What If Kim Jong Un Decides to Bloody America’s Nose First?
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased a bit with the recent presence of a high-level North Korean delegation at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and a surprising invitation for President Moon to travel to Pyongyang for talks. Such an exchange would mark the first inter-Korea summit in more than a decade. This thaw in relations is a thankful pause in a seemingly endless cycle of North Korean missile and nuclear tests on the one hand, and stepped up U.S. political and economic pressure on the other.
Despite the recent expressions of goodwill, however, Pyongyang probably does not have any interest in entering into serious negotiations with either the South or the United States; it’s more likely that Kim is playing for time. And since the underlying causes of the standoff — Pyongyang’s determination to keep its advanced weapons and Washington’s insistence on North Korean denuclearization — have not changed, it’s a good bet that tensions are likely to intensify again.
In the past few months, this standoff has triggered considerable discussion about the potential for a U.S. first strike on North Korea, which would presumably aim to persuade Kim Jong Un of U.S. resolve and the futility of a military conflict with the United States. Under this scenario, the United States would launch a limited strike on selected North Korean targets — possibly akin to last year’s cruise missile strike in Syria but on a larger scale — that would inflict just enough damage to persuade Kim to yield to U.S. demands, while avoiding a level of damage that he could perceive as regime threatening. Not surprisingly, many Asia experts have warned of the dire consequences of a U.S. first strike and the possibility that it could trigger a broader war. And last Thursday, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Susan Thornton said that she knows of no U.S. plan to launch a preemptive “bloody nose” strike on North Korea. There is little doubt, though, that this type of public discussion risks triggering confusion in Pyongyang, and potentially a sharp backlash from Kim.
Therefore, given the temporary lull in tensions, it’s a good time to consider an alternative to the U.S. first strike scenario that has received far less attention — one in which Kim believes he has no choice but to act first because he feels Washington is threatening his regime’s survival. Under this scenario, Kim may consider a range of aggressive options, including a new round of advanced missile and nuclear tests, a preemptive cyberattack against the United States or South Korea, a series of limited (and potentially covert) attacks by North Korean special forces in Seoul, or, at the far end of the scale, a preemptive military strike against U.S. military logistics hubs in the South. I believe this scenario is, unfortunately, plausible. Let me explain why.
For the past several decades, North Korea has weathered periodic spikes in U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure while continuing to make steady progress with its weapons programs. North Korean leaders correctly calculated for years that U.S. policymakers would find the cost of an actual conflict on the Peninsula too high for serious consideration, and that China would be a safety valve if economic sanctions became too painful.
From Kim’s vantage point, however, there are reasons to question whether those assumptions are still valid. Over the past year, the public rhetoric from U.S. leaders threatening his regime has reached an unprecedented level, with some statements indicating that the United States is “locked and loaded” for a conflict, and others even hinting at the idea of a nuclear strike against North Korea. At the same time, the United States has quietly increased its military footprint in the region, including more regular B-1 bomber flights over the Korean Peninsula and — for the first time in a decade — the deployment late last year of three U.S. aircraft carriers off the Peninsula. This stepped-up military activity has undoubtedly not been lost on Kim or his generals and has likely sparked internal discussion about potential U.S. offensive military operations.
On the economic front, meanwhile, China has become intensely frustrated by both Kim’s behavior and constant U.S. demands to get tougher on the North, and has gradually imposed increasingly punishing sanctions, agreeing to limit oil supplies and stop importing steel and various food products. This is particularly worrisome to Kim because China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade. Taken in combination these actions might convince Kim that the established playbook has fundamentally changed, and that he is now in real danger.
So, how might this realization alter North Korea’s actions? It’s plausible that, contrary to the logic that maximum pressure will force concessions, the North’s new constraints could persuade Kim that he needs to demonstrate his own resolve and preemptively remind the United States and its allies just how costly an attempt at forced denuclearization or regime change would be. Indeed, Pyongyang’s track record suggests a willingness to raise the stakes during periods of tension and to take lethal action — from the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968 to the artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 — when it believes it necessary.
If Kim reaches this conclusion, there are a few options that his regime could consider which U.S. policymakers should prepare now to counter. First, there is the strong possibility of additional missile testing, potentially involving more sophisticated delivery systems and warheads — a standard tactic Kim has employed in recent months to demonstrate his resolve and showcase the North’s newfound technical prowess. I believe the regime is also likely to engage in proportional actions: Recall that when North Korea objected to the release of a Sony film in 2014 that portrayed an assassination attempt on Kim, it responded with a cyberattack on that specific studio. Today, Pyongyang could calculate that it needs to similarly target business interests in South Korea and the U.S. to force an easing of economic sanctions. This would likely be done through a series of cyberattacks against vulnerable commercial targets in both the United States and South Korea, especially banks and key economic infrastructure, but could also involve physical sabotage operations.
Second, if Kim believes that military pressure against the North is reaching an unacceptable level, he could try to intimidate Seoul and undermine its cooperation with Washington. This option could involve using North Korean special forces to trigger a series of isolated explosions in major cities in the South (North Korean special forces have operated in the South in the past) or even another incident similar to the sinking of a South Korean corvette in 2010 (the Cheonan), which the North has repeatedly denied despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Along these lines, Kim could also enlist a “sympathizer group” rather than his own special forces to attack a U.S. or South Korean military installation, calculating this would send the intended message while maintaining some degree of deniability.
And third, if confronted with the threat of a major U.S. military buildup on the Peninsula later this year, Kim may well decide in desperation that his best option is to preemptively target (including with mines) the ports and airfields that the U.S. military would rely on to transport troops into South Korea. If he pursues this option, Kim would almost certainly expect a strong U.S. retaliation, but might calculate that delaying America’s ability to deploy significant ground forces onto the Peninsula is his only remaining option to buy time and is therefore his best military play. Kim has undoubtedly learned the lesson of Desert Storm, and is unlikely to allow the U.S. military to mass hundreds of thousands of troops in the South for an offensive at the time and place of its choosing.
Understanding North Korea’s internal decision-making process and the various influences on Kim’s calculations is perhaps the hardest intelligence challenge on the planet. As is well documented, North Korea is among the most isolated countries in the world, with a young leader with almost no international expertise and only a few years of actual leadership experience. Therefore, it’s quite plausible that Kim himself has yet to decide on a course of action for the current standoff with Washington, and that his decisions will be shaped almost entirely by his superficial perception of U.S. intentions and the perceived threat. Sadly, my experience working on this issue while in government also causes me to believe that Kim is surrounded by advisers who, based on the last quarter-century of U.S.-North Korea relations, may be overconfident that the United States will shy away from conflict in the face of aggressive actions by North Korea. These advisers are unlikely to tell Kim anything he doesn’t want to hear for fear of their own personal safety. In other words, it’s a situation ripe for miscalculation by both sides.
Given the stakes — a potential conflict involving nuclear weapons — a miscalculation leading to a broader conflict simply cannot be allowed to occur. So in the coming months U.S. policymakers will want to exercise prudence in and carefully weigh their public statements, think deeply about how Kim and other critical actors might misperceive and overreact to U.S. actions and rhetoric, work in the closest possible consultation with key regional allies (especially South Korea), and prepare U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic responses to the full range of potential North Korean preemptive actions and counter-actions. It would be nice if the current showdown with North Korea could be resolved through diplomacy and follow a logical, predictable script of American design, but the two countries’ painful shared history suggests that we shouldn’t bank on that occurring.
Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence. All opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.