North Korean Intentions: Avoiding Self-Deterrence by the Democracies


2017-08-22 By Danny Lam

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich believing that he settled the Czechoslovakian problem, “Peace for our time”.

Chamberlain earnestly believed that Hitler was like any other European statesman who is core concern is the survival of the Nazi German regime, and the rapid pace of rearmament by Britain, France and the USSR will deter any further adventures. No sane statesman want, or can risk another war so soon after the peace of Versailles.  Mein Kempf cannot be what Hitler really believes.

The rest, is history.

Diplomacy and negotiations relies on accurately gauging intent and long term goals of all parties.  That requires that analysts assume the perspective of the “other” side, see things from their point of view, understand their constraints, opportunities, perception of risks and rewards.

And exercise extreme caution when project our own calculus and biases onto others.

To do this requires detailed hands-on knowledge of DPRK.

Much of the institutional memory and knowledge about DPRK from the Armistice negotiations of 1953 have been lost. The Korean war armistice of 1953 was not followed by a Peace Treaty as negotiations were unsuccessful.    Few current allied officials have “first hand” experience with DPRK’s demands or negotiating stances from the 1950s.

That knowledge has been lost to allies.

DPRK have, on at least these occasions: 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2013; formally threatened to withdraw from the Armistice and resume hostilities.

This is in addition to overt acts such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 and other incidents.

In each case, things settled down, leading to complacency about DPRK’s intent and long term goals.

Another more recent source of knowledge about DPRK intentions is from the negotiations leading to the 1994 “Agreed Framework”, Six Party Talks, and other initiatives (e.g. missile technology proliferation) since.

Each of these negotiations resulted in face-to-face meetings with DPRK negotiators and senior allied officials where DPRK presented their demands.

Dr Jane Harman who visited DPRK in 1997 with a Congressional delegation, recently recalled:

“I asked a senior [DPRK] minister what it would take to get his government to stop proliferating missile technology, something our intelligence community believed they were doing. “How much will you pay us?” was his immediate reply. That North Korea views proliferation in monetary terms is deeply disturbing.   An alternative to deploying its own nukes might be to sell some to ISIS’s willing buyers and willing users.”

Allied officials in general, and US officials in particular, together with their counterparts from PRC and Russia/USSR, have generally been discrete about the demands by DPRK made behind closed doors.

By dismissing the DPRK opening offer stance as “ridiculous” and then negotiating them down to what the possible and acceptable and then only publicizing the end product (e.g. “Agreed Framework”, or “Six Party Talks”), outside observers are deprived of insights into the thought process of DPRK’s officials.

Understanding the thought process of DPRK officials is critical in gauging their motives and long term goals. Allied officials that have firsthand experience with dealing with DPRK have occasionally broken the silence and revealed what DPRK really wanted or felt they are entitled to even as they dismissed them.

But generally, there is little discussion of DPRK motives and long term intentions as the Trump Administration openly warn of war.

DPRK’s propaganda on these issues are blithely dismissed.

Western experts on Korea in general, and North Korea in particular, have by and large been discrete in sharing their firsthand knowledge of DPRK behavior and intentions with the exception of scholars like B. R. Myers (“The Cleanest Race”) who take DPRK’s intentions and perspectives as expressed in their propaganda seriously.

The conspiracy of silence by the priesthood of Korean experts resulted in an intellectual vacuum, in which allied prejudices and preconceived notions about what Korea wants is filled by our own hallucinations.   American values and percepts are projected onto DPRK as a “given”:   North Koreans are presumed to be rational actors who place absolute priority on regime survival in general, and survival of Kim Jong Un in particular.

DPRK cannot possibly be willing to risk the destruction of North Korea by launching a nuclear attack on US and Allies that will result in American nuclear retaliation.

DPRK must be deterrable if the US only strengthened missile defenses and raised DPRK’s risk and costs.

Denuclearization of Korea is out of the question.

Therefore, let’s negotiate with DPRK and get it over with.

