ARGUMENT: NORTH KOREAN THREAT North Korea’s Coming Breakout

Published 14 September 2023

Bad news for the world is often welcome relief to North Korea, a country that thrives in the shadowy cracks of the international system, Jonathan Corrado writes. Recent international developments have played into North Korea’s hands. “History shows that North Korea cannot be ignored. The more preparation is done today, the easier the answer will be tomorrow,” Corrado concludes.

For the past century, the Korean Peninsula has been subject to the indifferent (and sometimes hostile) twists of superpower competition. Jonathan Corrado writes in War on the Rocks thatfrom the outset, however, North Korea’s ruling family dynasts, the Kims, have learned to manipulate pattern breaks and schisms, reaping benefits from cracks in alliances between friends and foes alike. Kim Il Sung secured Soviet and Chinese support for his invasion of the South despite serious reservations in both Moscow and Beijing, and he then received security pacts from both countries during the Sino-Soviet split.

He adds:

Bad news for the world is often welcome relief to North Korea, a country that thrives in the shadowy cracks of the international system. With global cooperation plummeting and competing blocs solidifying, the near to mid-term future will offer a sorely needed means of continued survival for an unrepentant and destabilizing Kim Jong Un’s regime. Over time, this may even culminate in North Korea’s emergence out of the shadows, shielded by a patchwork of revisionist allies who are united, more than anything else, by opposition to a rules-based order that has cast these countries as pariahs. 

Three dynamics — one under way, one occurring in real time, and one conceivably occurring in the not-too-distant future — are threatening to enable North Korea’s destabilizing foreign policy practices. The first dynamic is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the second is an increasingly roguish direction for Iran and Syria; and the last is a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. All of these dynamics might help to grow and embolden the pool of nations subjected to international sanctions and opposed to the liberal international order. As demonstrated in the examples below, such countries perceive an increasingly small cost for engaging in illicit transactions with North Korea. In this way, global disintegration will provide refuge and sustenance for an unleashed Pyongyang that has unprecedented opportunities to proliferate, profiteer, and compel with near impunity.

Corrado writes that three developments are facilitating North Korea’s interests – and growing influence:

Russia:Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has already opened up new profiteering and two-way proliferating opportunities for North Korea. Previously, Russia maintained at least a façade of U.N. sanctions implementation, even if evidence pointed to infractions. Now, Russia’s hostile relationship with the United States and Europe has eroded its enforcement of sanctions.

Iran and Syria:There are two nations that have a history of engaging in proliferation activities with North Korea that are becoming increasingly estranged from the international community: Iran and Syria.

China:The emergence of these actors as a unified anti-U.S. bloc is most conspicuously evidenced by Russia and China’s “no-limits friendship” and Beijing’s ongoing endorsement of Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine.It’s difficult to imagine a likely event that would more severely unwind the gains of globalization and fracture the international community than a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Regardless of the outcome, most wargame exercises forecast that the toll in human lives would be horrific and the economic impact would be widespread, causing an eruption of unprecedented schisms in the global system. Here’s where North Korea benefits. First, the geopolitical instability wrought by the invasion would provide an opportunity for the Kim regime to provoke and compel on the peninsula in an effort to demonstrate capabilities, change the status quo in its favor, and drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea.

Corrado concludes:

The United States must expand its strategic imagination in intelligence reports and military planning. As explored in this project by the Atlantic Council’s Markus Garlauskas, the likelihood of a two-front conflict is non-zero and worth serious consideration and accommodation. Unfortunately, cognitive and organizational biases prevent the United States from acknowledging these risks and taking the proper precautions, as shown here

History shows that North Korea cannot be ignored. The more preparation is done today, the easier the answer will be tomorrow.