Fire and Fury? A Korean Peninsula Crisis Briefing


By Julian French.


“A bluff taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff”.

Dr Henry Kissinger

Headline: In spite of some modest easing of rhetoric overnight by the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) Kim Jong-un, the causes of a crisis with its roots back in 1945 have not been addressed. The paradox of the latest Korean Peninsula Crisis is that it is clearly in the interests of China, the ROK, the United States, and other powerful regional actors such as Japan, to maintain strategic and political stability on the peninsula and across the wider region. However, the leadership of North Korea believes it can only survive if it promotes instability by threatening ever more devastating forms of warfare.  The strategic context and military-technological character of the crisis are turning a twentieth-century rupture into a twenty-first century world crisis that will continue unless the DPRK changes policy and/or people.

Relative power of key players (all figures from the CIA The World Factbook website unless otherwise stated):

China: estimated 2016 gross domestic product (GDP) $21.14 trillion, which makes the Chinese economy the world’s biggest using purchasing power parity. Estimated 2016 population: 1,373,541,278. Official defence expenditure amounts to 1.9%, although the US suggests that in 2016 China spent the PPP equivalent of c$140bn (SIPRI). China is an advanced nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic missiles, both land and sea-based, that is also developing significant military power projection capabilities.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea): whilst figures are hard to obtain the CIA estimates the North Korean economy to be worth some $40 billion per annum. This makes the DPRK one of the very poorest countries in the world.  Estimated 2016 population: 25,115,311. Effective estimates of actual North Korean defence expenditure are also hard to find. However, whilst the official budget for 2017 was set at 15.8% GDP, the Korean Times suggests the armed forces have consumed 25% of GDP for several years and that defence expenditure is set to increase. $10 billion spent each year by a militarised state on a militarised low-income economy explains the size if not the effectiveness of DPRK armed forces. US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that the DPRK is on the cusp of becoming an operational nuclear power with some limited intercontinental ballistic missile capacity.

Republic of Korea (South Korea): the South Korean economy in 2016 was estimated at $1.934 trillion, making it the world’s fourteenth largest economy using PPP. Estimated 2016 population: 50,924,172. South Korea spends around 2% GDP per annum on defence giving Seoul the world’s 40th largest defence budget. In 2015 the ROK spent some $36.4 billion on its armed forces (Trading Economics).  The ROK is a non-nuclear power, with no intercontinental ballistic missiles.

United States: the US economy in 2016 was estimated at $18.56 trillion, making it the world’s ninth largest by PPP. Estimated 2016 population: 323,995,528. Estimated defence expenditure in 2016 was 3.29% GDP or $611.2 billion (SIPRI). The US is the world’s leading military power with Advanced nuclear systems intercontinental ballistic missiles, both land and sea-based. However, unlike any other power US forces are spread the world-over.

Background to the crisis: The current crisis is set against the backdrop of history and, on the face of it at least, the latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula would appear to reflect and repeat history. On the one side there is a small Communist state (DPRK or North Korea), backed by a powerful Communist neighbour (China). On the other side there is a more powerful but still modest capitalist liberal democracy (ROK or South Korea), backed by the world’s most powerful such state (US). Equally, there are limits to the extent history can be used to understand current events.

The origins of the Korean Peninsula Crisis can be traced back to a 1945 agreement between the US and Stalin’s USSR by which American forces would liberate Korea from the Japanese as far north as the 38th Parallel, and Soviet forces would complete the liberation to the Chinese border. On 26 June, 1950 the Korean People’s Army (KPA) invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Korean War began. In July 1950, following the June invasion and the swift retreat of South Korean forces, the US and other Western countries operating under a UN mandate and under the command of General Douglas F MacArthur, began to engage the KPA and eventually pushed them all the way back up the Korean Peninsula to close to the Chinese border.

