US military strikes against high-value targets in North Korea are more likely to happen now, in the wake of the ground-breaking Singapore summit, than a year ago when military tensions were at their peak, one expert fears.
Narushige Michishita, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, who previously held a position at Japan’s Ministry of Defense, said is he far more worried about the possibility of military confrontation than he was last year.
While much of the world was consumed with the possibility of war being ignited in Korea in 2017, Narushige said that he was “not too concerned” at that time. But now, he has different concerns.
Kim ‘would take a limited strike on the chin’
“Given the fact that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is a rational actor, we can be more confident now than before that he will not lash out and launch an all-out war even if the United States takes a limited military action – like a ‘bloody nose’ operation – against North Korea. He would definitely retaliate – most likely against South Korea – in a similarly limited manner,” Narushige said via email on June 18.
Talking on a panel discussing the North Korean nuclear program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC on June 12, Narushige said he thought that Kim’s string of recent meetings with the leaders of China, South Korea and the U.S. prove that he is a rational and cunning player and thus not likely to respond with massive retaliation if his nation is hit by a limited strike with precision weapons.
He would not commit national suicide by retaliating against the US with strategic weapons “only because he got a bloody nose,” the expert said. That, in turn, indicates that the potential risks facing US military planners are lower.
Narushige offered some different scenarios that might unfold, post-summit.
The “OK Scenario” basically sees the summit as “an agreement…from which we can go anywhere,” said Narushige – who, like most experts, doubts North Korea will denuclearize either quickly or comprehensively. Still, Pyongyang “could take steps gradually” while the US and North Korea “could take steps to improve relations.” Driving the ‘OK Scenario’ is North Korean leader Kim’s desire to improve his country’s economy,” he said.
But if a “Bad Scenario” materializes, “we could go back to a crisis situation,” Narushige warned.
Trump’s high expectations raise risks
With U.S. President Donald Trump anticipating great things from Kim, the situation was potentially very volatile, he said. Narushige worries over what might happen if North Korea cannot deliver what Trump expects in a timely manner. This scenario could result in Trump coming under attack from domestic critics during a key election year.
To divert attention from domestic turmoil, a frustrated Trump “might decide to take strong action, including military action,” he said.
Another of Narushige’s scenarios is a Kim-style glasnost process, recalling what US President Ronald Reagan triggered when he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev complied – but after the wall was torn down, the entire Soviet Union followed. “Kim might decide to do the same thing,” said Narushige, which could destabilize his own country.
Given that it took South Korea well over 20 years from the start of industrialization to evolve from poverty to affluence, it could take well over a decade to achieve the goals of denuclearization, Narushige noted. This contrasts with the rosy scenarios outlined by U.S. officials who suggest that major milestones could be met by 2020.
Defining failure, pointing fingers
Balbina Hwang, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a former senior advisor to the U.S. Department of State, told Asia Times that a “failure” such as the one outlined in Narushige’s “Bad Scenario” could come down to a matter of definition.
“It matters very much whether you are defining the summit’s failure or success from the point of view of the U.S., [North Korea] or [South Korea] and which actor is perceived as being the cause of the collapse of failure,” said Hwang via email.
A failure could be disastrous. “Then we return to the same historical pattern we have seen over the last 65 years. We will see a period of bitter recriminations where each side will blame each other for the breakdown, steadily rising tensions, and probably a return of threatening actions and increased rhetoric by North Korea and the U.S.,” she said.
Hwang has been observing the evolving Trump-Kim relationship closely. Beyond the fact that both constantly engage in extreme flattery, Hwang said that never before have two leaders who are handling such sensitive matters been so remarkably similar in personality and temperament – and therefore prone to reacting the same way.
In addition, Hwang was one of the first experts to suggest that both leaders have shifted their core conversation from denuclearization to broader historical shifts in East Asia. In effect, they downgraded the sense of urgency surrounding denuclearization, almost making it a side issue – and did so virtually in lockstep.
Other experts remain puzzled by the outcome of the summit.
Higher stakes for Kim
Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Australia’s Macquarie University, described the summit as “high on ceremony, with little known substantive outcome.”
“It was somewhat disappointing that Kim Jong-un made no new concessions in any public statement, while the US side appeared to make a number of new and more far-reaching commitments,” he said via email. “This could all be part of the negotiation process, but on its surface, it seemed mostly a win for the North.”
If the stakes are high for Trump, who seeks a big political or diplomatic win, they are even higher for Kim.
“It is still unclear to me what guarantees could be made to him that would truly allow for him to achieve ‘complete’ denuclearization,” Gill said. “It is not a question of ‘sincerity,’ really. It is a question of survival.”
See the C-SPAN video.