This weekend, North Korea significantly increased its forward deployed artillery units and sent around 50 attack submarines out to sea. The submarine movement is especially interesting, because it’s not easy for North Korea to deploy subs; they are poorly maintained and expensive for the resource-starved regime to operate. In deploying so many simultaneously, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, clearly wants to make a point.
And to some degree, young Kim’s submarine wager has already paid off. To counter the North’s deployments, the U.S. and South Korea canceled a military exercise originally scheduled to run until this Thursday. The North has also managed to get the South to the negotiating table at the Panmunjom “truce’ village.
Still, it’s not as if this latest escalation was a complete surprise. As I argued after a March attack on the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, “North Korea is the Oceania of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: introverted and paranoid, just with less food and smaller televisions.” The North Korean regime’s structural failings reinforce its confrontational strategy. But with the Obama administration so focused on securing its Iran nuclear deal, Pyongyang hasn’t been getting the attention it craves. And since March, tensions on the Korean peninsula have steadily increased, spurred by North Korean missile tests and a missile test in response by the South.
American carrier strike groups have the power to deter North Korean military action and could sail to the peninsula on short notice.
Yet while this crisis is serious, there are also reasons for optimism. For a start, the North Koreans know that their threats carry a strategic cost: They are losing the element of surprise. But the ability to surprise is the key to the North’s war strategy. After all, North Korea’s leadership knows that in the event of war, they would have to seize Seoul and overrun frontline American and South Korean units in short order. Why? Because the American military’s air superiority would quickly annihilate the North’s weak logistics and communications lines and isolate its frontline forces. In this sense, we can see the North’s increasingly heated rhetoric and threats in a positive light — because they do not constitute an actual attack. The rhetoric has also given the U.S. time to respond. Consider the American Navy’s available assets. The Stennis Carrier Strike Group (CSG) has just completed its final-phase pre-deployment exercise and is now somewhere in the Pacific. The Ronald Reagan CSG is also in the Pacific on pre-deployment exercises. These ships have the power to deter North Korean military action and could sail to the peninsula on short notice.
Of course, there’s one major catch. China. With Chinese leader Xi Jinping increasingly aggressive assaults on the cyber, economic, and territorial fronts, it’s unclear what pressure his government will now put on the North. And although China’s influence is sometimes overestimated, history has proven that the best and safest way to put the Kim dynasty back in its box is for Beijing to pick up the phone and call Pyongyang.