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Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit
The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit
Op-Ed / Asia

Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula

Originally published in The Interpreter

The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.

While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.

The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments. 

On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.

South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.

For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.

But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?

Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.

I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.

Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power. 

Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.

Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate. 

It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.

A TV screen on a street in Tokyo broadcasts news of North Korea's ballistic missile launch in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on 29 August 2017. AFP/Kota Kawasaki
Commentary / Asia

The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit

North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan was irresponsible – yet it was more of a carefully calculated risk than a reckless gamble. Pyongyang’s goal is not a shooting war but to build up military and nuclear capabilities that serve strategic aims of survival and force protection.

North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan early on Monday morning was certainly irresponsible. But for Pyongyang, it was more of a carefully calculated risk than a reckless gamble. It is the latest step in a strategy aimed not to get into a shooting war but designed to build up the nuclear and missile capabilities that the regime firmly believes it needs.

A potential nuclear power firing missiles is of course enough to put the world on edge – and possibly provoke retaliation. Even mainstream U.S. commentators such as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass are now suggesting that Pyongyang’s apparent irresponsibility is so great that it undermines faith in deterrence as a strategy and turns “a preventive strike [into] a serious option, notwithstanding its high risks and potential costs”.

Indeed, things could have gone very wrong if the missile had failed over Japan – even if it had failed over North Korea itself. The rocket was fired from the vicinity of Sunan International Airport, a mere 24km from Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, so had to travel across much of North Korean territory en route to the East Sea/Sea of Japan. That it appears to have been fired over the Tsugaru Strait that divides the northern island of Hokkaido from the main island of Honshu somewhat reduced risk of casualties, but that is of little comfort. In the end, while the gambit paid off, it once again reminded the world of the North Korean government’s indifference to the value of civilian lives – both Japanese and that of its own people – even if that has not been in doubt for decades.

The reaction from the Japanese government reflected that sense of alarm. It hosted a press conference to convey the message of a crisis under firm control even as the country’s largest broadcaster, NHK, cancelled all programming and talked non-stop about missiles for more than three hours. Had the missile fallen on Japanese territory, no matter how sparsely populated, Tokyo would have had to respond. The ensuing escalatory dynamic might well have led to a wider – if unintended – conflagration involving the U.S. and South Korea at a minimum.

The rocket launch was almost certainly part of a coldly thought-out strategy, carefully calibrated to spur anger and gain attention but – as long as it worked as intended – avoid incurring a military response.

It is however important to remember the context surrounding North Korea’s missile ploy. Its heedless nature aside, the rocket launch was almost certainly part of a coldly thought-out strategy, carefully calibrated to spur anger and gain attention but – as long as it worked as intended – avoid incurring a military response. While it had earlier threatened to fire a cluster of missiles into the waters off Guam, that was always more of a theoretical threat, never terribly likely to happen. By aiming its fire in a less provocative direction, Pyongyang believed it was sending a message of comparable range and execution without crossing an irreparable line. Given what was said about Guam, the regime could ill-afford to do nothing, particularly in light of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that, as Crisis Group anticipated, routinely prompt a North Korean response; instead, Pyongyang demonstrated its willingness to take risks as a way to keep pushing its demands forcefully onto the global agenda.

In this context, crossing Japanese airspace at this particular time served North Korea’s purposes. It raised the international visibility of this act of defiance, bringing to mind North Korea’s first major missile launch on 1 September 1998, which also crossed Japan on its way into the Pacific. Now, as then, Pyongyang has offered no reasonable explanation for the chosen path of the launch, claiming it was a reminder of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, which came into force on 29 August 1910. At the same time, by doing so amid the South Korean-U.S. military exercises that finish on Thursday, Pyongyang was giving China and Russia ready-made arguments for why any resulting UN Security Council statement should strike some balance – unanimously condemning the missile launch as "outrageous" while also urging a “peaceful, diplomatic and political” solution rather than a military one.

Heightened tensions, as often is the case, are helpful for the North Korean regime.

Heightened tensions, as often is the case, are helpful for the North Korean regime. In this sense, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent praise for its “restraint” hardly was welcome to Pyongyang’s ears. For this threatened to ease the focus on Korean Peninsula events well before North Korea was ready to walk back from the precipice.

The most important question now is how international actors should react. The strong response from the Security Council was a step in making clear to Pyongyang that it cannot intimidate the rest of the world.  But it also is important to understand that North Korea felt the need to undertake this test not merely for political reasons, but because its list of strategic goals includes deployment of credible, tested missile delivery systems at some point in the future. Given the apparent inability of outsiders to divert it from this course, at least at an acceptable price, the best immediate approach would be to ensure that any such eventual deployment does not significantly alter the strategic calculus in North East Asia in a way that weakens the U.S.-South Korean alliance or strengthens North Korea’s belief that it can plausibly hope for reunification of the peninsula on its own terms. It certainly would not be to rule out talking to Pyongyang, as President Trump carelessly tweeted. There is space to both contain and negotiate with a nuclear and missile-armed North Korea, odious as that sounds, and much of our collective energy must now be directed toward that end.