia’s historical ties – to North Korea give them important stakes in the crisis. Japan broadly tracks U.S. policy on North Korea, and Russia, Chinese policy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been more supportive than other neighbours of the “maximum pressure” campaign, though in Tokyo, as elsewhere, there is disquiet at the danger of confrontation. Russia opposes North Korea’s nuclearisation but has little appetite for hostilities on the peninsula. It also is quick to seize any opportunity to cast the U.S. in a negative light and, on occasion, to offer Pyongyang support.

For decades, Pyongyang’s nuclear program has shaped relations among major powers and regional states, as well as dynamics within the latter. While Kim’s accelerated weapons program and Trump’s combativeness are new, the fundamental challenge – how to restrain North Korea while addressing some of its core concerns – remains. So, too, does consensus among North Korea’s neighbours on core principles: the need to halt Pyongyang’s military nuclear drive; conviction that this objective is not worth risking war on the peninsula; belief that the costs of even limited military action outweigh any potential benefit; and certainty that a solution must be found through diplomacy. If top U.S. officials genuinely believe that military action is their best option – and it is hard to tell if such indications are tactical bluff or genuine intent – then they are on their own.

Yet there may be (thin) silver linings to the dangerous turn the crisis has taken over the past year. U.S. belligerence has jangled the nerves of regional powers but also likely steeled their will to find an off-ramp. North Korea’s advances in its nuclear and missile program could make this moment propitious for diplomacy. Rekindled ties between Seoul and Pyongyang could defuse tensions in the short window ahead of the February 2018 Winter Olympics. Sober heads in Washington might convince the president to use this window to seek some form of de-escalatory deal.

As laid out in a companion Crisis Group Report, The Korean Peninsula Crisis (II): From Fire and Fury to Freeze-for-Freeze, this deal would likely involve a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear tests and some of its missile tests in return for U.S. commitment to halt deployment of strategic assets to the region and its most provocative joint exercises with South Korea, combined with a new diplomatic process to find a more durable solution. Absent such an initiative, the period after the Olympics could bring fresh escalation and the risk of war on the peninsula could mount still further.

Seoul/Beijing/Washington/New York/Brussels, 23 January 2018


The nuclear program of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) is more than six decades old. Over this period, the program has been influenced by and, in turn, helped shape the North Korean state’s economy, ideology and external posture; great power contestation in the region; and dynamics in and between all of the states in North East Asia. It has been critical to the development of the Kim family regime, and is vital to Kim Jong-un’s hold on power.

Recent years have seen a marked evolution in the geopolitics surrounding the DPRK nuclear crisis, shaped by four successions: from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un in North Korea in 2011 and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2017; but also from Park Geun-hye to Moon Jae-in in South Korea, also in 2017; and from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in China five years earlier. While there is considerable continuity in the four states’ policies and relations to one another, today’s leaders have taken actions, in part to distinguish themselves from their respective predecessors, that have sharpened the existing dynamics and helped provoke the present crisis.

Pyongyang has made considerable technical progress since the 2009 missile and nuclear tests that sounded the death knell for the Six-Party Talks. That was the last forum to yield an agreement ostensibly committing North Korea to ending its nuclear program, the 2005 Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks. Its long-range missile tests are more frequent and the results are more reliable – the projectiles are flying further. Since 2012, it has conducted more than 30 operational tests of short- and medium-range missiles from different locations. These dry runs included the visually spectacular simultaneous launch of three extended-range Scud missiles from a highway south of Pyongyang on 5 September 2016.

Even more provocatively, in the last two years, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests: one on 9 September 2016, and the other on 3 September 2017. Over the summer of 2017, it twice tested the Hwasong-14, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a longer reach and greater mobility than North Korea’s previous weapons, and tested two medium-range missiles over Japanese territory. It tested the Hwasong-15, yet another ICBM, but conspicuously larger and which appeared to have a more mobile and sophisticated launch mechanism, at the end of November. The latter can, in principle, strike anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang reportedly cannot yet fit nuclear warheads onto missiles. Nor has it developed the technology to protect them during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. One expert argues the DPRK is several years from achieving either. Neither does consensus exist on how many nuclear devices it has in its stockpile.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested the U.S. should wash its hands of the North Korea dilemma, and that Tokyo and Seoul should acquire their own nuclear deterrents. He claimed he would be happy to talk to Kim Jong-un and called into question the need for the presence of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula. Once in office, however, Trump dramatically changed his tune. He and his national security team concluded that the direct threat the DPRK posed to the U.S. necessitated a more robust approach than “strategic patience”, the Obama administration’s policy of eschewing direct dialogue with the DPRK until Pyongyang recommitted to its 2005 promise of denuclearisation. The new administration also ditched its predecessor’s preference for taking its cues from South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) on what relations with Pyongyang were possible.

