Riding the Escalation Ladder with North Korea Risks Intentional Nuclear War

When we speak of the possibility for the nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States to escalate, we tend to do so in the future tense. But we should recognise that we are already riding the escalation ladder, that we appear to have started that climb prior to the failure of the Hanoi summit, and that now would be a good time to get off that ladder lest the bombs that shine like a thousand suns pierce our skies.

Donald Trump’s announcement that he will reverse new “large scale” economic sanctions on North Korea seems to suggest that he has taken a step off that ladder, but that appearance is misleading for Trump has decided not to climb the next rung, for now, rather than to take a step off the rung our feet are already firmly emplaced on. We should understand that where we stand on the escalation ladder this weekend is actually higher than last weekend. Trump’s announcement means we won’t have made a quantum leap higher by the end of next weekend. What’s especially alarming about Trump’s announcement is the degree to which, as their reaction to it shows, liberal and neoconservative opinion is willing to escalate the conflict with nuclear armed North Korea. That hasn’t been the focus of commentary and analysis, but it should be.

Various US actions and statements since Hanoi support my previous contention that a critical aspect to the standoff can be found in the Melian dialogue. Recall that this was a “dialogue” between mighty Athens and puny Melos. The Athenians advised the Milesians to “get what they can get.” What we are witnessing with North Korea is a situation new to political history. It’s that simple, and that grand. Melos now can wipe out millions of Athenians, and the rational thing is for Athens to settle with Melos by getting what it can get. But like in the original version, the rational choice is being ignored. That’s because, for Washington, a key consideration is the maintenance of its credibility as a hegemonic power. Mighty Athens cannot, and cannot be seen, to settle on equal terms with Melos.

For example, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has in media interviews reiterated the so called “Libya model” whereby North Korea dismantles its “weapons of mass destruction,” so not just nuclear, and associated research, development, production, and deployment facilities. In return for this prior act the United States would end what North Korea has called its “hostile policy” including repealing economic sanctions and supporting its further integration into the international community and the Northeast Asian political economy.

In other words, North Korea must first irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons and nuclear complex and only then would the United States reversibly repeal economic sanctions and reversibly end its “hostile policy.” That is what is due hegemonic power. Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy for North Korea, in remarks earlier this month to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, repeated and reaffirmed that formula. The demand is for North Korea to accede to US terms, and what’s just as important be seen by the rest of the world as submitting to Washington’s demands. North Korea, as it has throughout the denuclearisation talks, by contrast calls for a reciprocal step by step process of détente more befitting two equal powers.

When presented thus one can see how the dynamic is redolent of the Melian dialogue, only with a twist occasioned by North Korea’s ability to wipe out major US cities with the hydrogen bomb. The Athenians stated to the Milesians that questions of right only apply to states of equal power. Pyongyang’s view is its possession of thermonuclear weapons gives it that status.

A key question here is the degree to which this revival of the Libya model postdates Hanoi. The tenor of the discussion in most outlets is that it became policy once again following the fizzle at Hanoi. That is, the US offered North Korea a grand bargain of dismantlement for sanctions repeal even support for “prosperity.” Both were to occur at the same time. The evidence to support this assumption, however, is thin and there exists some reason to question it. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken of differences over “sequencing” as being a significant problem at Hanoi. This he did at Hanoi itself in his press conference with Trump and in subsequent interviews. That, seemingly, suggests the US demands, and moreover demanded, North Korea move first and only then would the US reciprocate. Which is pretty much the Libya model. One doesn’t need to examine the entire history of US-North Korea nuclear diplomacy to see that such a position is not credible. For example, at Singapore the US, in the negotiating sessions, appears to have pledged to sign on to a declaration on the end of the Korean War in exchange for the dismantling of the facility at Sohae for hot testing large liquid propelled missile and rocket engines. Certainly, the US did not deliver on any such apparent arrangement.

As we know North Korea, as revealed by satellite imagery, appears to be preparing for a satellite launch from the Sohae facility which also doubles as a space launch complex. The earliest satellite images showing reassembly activity at Sohae publicly available date from February 22, i.e. before the Hanoi summit. That’s the same day that North Korea’s embassy in Spain was sacked by a mysterious dissident group calling itself the “Chollima Civil Defence.” Initial reports suggested CIA involvement, and Andrei Lankov in an interesting analysis, to date the best available, tentatively suggests that is likely. I am in no position to adjudicate, so will not speculate, however one aspect has been neglected in commentary. Namely, what is just as important, perhaps even more important, is what the perception of the North Koreans themselves are. Unless the state security services are in possession of their own information revealing the source of, and motives for, the embassy attack one thinks the North Koreans would take the incident to be US directed and inspired.

Both at Hanoi itself and subsequently North Korean officials have expressed the view that the offer Kim Jong-un made there, Yongbyon dismantlement for partial (post 2016) economic sanctions relief is as good as it gets, certainly now and most likely for a very long time if not indefinitely. Furthermore, they have suggested that Kim may call off the denuclearisation talks altogether in the absence of further progress. The declared stances of the two sides have hardened.