DPRK can become a normal nuclear power like every other one before them that only possess a nuclear arsenal for deterrence.

Let’s apply these projections and see how valid our prejudices are against history.

The Nazi regime of 1938, including their Axis partners, was militarily not equal to France, Britain, and USSR, let alone USA.  German rearmament was done in breath, not depth, and not slated to be complete before mid-1940s.   Nazi Germany was not ready for war.

Yet, this same regime was not deterred from going to war and defeating all but Britain – a “mop up” operation that did not have to be finished before going to war against USSR.   The roadmap laid out in Mein Kempf was followed despite expert advice from the General Staff and the risks.

The same analysis could have informed Japan’s decision to go to war against the US in view of the advice of Admiral Yamamoto, and Saddam Hussein’s decision to fight rather than withdraw from Kuwait in the face of overwhelming odds.

Historians and war gamers can debate how these historical conflicts ended, and alternate outcomes could have been produced had Hitler defended what he had before invading USSR.

Or if Nazis made common sense realist moves like recruiting Ukrainian allies to fight the USSR. Imperial Japan could have circumvented the US oil embargo or executed a limited campaign against the Dutch East Indies to secure their oil supply or coordinated an attack with Nazi Germany against USSR.

Saddam Hussein could have withdrawn from Kuwait and forced the US to make the tough decision of invading — and then quietly bid his time while developing a nuclear weapon.

The point is, it is not at all certain from the perspective of the historical losers that they must lose.  

The same goes for DPRK – it is not at all clear that DPRK will automatically lose a war against the US and allies.

DPRK’s professed goal of victory in the Korean war is not entirely unrealistic.

DPRK’s longstanding goal and objective for the Korean war (from 1950s) is, a) expel UN (US and allied troops) from the Korean peninsula;  b) reunification of the Korean race and homeland on DPRK terms;  c) victory.    These long terms goals have not changed in decades.

Regime survival and security, particularly if it means status quo of a divided Korea with US and ROK in alliance, is not the goal for DPRK.

Professor B. R. Myers argues:   “The only logical answer is that it’s pursuing something greater than mere security — and there’s only one logical conclusion as to what that is.”

The goal is, victory defined by DPRK.

What does DPRK want as the victor?

DPRK firmly believes that they are, or will be the victor of the Korean war.    Expulsion of US troops and ending the alliance with ROK is only the first, necessary step to a peace treaty with the US.

A peace treaty, however, will not be concluded without DPRK receiving sizable compensation from the US (and allied) forces.

As recently as 2010, DPRK have demanded US$ 75 trillion in compensation from the US for the Korean war and “six decades of hostility”.   That breaks down to US$26.1 trillion from US “atrocities” during the war, and losses from 60 years of sanctions for a loss of US$13.7 trillion to 2005, plus property damage of US$16.7 trillion. Damages from sanctions since 2006 is in addition.   (See:  N Korea seeks $75 trillion).

Note that the demand is for US$ 75 trillion, or roughly 4 years of US total GDP of $18.6 trillion (2016).

The demands from other allies that participated in the Korean war under the UN like UK, Thailand, Canada, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, etc. are in addition to the USD $75 trillion from USA to 2006.

But do the demands end there?

DPRK is demanding from Japan compensation for colonialism and other wrongs.

Reviewing the ongoing debate over DPRK’s motives and long term intentions if they are allowed to develop a thermonuclear arsenal with the capability of reaching any place in the world, one is hard pressed to find any commentary or analysis that pay any attention to the financial / economic demands being made by DPRK, or, the consequences of DPRK being able to back up their financial demands with their thermonuclear arsenal.

The conspiracy of silence from “Korea experts” is deafening.

Let’s talk to DPRK, find out if their intent, motivations and long term plans have changed and make the findings public before we allow our governments to negotiate a Sudetenland compromise for “Peace for our time”.

Editor’s Note: If you wish to comment on this article, please see the following:

Conspiracy of Silence about DPRK Intentions