war on the rocks

Entry 14: Nuclear Twitter vs. Korea Twitter

January 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 14th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

 

I wrote about 450 words today, but spent way too much time on Twitter. I’ve realized that Nuclear Twitter and Korea Twitter are not on the same page with each other about North Korea, even among people who share the same policy preferences. I’m stuck in the middle with this book (and my life), trying to bridge a gap that I’m not sure area specialists and nuclear specialists even realize exists.

I got sucked into the Twittersphere because of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, while garnered a ton of attention. I’m not going to write an op-ed here, but since it bears on the book, let me offer some thoughts.

Here’s what I think it confirmed that many of us already suspected:

  • There’s not much threat of North Korea using nukes for coercive purposes except during an episode of violence or conflict.
  • If North Korea resorts to nuclear first-use, it’ll be because of an ill-considered (overly aggressive) action on our part.
  • North Korea believes — or at least is willing to posture as if — it has achieved mutual vulnerability with the United States via its “state nuclear force.”
  • North Korea won’t abide a “bloody nose” without fighting back. The formulation Kim used in the speech was “we will react resolutely to any acts of harassing peace and security on the Korean peninsula.” This is consistent with, and even a slight escalation of, the rhetoric associated with its historical track record of meeting pressure with pressure.

The most newsworthy (and surprisingly least covered) aspect of the speech is the naked calculation to insert a wedge between the United States and South Korea. While Kim Jong Un talked about the entire United States now being in range of its nukes, it simultaneously struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone toward the South. This is all in keeping with the revival of Kim Il Sung’s goal from the 1960s: unify the Peninsula under the political leadership of the North by fracturing the U.S.-South Korean alliance and meddling in South Korea’s domestic politics.

Why does any of this matter if you’re not a Korea hand or don’t live in South Korea? Because violence of every kind was commonplace the last time the unification goal and wedge strategy were prominent in North Korean thinking. Carefully calibrated violence became a means of trying to decouple the United States and South Korea. In the process, it triggered multiple crises that would have led to war if not for U.S. restraint during the crises. Think I’m overstating how crucial U.S. restraint was in these cases? Read the longer history for yourself.

Anyway, the speech is well timed to incorporate a lot of goodies from it into the current chapter on how North Korea thinks about its nuclear weapons and coercion generally.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.

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