Five Lessons From North Korea's Nuclear Posturing

Key observations about what North Korea's latest belligerence means for the U.S.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

As North Korea readies for yet another likely missile test this week and the rhetoric from Pyongyang ratchets ever upwards, American pundits continue to wager their best guesses on what's behind the regime's thinking. Few, if any, truly understand the inner machinations of Kim Jong Un and his advisers, and that's not changing anytime soon, unless Dennis Rodman suddenly remembers something important.

The best us westerners can do for now (aside from preparing for the worst) is draw some broad lessons from recent events. While by no means comprehensive, here are a few key observations about what it all means for the U.S.

1. The crisis gives cover to the U.S. 'pivot' to Asia

As headline grabbing as a potential nuclear conflict over the Korean  peninsula may be, most analysts agree that a serious military conflict is unlikely. Both the EU and the U.S. this week assured their citizens residing in South Korea they need not adhere to Pyongyang's demands that foreigners leave the region for their own security, and the response in Seoul has been similar.

In fact, North Korea's bellicose behavior has largely provided cover for a greater American presence in the region, part of the so-called 'pivot' to Asia, under the guise of defending its allies from an unpredictable regime. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey both announced this week that the U.S. is fully capable of defending itself and its allies from any actions, and the U.S. has continued to move military hardware, including its most advanced fighter aircraft and missile defense systems, into the region. All this, of course, is part of a longer term American strategy to counter China's rise, and Beijing, North Korea's only ally, is increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

2. There's a new dynamic in the region

One of the things making the current round of bad behavior from North Korea so disconcerting is the fact that key countries in the conflict have all recently undergone leadership changes. North Korea's Kim Jong Un has been in power for just a year, and most observers acknowledge the fact the much of his behavior is driven by a need to consolidate political power internally. But South Korea also has a new leader, hardliner Park Geun-hye, whose initial response to threats from the North has been to promise a strong retaliation – a position that she has since softened but has been used by Pyongyang as a reason to continue escalating the crisis.

Adding to this, China's new President Xi Jinping is still getting his feet wet on the world stage. The Chinese president, who is juggling a number of domestic issues and made Africa his first overseas destination, this week offered a rare public criticism of the North, albeit slightly obscure, in a speech at the Boao Forum – China's answer to Davos. He's also taken steps to speak more directly than Chinese leaders have in the past with U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan. That's important, as both countries are likely to further escalate long-term defensive measures in response to North Korean threats.

3. We may be misanalysing the threat

The likelihood of North Korea being able to mount a nuclear warhead is generally seen as slim to none, but according to John Arquila of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, the American response of deploying missile defense batteries and fighter jets to the region has been aimed at countering just that. Arquila posits that the young North Korean leader may be thinking more creatively, hoping instead to test the boundaries in a way previously unseen in the conflict.

That could include ratcheting up conventional attacks against South Korea beyond recent skirmishes, engaging in increased cyberwarfare activity and even detonating a nuclear device in an unconventional fashion. Any of these actions would warrant some kind of regional response, and some worry that the lack of strong U.S.-Chinese military ties as of late could work against containing an unorthodox emergency crisis.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Take North Korea's Saber-Rattling Seriously?]

4. Americans are starting to pay attention

Though the American public has a small appetite for foreign affairs, it's hard to turn a blind ear to threats of nuclear destruction. Small as this likelihood may be, the Washington Post reports this week that according to Google search data, Americans are more interested in information about the reclusive regime and its intentions than the latest new about superstars like Beyonce or even President Obama. They even have a chart to prove it.

5. We've got a backchannel in case of emergency

While it's true that the last of a number of military hotlines between North and South Korea were cut late last month, Foreign Policy magazine this week revealed that a communications channel does exist between the U.S. and North Korea. Known as the "New York channel" since it is spearheaded by North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations in New York City, Foreign Policy magazine reports that North Korean officials met with negotiators from the State Department back in March. It also says the channel was used previously by Pyongyang to warn the U.S. about North Korea's nuclear test back in February. If things do spiral out of control, it's somewhat comforting to hear State department officials state that a line of communication between the U.S. and North Korea "remains open as necessary."

  • Read Andrew Scobell: U.S. Must Deter North Korea and Reassure South Korea
  • Read Ted Carpenter: North Korea Poses No Nuclear Threat to the U.S.
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