On 25 October, 1951 Chinese (PRC) forces suddenly entered the DPRK and defeated ROK forces decisively at Puchkin, and on 1 November defeated US forces at Unsan.  In April 1952 PRC forces attacked UN forces as part of a major push south down the Peninsular in an effort to take the ROK capital, Seoul. Chinese forces were held back at great cost at the Battle of Imjin River by the British Army’s Gloucestershire Regiment (‘the Glorious Glosters’) and by the British-Belgian 29th Infantry Brigade. The Chinese thrust was blunted and UN forces were able to regroup to halt the Chinese advance. The war became a stalemate and on 27 July 1953 the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed and the Demilitarized Zone created on the 38th Parallel.  The war has never formally been ended.

Assessment: The 2017 conflict and the 1950-1953 war share several of the same strategic rationales. In 1953 China did not want a US-friendly state on its border, and sought a buffer between ROK and China. The US and Japan did not want a Communist regime so close to Japan at a time when the Cold War was gathering pace and anti-Communism was at its peak in Washington. Significantly, the regime in Pyongyang at the time was Stalinist not Maoist, meaning it looked towards Moscow rather than Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West) for protection. However, by boycotting its permanent seat Moscow enabled the US to get a resolution through the UN Security Council. Moscow also indicated it would not intervene against such a UN force in Korea, leading some in the Truman administration to fear Moscow was in fact seeking to weaken the US defence of Europe.

There are several important differences between 1951 and 2017. In 1951 China under Mao Zedong was a large but essentially weak and volatile strategic actor the main weapon which was manpower. 2017 China an emerging nuclear superpower.  North Korea was a Stalinist dictatorship in 1951 with more links to Moscow than Peking, which had a powerful conventional force but no nuclear weapons.  The DPRK is now believed by the US Defense Intelligence Agency to have a first generation nuclear warhead similar in punch to the atomic bombs which were dropped by the US in August 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which were the equivalent of 12-15,000 tons of TNT.  The DIA believes DPRK has successfully miniaturised the warheads to fit atop a viable Hwasong series intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Hwasong 12, 13 & 14 missile systems all seem to have ICBM capability with ranges anywhere from 6000-12000 kms. Whilst in theory such systems could reach continental North America, they do not as yet pose an existential threat to the US. However, a nuclear-armed DPRK poses an increasingly serious danger, most notably to Japan, and US forces in Guam and on Okinawa.

Analysis: DPRK aims appear to be twofold; to force the neighbours and outside powers to continue to buy off Pyongyang with ‘free’ exports, and to maintain discipline over a militarised society. Even if this current crisis is resolved, the US and the ROK assure the DPRK that they do not seek regime change in Pyongyang, and China acts as a de facto security guarantor for the DPRK, future crises will inevitably occur unless the regime changes policy tack fundamentally, or is changed.  Nor can sudden change in the DPRK be ruled out. Analysis of economic data suggests that the DPRK is no longer economically viable without significant resource injections from abroad.  There is also some limited evidence that North Korea is becoming socially, and possibly politically, unviable as well.

The DPRK has repeatedly tried to ‘globalise’ the conflict because it needs the US to be an enemy for the regime of Kim Jong-un to survive. However, the cost of regime survival is increasing.  At the end of the Cold War in 1989 Russia withdrew the protection of its nuclear umbrella from DPRK. Since then Pyongyang has invested huge amounts of its very limited resources to develop nuclear weapons, with tacit support from Pakistan and some suggestion that Ukraine has provided some key missile components. Successive US Administrations and the Group of Six (G6) states of which it is a part, and which includes China, have failed to prevent DPRK efforts to acquire such weapons. DPRK conventional forces also pose a profound to the ROK, most notably the 20 million people in Seoul and its environs, which is only 30 miles/50 km from the 38th Parallel. If any pre-emptive military action is taken to prevent Pyongyang from resorting to nuclear force it is likely that China is the only power truly in a position to undertake such action.

