Who’s Responsible for a Nuclear Korean War? 2024 Edition
Two well known North Korea watchers—Bob Carlin and Sieg Hecker—have a piece out in which they conclude that:
Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war. We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s “provocations.”
It’s caused quite a stir in Korea policy circles. I like and respect both of these folks. And if you don’t follow Korea regularly, it might surprise you to learn that these guys are, by reputation, considered fairly dovish on North Korea.
The trouble is that this is a more alarmist version of what I’ve been saying since before the failed Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim in 2019. I came to this conclusion many, many moons ago because I interpret Korea structurally, taking seriously nuclear risk in relation to basically incompatible military doctrines, the balance of nuclear forces, and the situation of nuclear precarity.
It’s rather obvious, through that lens, that no amount of diplomacy gets us any further than mere crisis management unless it starts to address the size and disposition of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. And there’s no addressing North Korean nukes seriously unless we address North Korean insecurity. And there’s no addressing North Korean insecurity unless we curb our maximalist goals (unilateral disarmament of a smaller enemy is not realistic) and try to repair the larger historical relationship.
This is obvious!
On that basis, it became quite hard to say anything new about Korean security around 2020 because nobody wanted to look at or deal with the precarious reality of Korean Peninsula security.
The trends that define the situation are pretty f*cked, and the Biden administration planned from the beginning to do absolutely nothing about it. I predicted that. I was right. And it didn’t take a crystal ball—you only had to look at Biden’s grand strategy and whom he was appointing to various Korea and Asia slots.
Where I might disagree with Bob and Sieg—or where they might disagree with me—is about the inevitability of war. Nothing is inevitable. Biden could decide right now to end the Korean War, reduce US forward presence, and negotiate a series of changes in the relationship that ripen the situation sufficient for North Korea to unclench some of its nukes. Nothing is stopping that from happening except America’s primacist grand strategy, which is the only framework that justifies the weirdly obstinate conservatism of US policy toward the Korean Peninsula.
And so with that, below I’m re-upping a piece I did about a year ago in which I vented frustration about this very issue. What all of it points to is that, yes, the Korean Peninsula is a powder keg. The current administrations in Washington and Seoul are actively making it worse. And Kim Jong Un probably has concluded that he can’t deal with the Biden administration.
Far from launching a war though, Kim has every incentive to simply wait out Biden and hope for Trump. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s a gamble that’s far better from Kim’s perspective than trying to work with Jake Sullivan’s crew.
So here’s that piece from last year, which I wrote many times in different guises before last year, and it holds up so predictably well that I could’ve written it last night.