North Korea has done it again, which is no surprise. While the ROK/U.S. alliance and the international community has been waiting for a seventh nuclear test or a possible test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in preparation for the visit by Vice President Harris’ visit or in response to the port call of the USS Ronald Reagan, Kim decided to test another suspected ballistic missile, launching it into the East Sea on September 25.
The heart of North Korea’s strategy is this. It is executing a combination of political warfare to subvert the South and the alliance and blackmail diplomacy to extort concessions from the South the U.S., and the international community through the use of increased tensions, threats, and provocations. This while continuing to develop advanced warfighting capabilities to achieve the regime’s single strategic aim – domination of the peninsula under the rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State to ensure the regime’s survival. These three lines of effort, political warfare, blackmail diplomacy, and advanced warfighting capabilities are mutually supporting and reinforcing.
The issue usually top of mind among national leaders and the media is the continued employment of provocations to support the regime’s blackmail diplomacy to gain political and economic concessions. Thus, the alliance must have a comprehensive plan for addressing them.
The alliance should view provocations as an opportunity rather than a threat. They provide the alliance with the opportunity to demonstrate that Kim Jong Un’s political warfare and military strategy will fail. This is done first and foremost by not making any concessions.
The ROK and U.S. should ensure 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 reprise of a response framework previously:
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.” Ensure the international community, the press, the public in the ROK and the U.S., 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 D.C. Do not let those criticisms negatively influence policy and actions.
Fourth, exploit the 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 cannot 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, or a combination.
One of the vital elements of superior political warfare is attacking the enemy’s strategy. This requires recognizing, understanding, exposing, and attacking it with information.
Without recognizing and understanding the North Korean strategy, it cannot be adequately explained to the policymakers, the press, and the population. Again, the alliance appears to align regarding the regime’s nature, objectives, and strategy. This provides the lens through which provocations must be understood so that provocations can be explained and exposed. Exposing the strategy is critical for developing public support for alliance actions and countering calls from pundits to make concessions. This provides the “why” for alliance actions.
Attacking the regime’s strategy requires an information and influence activities campaign. The alliance should employ a strategy working group that focuses on developing and employing appropriate influence activities. It must not simply be reactive but ongoing between provocations to continue emphasizing the failure of the regime’s strategy.
One key element of an information and activities campaign must be responding to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. When the alliance publicly discusses the north’s nuclear weapons, it reinforces Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy. His Propaganda and Agitation Department can shape the message that the alliance and the world fear the north’s “trusted shield and treasured sword” of nuclear weapons. It can use this as justification for the sacrifices and suffering of the Korean people in the north by telling them that their efforts to support nuclear weapons development are successfully protecting them from external attack. While nuclear weapons legitimize Kim and the regime, human rights undermine legitimacy. When the alliance adopts a “human rights upfront approach” every time there is a nuclear issue, the alliance can raise human rights. The fundamental message is that Kim must deny human rights to remain in power and that the Korean people suffer because of Kim’s deliberate decision to prioritize the nation’s resources for nuclear weapons and missile development and support to the regime elite and military over the welfare of the Korean people. The alliance must continuously emphasize this theme and message.
Responding to provocations with a superior political warfare strategy through information and influence activities will have a cumulative effect on the regime elite, military leadership, and Korean people by showing that Kim’s strategy is not in their best interests. This will exert pressure on Kim that he may not be able to withstand over time. Above all, no concessions must be provided to him. Once concessions are made, he will judge his strategy as a success and continue to double down on its execution.
There are two other critical aspects of a superior political warfare strategy. First, the ROK must strengthen its political institutions vulnerable to North Korean subversion. The actions of the United Front Department and the 225th Bureau are focused on undermining the legitimacy of the ROK government by creating political opposition.
The second is simply maintaining the strength of the alliance. Since the regime seeks to divide the alliance with the ultimate objective of removing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, it is imperative that ROK and U.S. political and military leaders continuously reinforce the strength of the alliance. Despite distractions throughout the INDOPACIFIC and worldwide, the new Yoon and Biden administrations have conducted consistent high-level diplomatic and military engagement. This must be sustained.
The ROK/U.S. alliance should take the opportunity presented by every North Korean provocation to show that Kim Jong Un’s political warfare, blackmail diplomacy, and warfighting strategies will fail. Demonstrating strength and resolve and never giving in to North Korea’s demands are the basic tenets of a provocation response but the alliance should also include a human rights upfront approach as part of a political warfare and information and influence response.
Kim Jong Un must recognize that any action he takes will undermine regime legitimacy.
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea), and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.