The risks for severe North Korea miscalculation are currently high, a U.S. based policy consultant said Sunday in an interview with NK News, with subsequent potential for unintended escalation in the event of even highly limited military conflict.
The remarks from Dr. Kevin Shepard, Ph.D., a U.S. based policy consultant with years of experience working on North Korea issues, come amid growing concerns about what might happen following any pending North Korean long distance missile test, an event many watchers have been anticipating for several months.
“(I) think we are at a unique situation where desire for conflict is at a low but chance of miscalculation – and risk that that miscalculation could have severe consequences – is at a high,” said Dr. Shepard.
And if the U.S. and its allies attempted to take highly limited military action, for example to prevent a nuclear test or missile launch taking place, Shepard said that it would be difficult to communicate to Pyongyang the limited intent of any such actions.
“I am not convinced the U.S. can credibly message limited objectives – if the U.S. strikes North Korea, the regime must domestically show strength, and at the same time prepare to defend against external threats,” he said. “Convincing the regime to absorb a strike from a foreign enemy is an almost unheard of challenge.”
During the interview, Shepard also talked about likely North Korean motivations underpinning recent WMD developments, the future credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and how Kim Jong Un might see the current situation.
NK News: How would you characterize the current situation, as far as comparing it to periods of historical tensions go?
Kevin Shepard: Each relationship – be it between the U.S. and the DPRK, the U.S. and the ROK, or the U.S. relationships with the PRC, RUS, or other actors with relationships with Pyongyang – is unique.
Compared to “historical tensions”, (I) think we are at a unique situation where desire for conflict is at a low but chance of miscalculation – and risk that that miscalculation could have severe consequences – is at a high.
My advice to leaders from all countries involved is to keep in mind long-term desired end-states rather than act in order to achieve short-term gains.
NK News: What kind of channels exist for the U.S. and its allies to communicate intent to the DPRK in the event of military conflict of some kind? In other words, if the U.S. and its allies wished to take highly limited military action, for example to prevent a nuclear test or missile launch, how could it be communicated to the DPRK that the intention of this would not be to fight all-out war and overthrowing the Pyongyang leadership?
Kevin Shepard: There are a number of direct and indirect channels through which the U.S. could message the North Korean regime and the general population. Your question though, “how could it be communicated,” gets at the crux.
Not through what channel, but rather, how can a message of intent be credibly shaped to avoid undermining the regime and convincing it of U.S. limited objectives?
My concern is that of unintended escalation due to miscalculation/misinterpretation of messages. I am not convinced the U.S. can credibly message limited objectives – if the U.S. strikes North Korea, the regime must domestically show strength, and at the same time prepare to defend against external threats.
Convincing the regime to absorb a strike from a foreign enemy is an almost unheard of challenge.
“Unification is a notional goal that the regime cannot abandon, but must realize is unreachable”
NK News: Some now say that North Korea “cannot be deterred.” What does this really mean? How accurate is this assessment in your view?
Kevin Shepard: Deterred from what? North Korea has been deterred from attempting to unify the peninsula for over 65 years. North Korea has been deterred from attacking U.S. forces. I had a conversation recently about deterrence with Western scholars in Seoul. We say the U.S. successfully deterred the USSR, despite its development of a nuclear program.
NK News: What is your sense of the notion – increasingly debated even among some senior parts of the USG – that North Korea’s ultimate goal is really unification of the Korean peninsula? How viable would DPRK control over 50m+ South Koreans really be?
Kevin Shepard: Unification is a notional goal that the regime cannot abandon, but must realize is unreachable. Increasingly, we hear of North Korean awareness of the greater international community, from the cyber world to diplomacy and trade to the infiltration of ideas to the broader North Korean population.
I assume there are sycophants telling leadership the progressives in South Korea are ready to rise up and help unify the nation, but I assume professional military leaders understand they cannot hold the South against an international military coalition, global diplomatic condemnation, and an unaccepting domestic population.
NK News: What would be the most effective roles for South Korea and China to play when it comes to reducing tensions on the peninsula right now?