Trump’s rhetoric also changed from the moment he moved into the White House – and, indeed, never stopped changing after that. On 8 August 2017, he promised North Korea “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” were it to threaten the U.S. At the UN General Assembly, he called Kim Jong-un “rocket man”; Kim retorted that Trump was “mentally deranged” and a “dotard”. At other times, however, Trump has suggested he was ready to meet Kim and that the two of them would get along.

Amid the mudslinging, there also were signs of divergence within the U.S. administration on its approach to North Korea. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson displayed openness to diplomacy, and even to unconditional talks, he was repeatedly contradicted by the White House and President Trump himself.

And, amid the divergence, there emerged a clear sense that the administration was open to the prospect of war – whether because it truly believes war is an option or because it wants others to believe it believes that (and thus spur them into action the U.S. desires). Senator Lindsey Graham – known to be close to the White House on this matter – placed the odds of a U.S. attack on North Korea at 30 per cent, warning those chances would rise to 70 per cent should Pyongyang stage another nuclear test. U.S. officials float the idea of a narrow strike to sending a warning to Kim or damage his weapons program, while evincing confidence that an attack can be mounted in a manner that will not provoke retaliation.

At the same time, the U.S. has pushed through increasingly onerous UN sanctions on North Korea, each bringing new and previously unsanctioned or lightly sanctioned economic sectors under the UN’s remit. It has also pressed China – the lynchpin of North Korea’s trade relations – to implement these sanctions rigorously.

North Korea has communicated indirectly with the U.S. but, according to several sources, has resisted for now the option of direct, unconditional talks. In the early fall of 2017, amid rising tension with Washington, several high-profile U.S. journalists were permitted into the country.Track II talks have taken place, as have discussions through a channel involving U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun, though Pyongyang reportedly questioned the value of such talks, saying that only Trump can speak for Trump. It subsequently used more formal channels, in December 2017 hosting a UN delegation, including the head of the UN’s political affairs department, a U.S. citizen, Jeffrey Feltman, who spent fifteen and a half hours in talks with North Korean diplomats, including Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Feltman became convinced that the regime hoped for “some kind of policy dialogue after not having had [one] for a long time”, but reportedly also that it was not yet ready for direct talks with the U.S. – possibly because Kim first wanted to make more progress on his nuclear program.

Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, which often serve to signal broader dynamics, also progressively thawed. Kim Jong-un announced in his 1 January 2018 New Year Address that the DPRK hoped to take part in the Winter Olympic Games and suggested that the two Koreas meet to discuss the topic, a proposal preceded by several informal contacts between officials from the two Koreas, including in Kunming, China, on 18 December. Seoul responded quickly to Kim’s address, offering high-level talks with the DPRK on 9 January, while Pyongyang reconnected an inter-Korean phone line, which had been out of action for almost two years, so as to help plan the meeting. In a joint statement afterwards, the two sides stated they were committed to the success of the Winter Games, and had agreed to military-to-military talks and a high-level conference, as part of a commitment to use talks to resolve issues.

This report is one of two published simultaneously on the nuclear crisis. It examines the evolving geopolitics around the crisis, looking at perspectives from Pyongyang, Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow. Notwithstanding leadership changes, familiar questions dominate debates in these capitals: whether diplomacy or isolation best pressures the North Korean leadership; whether a nuclear North Korea can be deterred; and how far efforts should go to achieve its denuclearisation. As always, each capital must balance a range of domestic considerations and constituencies.

What is new, however, is alarm not only at Kim’s weapons tests, but at the U.S. government’s belligerence and the risk that unilateral U.S. action could provoke a North Korean response and a dangerous, uncontrollable military escalation. This confluence of events – accelerated North Korean missile and nuclear progress; ambient talk of U.S. military action; alongside signs of potential détente – make this juncture a particularly crucial one in the history of the peninsula’s nuclear crisis. It is a moment when international and regional actors should do everything possible to avert a calamitous war by building on mechanisms for de-escalation.