Beijing seems sensitive to American concerns. Unusually Beijing supported the US and UK drafted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2237 (UNSCR 2237) imposing more economic sanctions on the DPRK. China has in the past two days appeared to have begun to impose economic sanctions on North Korea in critical areas such as iron, lead, coal and fish products. These actions clearly indicate that Beijing does not approve of the actions of Kim Jung-un’s regime.  The Chinese have also ordered the People’s Liberation Army to prepare to move to the border with North Korea.

However, the crisis cannot be disentangled from the growing strategic tensions between China and the United States in East Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific grand strategic region.  Over the past fortnight Washington has sought again to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea which Beijing claims for its own. And, on Monday, the American again attacked China for stealing intellectual property. In other words, the 2017 Korean Peninsula Crisis has all the makings of a classic great power stand-off, tinged with nuclear weapons, and if not now, certainly in the none-too-distant future.  This is precisely what Pyongyang would like to see happen.

US Options: US strategy is essentially designed to convince Beijing that Washington sees the threat to the US and its allies in the region as so severe that Beijing must take action.  In return, China must be assured that the ROK and US will not seek to enforce the unification of the Korean peninsula, and thus remove a buffer between Chinese and US forces.


Given the nature of the crisis, and the complexities and difficulties enshrined within it, the balance of US efforts should remain focused on a diplomatic solution. The US achieved some diplomatic success at the United Nations with the July adoption of UNSC Resolution 2371, which seeks to cut 33% of the remaining exports of North Korea.


Beyond deterring Pyongyang, and assuring the defence of the ROK, Japan, and of course the US territory Guam, none of the offensive military options open to the Americans are very attractive. Subject to the agreement of ROK President Moon Jae-in, the US could send more THAAD (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) anti-missile systems to both the ROK and Japan. However, the number of THAAD systems is limited, and such a system could do nothing to prevent mass artillery strikes by DPRK forces on Seoul. It takes 45 seconds for an artillery shell fired from one of the several thousand guns dug into south facing slopes of mountains just north of the 38th Parallel to strike Seoul.

What Role Europe? Beyond imploring Beijing to help resolve the crisis America’s European allies could have an important role to play. First, Europeans must give unequivocal backing to the US in the face of any threat to the American and South Korean peoples. Second, Europeans must strengthen sanctions against DPRK if the regime does not change tack. For example, the Netherlands still exports some €2m worth of goods and services to DPRK. Third, six EU member-states have embassies in Pyongyang, including Britain and Germany.  There should be a concerted European effort to establish back-channel diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

Conclusion: Effective crisis management by China and the United States – the two key players – will require consistent and considered policy, balanced and clear messaging, constant contact, and the separation of other issues of mutual contention from the Korean Peninsula Crisis.

Pyongyang appears to be engaging in but the latest round of force blackmail, this time with a very nuclear edge, to gain more resources and thus more time for the regime. The DPRK has repeatedly used this stratagem in the past with some success. It is clear that Supreme Leader Kim Jung-Un is prepared to to the brink of war, but it is as yet unclear if he really would fight such a war, as it would almost certainly lead to his own demise. This is especially the case given that China has indicated to the DPRK that Beijing would not support Pyongyang in a nuclear war with the Americans.

Above all, the US needs to be clear about the outcomes it seeks. At present Washington appears to want to both deter the DPRK, and compel Pyongyang to de-nuclearise at the same time. US strategy is thus insufficiently clear.  This lack of clarity over desired outcomes impacts upon the Administration’s crisis messaging. Discipline is vital with all the key US actors involved from the President down engaging in and committing to a series of carefully calibrated messaging. Here the new White House Chief of Staff Kelly and National Security Advisor McMaster have a vital role to play in imposing discipline and thus separating crisis management from White House ideology.

The American message must be consistent; the US does not necessarily regard the DPRK as an enemy, and will not start hostilities, but any hostile military action taken by Pyongyang will inevitably lead to the collapse of the regime.


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