Kevin Shepard: Today, we are faced with a credibility deficit. North Korea believes it should deal only with the U.S., and yet does not know which U.S. message reflects policy. Both South Korea and China get waved off as either a puppet of the U.S. or as an inconsequential actor.
If we are to see a relatively peaceful resolution to the North Korean problem set, then the role of the ROK and PRC, not to mention Japan and Russia, will be crucial, and the U.S. needs to continue to demand their participation, despite Pyongyang’s requirement that any solution be a U.S.-DPRK bilateral agreement.
NK News: What do you assess North Korea’s primary motivations are in developing the array of new missiles / hydrogen bomb introduced and tested this year?
Kevin Shepard: I have seen nothing to suggest that North Korean motivations have changed this year. North Korean propaganda has adjusted to address the introduction of the Trump and Moon administrations, but there is no sign that the North Korean regime has changed its objectives. The development of missile and bomb systems are in line with the systemic development of North Korean capabilities in support of Pyongyang’s regime interests of survival and legitimacy, both domestically and abroad.
NK News: What is the real target of these new IRBM and ICBM missiles? Under what circumstances do you think the DPRK might judge these could be used effectively?
Kevin Shepard: I believe the DPRK judges these weapons as effective as deterrent threats that allow the North to use belligerence as a negotiating tactic, and could be used as a negotiation tool to ‘sue for peace’ were conflict to escalate beyond Pyongyang’s control. They are also used as a domestic political tool to justify/solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Weapons can be used effectively without being employed.
“We are faced with a credibility deficit”
NK News: How credible is the U.S. nuclear umbrella once the DPRK can credibly threaten to launch nuclear ICBMs at major population centers in the U.S?
Kevin Shepard: The U.S. nuclear umbrella, as well as extended deterrence, remains credible after the DPRK can threaten to launch on major U.S. population centers. It is this credibility that protects the U.S. While the DPRK may develop the capability to launch on the U.S. mainland, it is the nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence that, when properly messaged, convince the DPRK that it is not in its interest to strike. Were the DPRK to fail to understand this message, our ability to swiftly remove threats to the U.S. and our allies serve as a reassurant and as a supporting function to regional stability.
NK News: What are the biggest missed opportunities in recent years with regards to the North Korea issue, in your opinion?
Kevin Shepard: The world stage is galvanized, and demonizing North Korea will not win the U.S. any more allies than have already recognized the evil that is Pyongyang.
That said, missed opportunities abound in less-than-violent situations the U.S. could highlight as cause for concern. Rather than postulating that North Korea is “bad”, the U.S. has missed opportunities to highlight how Pyongyang is dangerous.
The risk posed by a nuclear program lacking internationally-accepted safety standards; the environmental impact of nuclear tests near the borders of the PRC and Russia; the opportunity cost of finite humanitarian assistance necessary due to conscious neglect by the regime.
Rather than demonize Pyongyang, the U.S. should take a logical approach to convince the PRC and others why supporting a recalcitrant North Korea is not in its best interests.
NK News: If you were Kim Jong Un, what would it take to persuade you to change strategic course given the hand of cards he currently has?
Kevin Shepard: If I were Kim Jong Un, I would not see any available hand as being better than what I am currently holding. I would not believe that I could lead a unification effort, I would not believe that either the U.S. or the ROK would give me any amnesty were I to capitulate, and I would not believe that I could defeat ROK, U.S., or alliance forces, were they to attack.
The most existential threat to Kim Jong Un is internal, and the likelihood of him abandoning his current strategy of nuclear and missile development while attempting to strengthen the role of the Party in government and of the markets in the economy is slim to none.
If I were Kim Jong Un, it would take a credible proposal that I remain in charge, gain the support and respect of the ROK and U.S., and be offered substantial movement toward unification of the two Koreas that did not threaten the authority of me or my closest associates.
The U.S. is not in a position to offer any such agreement (nor should it be), and so I do not anticipate Kim Jong Un’s capitulation without significant internal challenge. I expect the current state of affairs to continue into the near future, and North Korea’s ultimate demise coming from within rather than from external pressure.
Featured image: Taringa.net
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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