This is where the business of Trump’s sanctions reversal enters the picture. Earlier this week the US placed financial sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies doing business with North Korea. Those secondary financial sanctions, given the centrality of the US in the global financial system, are a serious matter for the companies affected and the situation is not dissimilar to the type of secondary sanctions the US has placed on foreign corporations doing business with Iran after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. They are a message to all the companies that might be doing business with North Korea just as their Iranian counterparts are a message to all companies doing business with Iran. That means they have effects extending beyond their immediate targets.

The scale of the sanctions may seem like a trifling but taking them as such would be a mistake. For example, during the Bush administration, the freezing of North Korean accounts deposited in Banco Delta Asia on, what turned out be false, counterfeiting allegations immediately after a denuclearisation agreement was reached promptly scuttled that agreement. In fact, the end of that six party agreement was followed not long thereafter by North Korea’s first nuclear test. That’s because North Korea saw the sanctions as a continuance of Washington’s “hostile policy.” The sum involved was a mere $24 million dollars. Actions such as these North Korea considers contrary to the first article of the Singapore Declaration, which calls for both parties to end hostile policies pursued against the other. Therefore, for Pyongyang, the United States in placing these secondary financial sanctions on two Chinese companies is in violation of the Singapore Declaration.

North Korea, it has just been reported, has announced that it is withdrawing from a joint liaison office, involved in implementing inter Korean economic projects, agreed with South Korea. That means the US stance on all or nothing denuclearisation is effectively blocking inter Korean détente and rapprochement. The multilateral basis of the sanctions, the requirement for US approval for their repeal, and the leverage gained because of the special role the US economy plays in the global economy, all means that peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot come without Washington’s support and encouragement. But the US is playing spoiler and that, to no small degree, is because of its need to be perceived and respected as the world’s hegemonic power. The are two ways Washington can do this. The first is by inducing Pyongyang to accept US terms. The second is by showing the world that it remains “the indispensable nation” without which nothing of consequence can be done. The requirement to maintain the credibility of US power and prestige is blocking progress toward the unification of Korea, and surely the Korean nation will never forget, if not forgive, Washington this.

Now the economic sanctions that Trump tweeted he will not implement are not these sanctions. Rather Trump is referring to additional “large scale” sanctions the US Treasury was to announce next week on top of the existing “maximum pressure” sanctions already in place. Prior to the Singapore Summit the Trump administration was set to extend the maximum pressure sanctions on North Korea, but Washington forwent their implementation as the Singapore process developed. It appears that those sanctions were set to be revived. It is these sanctions, not the secondary sanctions, that Trump stated he won’t implement. For now, that is. Speculation is rife as to the reasons for this. Perhaps Trump wants to induce Kim back to the negotiating table. Perhaps he got wind of a plan to implement additional sanctions without his approval, say by administration hard liners like Bolton, and put a stop to them when he became aware of them. Perhaps it’s further sign of an administration divided over North Korea policy. Perhaps Trump is playing a good cop bad cop routine with Bolton as his Dirty Harry. The escalation with North Korea has happened, witness the sanctions on the two Chinese entities, however the step taken, thus far, has not been as bad as that planned. Not a great reason for joy.

I’m a little bit more interested in something other than what all this means about the Trump White House, something I would regard as being more concerning than much of the above. Most liberal, but also neoconservative, opinion has lampooned Trump for shelving the planned “large scale” sanctions. Democrat legislators, liberal news reports, liberal and conservative commentators and analysts, have all widely expressed the position that Trump foolishly, as only he can, shelved those plans thus damaging US foreign policy. That’s just another way of saying the sanctions should proceed, that another (big) step on the escalation ladder with North Korea ought to be climbed. The gist of the position, and the argument underpinning it, is well encapsulated in a report by NBC News

National security analysts said pulling back on North Korea sanctions is particularly perplexing given that the economic pressure campaign is the element of Trump’s approach that has actually worked, bringing Kim to the table twice for unprecedented talks with a U.S. president.

The position appears to be; it was maximum pressure sanctions that brought Kim to the table so extending them will bring him back and make him more likely to agree to US terms. It was not sanctions, however, that brought Kim to the table. Rather, Pyongyang seeks to deepen its relations with the South and so North Korea embarked upon diplomacy with the US on the basis that by doing so it provided Seoul with the necessary political space to embark upon detente. The widespread view that maximum pressure sanctions brought Kim to Singapore is not only false but dangerous as it now encourages their extension.

Sanctions, as we know, are acts of war. North Korea in 2019, as we also know, is facing a food shortage. Almost half the population are undernourished, and food rations in North Korea, given the food shortfall, will reportedly be cut by almost half this year. Squeezing and squeezing some more a hungry society armed with nuclear weapons carries the risk of nuclear war, just as a similar policy with respect to imperial Japan risked war before 1941. That probability was realised when Tokyo rolled the dice on that “day which will live in infamy.” Nuclear conflict, at the very least, is a foreseeable consequence of a policy of graduated strangulation. That means those liberals and neoconservatives that seek the extension of sanctions, and who work to create a political atmosphere pushing toward their adoption, could be said to have intended any nuclear war resulting from them.

