North Korea’s New Ballistic Missile Test: How Should the Alliance Respond? At the end of the Worker’s Party of Korea 4th Plenary Meeting of the party’s 8th Central Committee, the party issued a statement with some 18,400 words, none of which included a reference to the hostile policy of the regime, or the perceived hostile policies of the ROK/U.S. Alliance. The summary of the entire message appears to be a focus on domestic issues of the economy, food shortages, and COVID-19 defense by strengthening the regime’s ideological efforts to control the Korean people in the face of severe hardship. There was a single national security and foreign policy-related sentence in the statement: “The increasingly unstable military environment on the Korean Peninsula and international politics have instigated calls to vigorously push forward with our national defense build-up plans without any delay.”
On January 5th Kim Jong-un “vigorously pushed forward” with his ongoing military development plans by testing a ballistic missile with a launch into the East Sea between Korea and Japan. It is too soon to assess the details of the missile launch, but it is likely Kim Jong-un is trying to send a message. The specific message could be his expression of opposition to the end of war declaration. It could be a warning to the alliance to leave the regime alone while the regime focuses on internal problems. It could be Kim attempting to be a spoiler in strategic competition to affect relations among the U.S., China, ROK, and Japan. Most likely, it could be simply another page from the seven decades old Kim family regime provocation playbook. This last would likely be to try to convince the U.S. to offer concessions such as sanctions relief for a return to denuclearization negotiations. The usual blackmail diplomacy.
North Korea’s Missile Test: A Framework for How to Respond
The key question that is asked with every North Korean action is how should the ROK/U.S. alliance respond?
Policymakers should keep in mind that the Kim family regime’s political warfare strategy relies heavily on its blackmail diplomacy – the use of increased tension, threats, and provocations to gain political and economic concessions. Part of an information and influence strategy should be to counter the criticism that a North Korean provocation is a US and South Korean policy failure.
The ROK and U.S. should make sure the press, pundits, and public understand that this is a fundamental part of North Korean strategy and that it conducts provocations for specific objectives. It does not represent a policy failure; it represents a deliberate policy decision by Kim Jong-un to continue to execute his political warfare strategy. The following is a response framework for consideration:
First, do not overreact. But do not succumb to the criticism of those who recommend ending exercises. Always call out Kim Jong-un’s strategy As Sun Tzu would advise- “ …what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy; … next best is to disrupt his alliances.” Make sure the international community, the press, and the public in the ROK and the U.S. and the elite and the Korean people living in the north know what Kim is doing.
Second, never ever back down in the face of North Korean increased tension, threats, and provocations.
Third, coordinate an alliance response. There may be times when a good cop-bad cop approach is appropriate. Try to mitigate the internal domestic political criticisms that will inevitably occur in Seoul and DC. Do not let those criticisms negatively influence policy and actions.
Fourth, exploit weakness in North Korea – create internal pressure on Kim and the regime from his elite and military. Always work to drive a wedge among the party, elite, and military (which is a challenge since they are all intertwined and inextricably linked).
Fifth, demonstrate strength and resolve. Do not be afraid to show military strength. Never misunderstand the north’s propaganda – do not give in to demands to reduce exercises or take other measures based on North Korean demands that would in any way reduce the readiness of the combined military forces. The north does not want an end to the exercises because they are a threat, they want to weaken the alliance and force U.S. troops from the peninsula which will be the logical result if they are unable to effectively train.
Sixth, depending on the nature of the provocation, be prepared to initiate a decisive response using the most appropriate tools, e.g., diplomatic, military, economic, information and influence activities, cyber, etc., or a combination.
There is no silver bullet to the North Korea problem. Therefore, the focus must be on the long-term solution to the security and prosperity challenges on the Korean peninsula. This requires the execution of a superior ROK/U.S. alliance political warfare strategy. It must focus on resolving the Korean question, e.g., “the unnatural division of the peninsula” (per paragraph 60 of the 1953 Armistice Agreement). Solve that question and the nuclear issues and the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity will be ended. The question to ask is not what worked and what did not, but whether the ROK/U.S. alliance actions move the region closer to the acceptable, durable political arrangement that will protect, serve, and advance U.S. and ROK/U.S. alliance interests.
The way ahead is an integrated deterrence strategy as part of the broader strategic competition that is taking place in the region. There is a need for a Korean “Plan B” that rests on the foundation of combined ROK/U.S. defensive capabilities and includes political warfare, aggressive diplomacy, sanctions, cyber operations, and information and influence activities, with a goal of denuclearization to ultimately solve the “Korea question” (e.g., unification) with the understanding that denuclearization of the north will only happen when the Korea question is resolved and there is a United Republic of Korea (UROK).
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 20 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.