Kim Jong Un’s two escalation ladders

Kim Jong Un’s two escalation ladders

The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).

Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North’s two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability — likely aimed at Japan and Guam first — Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window. 

All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim’s need to establish credibility with his generals — at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience — China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North’s missile test — and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North’s newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week. 

Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.