The concept intention includes the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions. If one were to run a red light at an intersection knowing that a very real consequence of that action is the striking of another car, and should that transpire, one can be said to have intended striking the car. Such a tragedy would not be considered an accident, rather a criminal act. In Australia culpable driving is defined under the criminal statute, in part, as when a man drives a motor vehicle

recklessly, that is to say, if he consciously and unjustifiably disregards a substantial risk that the death of another person or the infliction of grievous bodily harm upon another person may result from his driving; or negligently, that is to say, if he fails unjustifiably and to a gross degree to observe the standard of care which a reasonable man would have observed in all the circumstances of the case…

A graduated policy of strangulation risks nuclear conflict with North Korea, it is a foreseeable consequence of yet more sanctions, and so should nuclear war befall us its occurrence would fall within the ambit of intention. We are speaking here of potentially genocidal crimes. The cold war has resulted in too much confusion about the prospects of intentional nuclear war. The overwhelming consensus is that the cold war showed intentional nuclear war to be highly unlikely, a remote prospect in a world of rational states. The real danger is of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. For example, glitches in launch on warning systems that are tightly coupled and based on prompt decision cycles might lead to an inadvertent nuclear exchange. The source of the danger here is technological.

However, a reckless policy of brinkmanship that runs the risk of sparking a nuclear war, especially during a crisis, and which subsequently does lead to a nuclear exchange makes that exchange intentional. The resulting nuclear war would not be an accident. It is best regarded as an intentional nuclear war. The cold war gave us quite a few examples of brinkmanship. The universal consensus is wrong. The risk of intentional nuclear war is higher than just about everybody would grant it, and that includes the relatively high risk that both sides to a crisis end up waging a nuclear war that can be characterised as an intentional act for both.

These considerations don’t just apply to the United States. They also apply to North Korea. Pyongyang is no shrinking violet when it comes to brinkmanship. The current dynamic might, without sober heads prevailing, end up as I had argued was possible in an article published by Pursuit at the University of Melbourne.  In that article, written just before Pyongyang tested a hydrogen bomb, I argued that North Korea has an incentive to ease sanctions through manipulating external perceptions of risk, what Thomas Schelling in his classical writings on deterrence theory called “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Just as we think maximum pressure brought Kim to Singapore, so they think that the hydrogen bomb sitting atop a Hwasong-15 ICBM brought Trump to Singapore. They’re wrong, of course, but it’s the perception that counts here. Should the US continue to strangle North Korea, and block meaningful progress on inter Korean rapprochement, North Korea has an incentive to pose “the threat that leaves something to chance.” Stephen Biegun, obviously drawing from neoclassical economic theory, said as much in his Carnegie address

“The marginal benefit to North Korea of economic relief is far greater than the marginal benefit to us of partial denuclearization”

Going by Biegun’s reckoning Washington appears as if it will stick to the hard line. The incentive is not for rational Kim to accede to US terms, the Libya model is far too an irrational option, but rather to raise the marginal benefit of partial denuclearisation for the United States by raising the marginal costs, through “the threat that leaves something to chance,” of the current US approach. Even though, one might argue, the rational thing would be for North Korea, should US intransigence continue, to isolate the United States through the deepening of its regional diplomatic outreach. That appears to be the Iranian response to Trump, but North Korea appears to march to a different beat. Teheran might yet learn that the Pyongyang approach is more reasoned if only because Iran’s approach requires the cooperation of other powers too ready to cower before the wrath of the boss in Washington.

As I have written here before Washington, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, consciously ran a risk of nuclear war that JFK perceived to be “one third to even.” The crux of the issue then was the power and prestige of the United States, as it is now. Those liberals and neoconservatives that have castigated Trump for withdrawing from the “large scale” new sanctions are demonstrating the degree to which they are prepared to run the risk of nuclear war when the power and prestige of Washington is on the line. The same applies to North Korea. To safeguard the survival of the state and the highly authoritarian nature of the regime Pyongyang too is willing to run the risk of nuclear war. It is not just the United States that is in possession of a Libya model. So is North Korea. I have long noticed the degree to which Pyongyang’s media outlets reference Syria. This might be construed as Kim’s way of saying, if necessary, he too will go down swinging like Gaddafi and Assad only he can butcher more than just his own fellow countrymen.

Scott Sagan, in 2017 at the height of missile mania, called the standoff the Korean missile crisis in obvious reference to the Cuban variety. Noam Chomsky dismissed this at the time, but I think he was wrong to do so. Sagan’s conclusion was correct, but his reasons were faulty. The essence of the comparison lies in the willingness to risk all when state power and prestige is on the line and the element of the quarantine. North Korea is not like the Soviet Union, but it is like Cuba.

For reasons of state the nuclear standoff is rational even though for all of us, including your regular North Korean, it is highly irrational. We are at once reminded of the words of Mikhail Bakunin

This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries — statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors — if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labour or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

For reasons of state might yet prove to be the epitaph written upon the tomb of humanity.