This report sheds light on the evolving positions of the states involved and their implications for the crisis and how to resolve it. The second report examines the dangers in the current U.S. approach and offers an alternative path to de-escalating the crisis and restarting bilateral dialogue.

II.Pyongyang’s Nuclear Motives

North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons is partly motivated by fear of threats from abroad, namely U.S. military action, which Pyongyang believes a nuclear capability can deter. It claims to be pursuing a doctrine of “asymmetric escalation”, according to which it would use nuclear weapons only if attacked. As discussed below, U.S. officials suspect another, less innocent motive: to alter the strategic balance of power and thus give the regime a freer hand to pursue its ultimate goals, whether U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula or reunification with the South.

Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons also is driven by domestic political dynamics. He believes that his regime’s legitimacy and ability to ward off internal challenges rest in good part on developing nuclear capability. Nurturing the image of an implacable foe that can be resisted only through a nuclear program also reinforces the regime’s domestic support while bolstering its control over society. Nuclear weapons serve to enhance both deterrence abroad and prestige at home.

This imperative of self-protection is about more than Kim’s need to consolidate. Korean national identity – not just the DPRK’s – is alive to instances of lost sovereignty. A Korean proverb – “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back gets broken” – expresses a widespread sense of a small country at a geopolitical crossroads, surrounded by giant powers, that will be overwhelmed if it does not guard its autonomy. An additional reflex in the North Korean case is the collective memory of the Korean War, when millions died due to aggression North Koreans remember as being carried out almost exclusively by the U.S. To the sizeable DPRK political and military elite, the threat the U.S. poses to their way of life is perfectly real and a nuclear defence entirely logical.

Finally, North Korea’s nuclear calculus is affected by economic factors. The regime’s “pyŏngjin line” commits it to the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear capability and economic development. Yet these two aims are in tension. As the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding approaches in 2018, Kim faces extra pressure to deliver on economic promises. Yet heavy military spending over recent years has hindered his ability to do so. As new sanctions bite, the regime doubtless will blame hostile external powers. But it knows it will need to defuse tensions and open up to diplomacy to obtain sanctions relief and to strengthen economic ties with the outside world.

A.Strategic Goals and External Risks

The primary objective of North Korea’s foreign and defence policy has always been to preserve the sovereignty of the state and the security of the Kim family regime. A close observer of the DPRK – based on recent discussions with senior North Korean “representatives and experts” – described Pyongyang’s policy goals as follows:

Strategic parity with the U.S. by creating a credible nuclear deterrent and compelling opponents to conclude a peace treaty with the North, recognise the sovereignty and independence of the DPRK, and provide security guarantees to enable the country’s further economic development.

In the eyes of the Kim regime, it must grapple with hard and soft external threats. It fears the U.S. could seek to topple it using military means; Pyongyang’s wariness of U.S. intervention long predates but probably was accentuated by the overthrow of dictatorships in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 (both of which at one point pursued, but never obtained, a nuclear weapon). The regime is likewise anxious about overdependence on the behemoth on its border: Chinese firms dominate the North Korean economy and suck up limited reserves of foreign exchange. Politically, South Korea – far more prosperous as well as more socially and culturally dynamic – offers a dangerous point of comparison for how other Koreans live.

Nuclear weapons chiefly serve to counteract the hardest of these perceived threats. Pyongyang has espoused an asymmetric escalation strategy, whereby it claims it would use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack, whether conventional or nuclear, by a nuclear weapons state or non-nuclear states allied with a nuclear state. In the DPRK’s view, this latter stipulation makes South Korea and Japan legitimate targets of retaliation for a U.S. strike, whether actual or perceived as imminent. The relevant language in Article 4 of North Korea’s 2013 Law on Consolidating Possession of Nuclear Weapons State for Self-Defence states: “The DPRK shall neither use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states nor threaten them with those weapons unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion and attack on the DPRK”. The law was adopted in April 2013 by the Supreme People’s Assembly. No one less than Kim himself reiterated the legislation’s stance at the May 2016 Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Congress, saying the country “will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes”.

Pyongyang is also keen to present itself as a responsible nuclear power, in keeping with its goal of gaining international acceptance as a nuclear state. Domestic television reports about the 3 September 2017 nuclear test, for example, emphasised the role of consensual decision-making – as opposed to unilateral, and thus fallible, dictatorial fiat – in deciding whether to conduct a test.

