North Korea's saber rattling is a serious threat, National Journal's National Security Insiders say, and they overwhelmingly approve of the Obama administration's response.
Seventy percent of Insiders said the U.S. should take North Korea's threat seriously. Pyongyang has threatened to attack South Korea and the U.S. as it faces tougher international sanctions following its latest nuclear test. In response, the U.S. is sending a missile-defense system to Guam and enhancing those on the West Coast, while dispatching F-22 fighter jets to South Korea and more warships to the region. "The DPRK government is being run by a child—and not just any child, but one given to tantrums. The situation is very dangerous,” one Insider said.
Many Insiders said the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, may not intend to go to war, but "there could be some miscalculation on the part of the North Koreans that sparks a military engagement and spirals out of control," one Insider said. Another added: "The stage is now set. The smallest miscalculation by the lowest ranks on either side of the DMZ can launch a conflict. One yank of one lanyard away from escalating hostilities."
Kim recently appeared on TV in front of a map labeled “Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S.” But not all Insiders believe the threat to attack to U.S. installations or continental U.S. is credible. "North Korea could most likely inflict significant damage on Seoul and surrounding areas via an initial artillery barrage, but the United States and South Korean militaries have not been sitting on their hands for the past 60 years," one Insider said. "They have been identifying and targeting artillery pieces, invasion routes, military installations, and other troop and government-leader locations. North Korea's initial salvo would see a devastating response, which would instantly decapitate its command and control capabilities and then systematically destroy its ability to do additional offensive action."
A 30 percent faction was more skeptical of the seriousness of the threat. "The unthinkable could always become thinkable, but it's unlikely," one Insider said. "This is only a threat to us insofar as we've chosen to put our people at risk by stationing troops in South Korea."
Nearly all Insiders said the Obama administration's response was appropriate. "Obama is taking measured steps that send a signal of resolve, while avoiding the more aggressive stance that could stoke a dangerous spiral of hostility," one Insider said.
"It was important for the U.S. to make it very clear to North Korea, as well as to China and Russia, that we stand by our ally South Korea," another added. "The symbolism of the B-2 and F-22 deployments was not lost on the region and showed how vulnerable the North's air defenses are against stealth weapons systems. The deployment of the THAAD missile system to Guam and the enhancement of our Alaskan and West Coast missile defenses reassured our population and signaled North Korea that we would defend our territory. These actions were entirely appropriate."
Still, some Insiders said the U.S. needs to do more. "Japanese responses should help here, and the U.S. needs to take the opportunity to strengthen the trilateral US-ROK-Japan alliance as the best vehicle to counter North Korean 'threats.' " Another Insider called for an audit of the North's missile capabilities. "How much of their missile threat has been validated by testing?" the Insider asked. "What do we know about their conventional- and nuclear-warhead technology? The U.S. government needs a white paper."
The remaining 6 percent said Washington's response was not appropriate. "We should be handing this problem off to the South Koreans, who have 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North," one Insider said. "The idea that we ought to leave our nice part of the world behind and make the worst troubles of the world our own is a unique neurosis of the foreign policy establishment."
1. Is North Korea's saber rattling a serious threat?
- Yes 70%
- No 30%
"The threat to attack U.S. installations is not credible. But provocations of this scope have the potential to lead to unintended escalation—and therefore have to be treated seriously and carefully."
"War by design is a remote possibility, but war by accident is not. DPRK leadership is not mature."
"Must be taken seriously because of leadership unknowns. Most likely a ploy to gain sanctions relief and monetary assistance. Wins in those areas will embolden Kim Jong Un with generals. Miscalculations are biggest risk."
"It's serious because it could lead to an accidental war—not because North Korea is likely to launch a deliberate attack by choice."
"There could be some miscalculation on the part of the North Koreans that sparks a military engagement and spirals out of control. The Young Kim Jong Un is unknown and untested, which could be a dangerous combination for a new leader trying to prove himself to his people and the world."
"But only because of dangers of miscalculation and misperception. Wars can start that way too."
"Yes, but one unlikely to lead to all-out war absent a serious misunderstanding or incident that could spark unplanned escalation. Two main reasons for this sanguine forecast: the imbalance of power favoring South Korea and the U.S., and the absence of signs of large-scale North Korea military mobilization."
"The real risk is a provocation by the DPRK against the South and an overly severe response by a very determined South Korean response. South Korean leaders will not stand by and take additional casualties without a response."
"The threat comes not from any real increase in DPRK military capability but in the increased likelihood of a series of missteps to translate into an escalation on the peninsula that will be hard to control. It's important for the U.S. to realize that alliances serve as brakes as well as commitments."
"It is a major error to think that because the DPRK has bluffed many times it is bluffing now."
"Even if Kim Jong Un doesn't mean for all of his talk and actions to actually escalate to war, the chance for an unintended war should not be discounted, especially when things like the hotline between the North and the South is severed."
"Young Kim the Third appears to be carried away by his own rhetoric. We cannot dismiss it lightly."
"Duh: June-August 1914. OK, the two are not entirely identical, but few anticipated how events 99 years ago would spiral out of control nor how interlocking alliances also made that escalation far more complicated than anyone had also imagined. The key is in striking a balance between taking the threat seriously but not feeding Kim Jong Un's seemingly insatiable ego."
