Editor’s Note: Adam Mount, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Over the summer and into fall, the standoff with North Korea had settled into a familiar if dangerous pattern. US officials issued vague warnings that they could take the peninsula to war, while North Korea steadily advanced its nuclear and missile programs.
Throughout, the military situation has remained remarkably stable: neither side has fired on the other or mobilized its forces for a full scale war, and to this date, provocations have been confined to tests and talk.
It is not Pyongyang, but Washington, that appears determined to push this standoff into the military domain.
Preparing for war?
This month, US forces in and around Korea made several provocative moves apparently designed to provoke Pyongyang and the North Korean regime’s allies in Beijing.
US and South Korean forces are holding live-fire naval exercises in the waters around the peninsula, involving the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, nominally to practice against special operations forces.
US forces will also practice evacuating American noncombatants from South Korea. Though this training occurs regularly, it could be misinterpreted when it occurs in parallel with other forceful signals. Furthermore, two submarines have visited the Korean Peninsula, including the USS Michigan, a guided missile submarine.
In the skies around the peninsula, B1-B bomber flights are becoming more complex and more assertive. One month ago, at least one B1-B and an escort of F-35 fighters flew over international waters north of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Last week, US B1-Bs performed a missile-firing drill in the seas between Korea and Japan, crossed the peninsula and did another drill in the Yellow Sea near China. JASSM missiles carried by the B1-B could reach into Chinese territory from those launch points.
Last week, the B1-Bs were back in South Korea for an airshow, along with F-22 and F-35 advanced stealth fighters and other military aircraft. On Monday, the US Air Force announced that 12 F-35As will deploy next month to Japan.
In short, in the last month, the US has rehearsed all the actions it would need to take to start a war.
Announcements of these actions come with vague and repeated statements from the White House that it is actively considering military options and “time is running out” for alternatives. The administration is apparently trying to paint missions intended to assure US allies as military preparations in order to aggravate Pyongyang and Beijing.
These provocations seem based on an idea that raising the risk of war can force China or North Korea to capitulate to Washington’s demands, ignoring recent history.
The last 10 months of vague threats and sporadic military provocations prove Kim Jong Un cannot be frightened into surrendering his nuclear arsenal: in early July, a month after two US aircraft carriers staged drills off South Korea, the North tested its first ICBM. In fact, last month Kim said personally he considers Trump’s vague threats a sign of weakness and proof that North Korea must stay its course.
China is also unlikely to bow to military pressure. Beijing’s overwhelming concern of the last few months has been to keep the US and North Korea quiet ahead of the Communist Party’s National Congress, a highly choreographed event during which President Xi Jinping will consolidate his power.
In the past, North Korea has staged missile and other tests during high-profile Chinese meetings, but Xi will have warned Kim in no uncertain terms this is not the week to act out.
In his tweets and statements, Trump has repeatedly attempted to exploit China-North Korea tensions, with little of consequence to show for it. Are US military moves this month designed to provoke a North Korean test during the Chinese party congress? Are American exercises in the Yellow Sea meant to alarm Beijing? It’s not clear.
Time for deterrence
Each of the recent US military deployments is temporary: at the end of the event or exercise, the ships and aircraft will rotate onto other missions. Despite major advancements in North Korean nuclear and missile programs and concerns from US allies about Washington’s willingness to defend them, the administration has not authorized new military deployments to South Korea.
In this, the current US military posture may be the worst of both worlds: it raises the possibility of an altercation with North Korea without providing the extra forces to deter and defend against one. In this climate, there is a very real risk that any military move could lead to an accidental war if North Korea’s leaders miscalculate or feel pressured to demonstrate defiance in the face of US threats.
The US and its allies have no interest in provoking North Korea. The Trump administration should set aside the false hope there is a military solution to the problem with Pyongyang and abandon its careless threats to attack North Korea.
Both Washington and Seoul should stop threatening Kim Jong Un with “decapitation”; if Kim rightly or wrongly believes an assassination attempt is on the way, this will raise the risk of a preemptive nuclear strike.
Finally, temporary military displays send precisely the wrong signal to Pyongyang: they raise the risk of an unwanted war and raise questions about whether the US is really committed to deterring North Korea in the long run.
If the Trump administration can cease its careless threats, the US and its allies could begin a real conversation about whether new deployments of unambiguously defensive military forces are needed to deter North Korea. Pyongyang cannot be allowed to think its new nuclear missiles will allow it to attack with submarines or special operations forces. The allies need new capabilities to deter this kind of aggression, but it will require a sustained effort, not a week-long visit from an aircraft carrier.
Holding to a defensive military posture would also afford US military commanders and diplomats new deterrent and diplomatic options for preventing North Korea from launching missiles toward Guam or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test – practical but vital objectives for the coming months.
The security of the US homeland and our allies requires that we maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula, not undermine it. It is time to abandon wishful thinking and get serious about deterring a nuclear North Korea.