Whether such statements of intent can be trusted is another matter. Sceptics – who include senior officials in the Trump administration – cite a history of irresponsible belligerency and brinkmanship on North Korea’s part, including the injury of two South Korean troops with a landmine along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in 2015, the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel and shelling of a South Korean island in 2010, multiple naval battles in the 1990s and 2000s, back to the bombing of KAL Flight 858 in 1987 and the downing of U.S. spy planes and attempts to assassinate South Korean leaders in the 1960s.

They also adduce North Korea’s history of duplicity and broken pledges – running a secret highly enriched uranium program for the duration of the Agreed Framework (1994-2002), reneging on the 2005 Six-Party Talks commitment to denuclearisation, and abrogating the 2012 Leap Day Agreement in a matter of days. Recent visitors to North Korea emerged from meetings with the impression that officials themselves were unclear about the country’s nuclear doctrine and precise end goals. It would be foolhardy to presume to know under what conditions precisely the regime might use or threaten to use its nuclear arsenal. It would be equally ill advised to forecast how Kim or a successor might respond to different scenarios, especially direct threats to the regime.

Balanced against such legitimate concerns, however, is the fact – hardly ignored by Pyongyang – that a North Korean first strike almost certainly would precipitate the end of the regime and possibly the destruction of the country. Indeed, given the current atmosphere, even a non-nuclear act of aggression might result in an uncontrollable escalation endangering the regime. In November 2017, Foreign Ministry officials reportedly:

… expressed bewilderment over why the political establishment in the U.S. is unwilling to ask itself a very simple question: even if North Korea does develop the capability to target the continental U.S. with nuclear weapons, why would it launch such weapons if it would result in the destruction of North Korea?

Most close observers, including analysts and officials from the U.S. and the region, believe Kim himself understands this reality: rash perhaps he is, suicidal he almost certainly is not.

But while the DPRK might not be so imprudent as to launch a nuclear strike, U.S. officials worry that it could use the threat of such a strike to pursue other goals, as detailed below. Such fears are partly grounded in statements by North Korean leaders who, at times, have claimed that nuclear weapons would put them in a position to achieve unification with South Korea, the holy grail of North Korean statecraft since the Korean War ended in 1953.

In the same spirit, Pyongyang could regard either gaining international acceptance as a nuclear state or compelling the removal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula – whether through a bilateral peace treaty or rupture of the U.S.-ROK alliance – as beneficial to its unification goal. That said, and for the time being at least, any aspiration for reunification seems far removed from practical regime thinking given in particular the challenge of merging the DPRK’s sclerotic autocracy with South Korea’s dynamic, democratic and free-market society.

B.Challenges at Home

Pyongyang’s assessment of threats from abroad overlaps with concerns about threats from within, with the latter arguably playing at least as important a role in Kim’s nuclear calculations. Despite the regime’s firm grip, Kim must contend with members of the country’s elite, some of whom he has alienated by assembling a ruling coalition that diverges from his father’s. Other sources of potential instability or discontent include the tightly controlled but ultimately unpredictable marketisation of the economy, as well as difficulty in controlling information flows, notably from foreign media. For Kim, completing his father’s and grandfather’s mission of developing a robust nuclear capacity is a key legitimising narrative, of which he enjoys precious few.

Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 with no soldier’s pedigree in a heavily militarised state and with no political accomplishments to his name. Until then largely invisible and unknown to the North Korean elite and society in general, he – and parts of the regime that supported him – had to expand his inherited coercive power quickly into a relatively more legitimate political authority. According to a former official who defected, Thae Yong-ho, Kim sees the nuclearisation project as key to his ability to cement his regime in the face of mounting domestic challenges. The current expansion of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities can be understood partly in this light.

Weighing against these interests are the country’s economic woes. In 2013, the state adopted the pyŏngjin (parallel development) line of simultaneous nuclear and economic development, replacing the sŏn’gun (military-first) line of the Kim Jong-il era. Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy is thus explicitly tied to two efforts it is virtually impossible to pursue at the same time. Pyongyang’s weapons programs are heavily constrained by deleterious economic circumstances; in turn, those programs hinder the regime’s ability to prime the pump economically. Indeed, the regime claims that a nuclear weapons program would save it money, by sparing it the expense of its vast standing army. This friction between military and development spending compels the regime to operate cyclically: since the first nuclear test, it has twice splurged on spending on nuclear and missile research, development and testing (2006-2009, 2013-present), periods of high tension separated by a lull during which trade grew with the outside world, predominantly China (2009-2013).