"It is serious because such acts, even if there is no intent to engage in conflict, can quickly spiral out of control."
"Even if it winds down, Kim Jong Un has jerked the international community's chain, made U.S. and China look weak, and undercut the normative consensus that one doesn't make light of nuclear weapons use. It's already serious."
"The unpredictability of Kim Jong Un's regime, its willingness to push the envelope in its nuclear-weapons tests, its stridently bellicose rhetoric, its cyberattacks against the South, and its unilateral abrogation of the 1953 Armistice have combined into a witch's brew of bad options for all involved parties, making the chances of a tragic miscalculation very high."
"Their bellicose comments are likely to lead to some minor armed attack which will likely demand a response from South Korea."
"The danger is that North Korea will miscalculate, sparking an unintended but bloody conflict. North Korea would lose, but the costs in blood and treasure among all parties would be high."
"Yes, because the actions and level of rhetoric have reached a level that will be very difficult to back down from, and make an overreaction possible."
"In the sense that it closes the time gap between warning and action on our part and makes North Korea vulnerable to a mistake by lower echelon that could start hostilities."
"Better safe than sorry—we must treat it like a threat."
"Hard one is nature of threat. DPRK has adopted 2-year-old negotiating style and is dangerous but not suicidal."
"The unthinkable could always become thinkable, but it's unlikely. This is only a threat to us insofar as we've chosen to put our people at risk by stationing troops in South Korea."
"The accumulation of rhetorical and symbolic moves is obviously disconcerting, but North Korea doesn't want an all-out conflict."
2. Do you think Washington's response to Kim Jong Un's threats, including moving fighters to South Korea and boosting missile defense on the West Coast and Guam, has been appropriate?
- Yes 94%
- No 6%
"Measured and careful."
"If anything, the U.S. response has not been resolute enough. It needs to be a top U.S. priority to reassure South Korea of the reliability of the U.S. as an ally."
"Failure to respond could result in even bolder North Korea moves; their motives are really to break sanctions and win monetary support."
"Yes, but the leaks regarding White House concerns over whether we were being provocative mixed the message in ways likelier to confuse than illuminate."
"Preparing a military posture that includes defensive and offensive options is a wise move, however, talk of "engaging with North Korea" a k a negotiating/talks would just strengthen their hand and continue to validate North Korea's blackmail tactics with the West."
"All our allies are on the same page on this. We are handling this well."
"U.S. steps, including deployment of Aegis BMD destroyers, have strengthened deterrence. But this is not enough. In the past we have only passively watched North Korea launch increasingly capable missiles. Turning the cheek has not deterred Pyongyang from repeating, and now escalating, provocations. This time, if North Korea launches the medium-range ballistic missile Musudannow, which it has moved into position for launch, we should shoot it down whether or not it threatens Japanese or U.S. territory."
"After a shaky beginning, where the administration did not have a coordinated response, the actions by the White House have been measured but firm."
"Yes, can't do nothing, and we must be postured in the event of a low-probability, high-consequence miscalculation."
"It sends an appropriate message, but should be carefully calibrated as purely precautionary."
"Just proves the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place. Should be very wary about deep sequestration cuts that take away our deterrence capability and will greatly hinder our ability to respond to the next unpredicted crisis six months from now."
"Yes—BUT with one important qualification: How do we avoid not playing into that moron's hands? In other words, our reactions paradoxically also have served to enhance his stature and importance among his fellow stunted North Koreans. Striking the right balance and crafting our approach accordingly is the principal challenge facing the U.S. and its allies."
"Kim needs to understand that the next provocation will NOT be met with passivity."
These are prudent moves, but the U.S. must also plan for the possible deployment of ground forces to the theater. We should never underestimate the critical importance of U.S. ground forces in the Pacific theater."
"Unless the DPRK leadership is suicidal—which it probably isn't—they need to be reminded that in a real showdown with the U.S., the DPRK would simply cease to exist."
"It's unclear what an 'appropriate' response to crazy is. This is a Cold War response, but it’s not apparent that the logic still applies. I hope the administration knows more than the public about Jong Un's intent."
"Yes, for domestic and allied consumption. It likely has little effect on the belligerent and illogical decision-making process of the North Korean decision makers."
"The ball is now in China's court."
"A more spectacular demonstration of power might be useful—airlift and drop a Brigade of 82d Airborne in South Korea for an exercise of our ability to rapidly deploy."
"The administration should continue to speak through concrete actions rather than engage in a war of words with the North Korean regime. And we should not give into threats and reward North Korea with food or other aid."
"But inconsistent waffling from State has undermined the message."
"All you can do with these guys is threaten back in kind—a high stakes poker game with lots of bluff. They want the Kim Regime to survive, and China/U.S./ROK don't want a very bloody land war with lots of North Korean refugees."
"Washington needs to walk a fine line between reassuring its Pacific Rim allies without needlessly escalating the crisis. The strong initial response, coordination with South Korea, and a toned-down rhetoric appears to have accomplished that balancing act."
"We should be handing this problem off to the South Koreans, who have 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. The idea that we ought to leave our nice part of the world behind and make the worst troubles of the world our own is a unique neurosis of the foreign policy establishment."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the April 16, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Threats From North Korea Troubling, Most Insiders Say.