The total size of the North Korean economy is estimated at a mere $40 billion at purchasing power parity with the 2015 U.S. dollar. Its per capita GDP is paltry compared to South Korea’s: South Korea’s Bank of Korea estimates this figure in the North at 1.46 million Korean Won (KRW) ($1,360) for 2016 and at 31.98 million KRW ($30,000) in the South.Meanwhile, North Korea increasingly is losing income from exports of labour and goods due to deteriorating terms of trade for its natural resources, which accounted for 52 per cent of exports in 2016. New sanctions almost inevitably will lead to further painful losses.

Small-scale street-side trading in Sariwŏn, North Hwanghae Province, in April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Christopher Green

The DPRK has not borrowed internationally since it defaulted on its debt obligations in the 1980s. It is unwilling to undertake the structural reforms that would make it creditworthy, and in any case its radical views on economic sovereignty sit uncomfortably with receiving international loans. It would rather receive unconditional infusions of investment capital – hard to come by, given the banking sanctions and North Korea’s inability to guarantee the security of investments. The government must cover expenditures and finance capital infrastructure investments – including its nuclear and missile programs – with income from the increasingly sanctioned exports of natural resources and labour, light manufacturing, illicit activities including traffic in illegal weapons and production of drugs and fake currency, as well as taxes collected from private market actors.

With Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy partly hinging on economic development, he is likely to see 2018, when the DPRK will mark its 70th anniversary, as a critical year for demonstrating success. Yet, over the past several years, high military spending has emptied the regime’s coffers of needed investment capital. The regime knows its funds will dwindle further with UN and other sanctions, and it clearly wishes to reduce those pressures. The upshot is not, as some in Washington might believe, that Pyongyang will sacrifice a nuclear program it views as essential to its survival. Rather, it is that – after a period of binge spending on weapons – the regime might be nudged toward diplomatic engagement aimed at a realistic outcome. Sanctions can help, in other words, but only if married to a viable aim, not the utopian goal of immediate denuclearisation.

III.Sabre Rattling from Washington

The Trump administration has responded to North Korea’s race to achieve greater nuclear capability with a campaign of “maximum pressure”. This initiative involves a combination of economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure on states with ties to North Korea and, most visibly, pugnacious rhetoric that, together with increasingly aggressive military exercises, overflights and posturing, is meant to signal Washington’s preparedness to take military action. The White House even appears ready for measures that would risk unthinkable loss of life, South Korean and American, not just North Korean.

Within the administration views appear to vary somewhat. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is perceived widely as inhabiting the more hawkish end of the spectrum, with the secretaries of defence and state, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, respectively, believed to be more cautious. Mattis, for his part, said in August 2016 that war with North Korea would be “catastrophic”. He is not thought to have changed his mind, though he has authorised stepped-up contingency planning for various types of military action. In giving those orders, the defence secretary may be inoculating himself against charges of disloyalty to Trump’s agenda.Overall, the effect has been to project a willingness to use force that, while falling far short of a public relations campaign to prepare Americans for war, has shifted the national conversation about how far the administration might go to achieve its objectives.

The sabre rattling could be sincere, reflecting conviction that the U.S. cannot live with the strategic shift brought about by North Korea’s ability to strike the North American continent with a nuclear device. It could be a bluff, aimed at persuading China to exert greater pressure on Pyongyang, and at getting Pyongyang to moderate its stance. Or it could be a combination of both. Regardless, the mere prospect that the U.S. is contemplating pre-emptive military action has altered the playing field, raising the likelihood of a war born of the two sides’ fear of a surprise attack, with each misreading the other’s intent.

A. Undeterrable North Korea and a U.S. That Hates Being Deterred

In the eyes of senior U.S. officials, Kim Jong-un covets the ability to strike major U.S. urban centres so as to change the strategic picture to North Korea’s permanent advantage. According to this view, the regime will not negotiate – certainly not in good faith – until it has reached that goal. At that point, it theoretically could use its nuclear capability as leverage to renegotiate the 1953 armistice, demand U.S. troop withdrawals from South Korea and possibly Japan, roll back sanctions and seek reparations for the economic damage they have done. Some officials argue that the regime might go so far as to press for reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms.