The North Korean (DPRK) regime conducted a series of provocative tests during March that included the test of a new missile engine as well as the launch of four ballistic missiles that fell 300 km from the coast of Japan. All this, of course, is being done in flagrant violation of the UN Security Council resolutions and is evidently aimed at testing the new US administration and the strength of its commitment to security alliances with the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan.
The regime’s latest “fireworks” cap a several-year-long period in which it has made every effort to flout international constraints on its development of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. It has already deployed an ever-growing arsenal of short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of striking the ROK, Japan and US bases in Guam. Moreover, it has tested solid fuel intermediate range ballistic missile, thereby demonstrating its further technological progress. The DPRK continues working on miniaturising nuclear warheads in order to place them at the tip of its missiles, and has a nuclear arsenal of at least 10-16 warheads plus enough fissile material for another few dozens. It seems to be making progress towards completing the development and deployment of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States or Europe, for that matter – something that Donald J. Trump promised would never happen on his watch. All these developments are taking place despite a range of economic and technological sanctions imposed on the DPRK and despite the clandestine activities of the US to sabotage the nuclear and missile programmes by cyber and other means (the so-called “left-of-launch” approach).
The governments of the ROK, Japan and even DPRK‘s benefactor, China, promptly condemned this ratcheting up of tensions. On his visit to East Asia, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reconfirmed his country’s commitment to protecting the ROK and Japan. He also declared that 20 years of efforts to contain the DPRK have been a failure, promised an end to the era of “strategic patience” in relation to the regime, and bluntly declared that “all options are on the table”, including military action. He piled pressure on China, demanding that it live up to its existing commitments to impose proper sanctions on North Korea. Militarily, the US continued its deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile defence system to significantly improve the ROK’s defence against the DPRK’s ballistic missile threat – its first elements reached the theatre exactly at the time the DPRK was conducting the missile tests. In addition, the US took the unusual step of announcing it was deploying unarmed—but missile-capable ‘Grey Eagle’ drones to the ROK in order to enhance Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for early warning. It also conducted large-scale exercises with the ROK military.
Both sides are upping the ante and might indeed blunder into an accidental war, especially as the logic of pre-emption takes hold. The DPRK regime, fearing a decapitation strike, seems to be pushing the authority for nuclear use down the chain of command and is not concealing its “first use” posture, while the ROK and the US seem to be pondering pre-emptive action of their own against the nuclear-armed DPRK. Some analysts argue by contrast that Trump administration has not invented anything new and that it indeed continues to practise a form of the same old two-pronged approach of keeping the doors open to the DPRK regime to return to the table of negotiations—while using diplomatic, military, economic and other kinds of “suasion” to push the regime to that table. Still others – for example, French academic authority on nuclear deterrence Bruno Tertrais – argue that declaring “all options on the table” has never achieved anything and is in fact completely counterproductive.
In a meantime, Beijing has gone completely all out– to the point even of applying informal cultural and economic sanctions against the ROK – to halt the US deployment of the THAAD system, rather than trying to rein in a rogue regime dependent on a Chinese lifeline to the outside world. Despite all the convincing arguments or even the evident conviction of China’s own military that this does not represent any threat to China’s strategic nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis the US, Beijing has nevertheless chosen to escalate rhetoric and actions aimed against the THAAD system. This is clearly a geopolitically motivated campaign that regards any increase of the US commitment and presence as a long-term threat to China’s regional dominance. In the short term, it is probably aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, as the ROK had previously been previously practising a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in order not to provoke Beijing or Pyongyang—a policy to which it may well consider reverting, should pressure from China be effective, or should a new ROK leadership decide to do so. At this point, it seems that both Pyongyang’s shenanigans and Beijing’s ire only encourage Seoul to stick ever closer to its security alliance with the US.
Why should this be important to Estonia or NATO? Apart from the fact that Tallinn is the closest NATO capital to the DPRK (as the long range ballistic missile flies), there are a number of reasons why the predicament in East Asia matters. First and foremost, should the region stumble into war, US attention would be fully tied up there, leaving Europe and the Baltic region completely off Washington’s radar screen. The US is a superpower, but it is capable of focusing only on one crisis at a time. The opportunities that such an “attention deficit” would present to Russia and its mischief-maker-in-chief are too numerous to elaborate. Only this time, instead of a cautious and ponderous constantly “pivoting” president in the White House, we have someone who is not particularly well predisposed towards Europe and NATO to start with (and who has some shady connections to the Kremlin, too). Come a large-scale crisis in the Korean peninsula, Europeans would certainly be left largely to their own devices in responding to any of Moscow’s aggressive designs.
Second, the credibility of the US – its commitments as well as deterrent policies and messages– under the Trump administration is being tested in the Korean peninsula, and this is not only being watched in Beijing. We have already seen how the Obama administration’s backing away from its “red lines” in Syria encouraged Russia to test the limits of Washington’s indecision – in Ukraine as well as in Syria. Whatever the US administration says or does—or, equally importantly, does not say or do—in a high-stakes game in East Asia will shape the perceptions and calculi of adversaries and allies elsewhere. Washington is now in an unenviable position: acting too tough may well set off a major war in East Asia, while being seen as soft and indecisive may invite aggression or splinter alliances in the region and elsewhere. In a similar vein, should Washington trade away THAAD deployment in the ROK as a bargaining chip for more genuine and productive cooperation from Beijing in coercing the DPRK, it would send a signal to us, on NATO’s eastern flank, that the US military posture is a tradeable commodity in “doing good deals” between the “big boys”.
Third, “strategic ambiguity” brings scant rewards. The ROK has been practicing this policy for years, yet still ended up asking the US to reinforce its military presence and enhance its missile defence shield in order to allow Seoul to be able to defend its territory and population against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable regime. The DPRK did not bother to play a subtle game and reward Seoul for its restraint and caution. In the Baltic Sea region, we have two nations also attached to a variant of strategic ambiguity, Finland and Sweden, who fear that their membership in NATO – a polar opposite of such ambiguity – would provoke Moscow. It appears that, when push comes to shove, rogue regimes hardly care about such niceties and are driven by different calculations, while for NATO continuing “strategic ambiguity” means uncertainty regarding whether, and under what circumstances, Finland and Sweden should be protected in case they get into serious trouble. Helsinki and Stockholm would do well by talking to Seoul and learning a few lessons about where “strategic ambiguity” eventually leads.
Last, but not least, developments in East Asia demonstrate that indirect approaches (“left- of-launch” combined with coercive diplomacy and sanctions) have severe limits. What really counts, both militarily and in geopolitical terms, is robust multi-layered missile defence, with systems of different allies seamlessly integrated in order to exchange real-time data; unfortunately, it seems that this is also in rather short supply. Japan and the ROK, even before the arrival of the THAAD system, enjoyed a relatively well-developed “point defence”, thanks to their investments into land-based Patriot and sea-based Aegis systems. THAAD adds an additional layer and ability to defend larger areas, but much more has to be done to enable the ROK, Japanese and US systems to interact in situations in which minutes or even split-seconds in response times may make a huge difference. Moreover, since operational THAADs are rather scarce in the US inventory, some brutal prioritisation is always necessary. Thus, THAADs in East Asia, or in the Gulf region for that matter, means no THAADs for Europe. Unfortunately, this is the field in which European NATO Allies are heavily dependent on the United States—availability of their capabilities, assets and technologies.
While NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS) strives to integrate all allied capabilities into a coherent network, we should not allow our expectations to become too high. Chronic underinvestment into defence by Europeans and the resulting capability shortfalls, coverage gaps and interoperability issues are not going away any time soon; moreover new challenges will continue to arise. For example, Turkey’s apparent inclination towards procuring Russian S-400 systems for its air and missile defence will put a serious dent into NATO’s system in a strategically crucial area, as there is no way Turkey will be ever allowed to integrate such systems into NATINAMDS.
Some countries in the Baltic region are almost “naked” when it comes to integrated air and missile defence, which represents a distinct vulnerability in the face of Russia’s air, ballistic and cruise missile threat to their territories, infrastructure, populations and military forces. Indeed, the entire European part of NATO does not fare much better, as lower-tier Patriot systems are aging, higher-tier systems such as THAAD are not widely available and US “Aegis Ashore” systems already in place in Romania (and soon to be in Poland) are not designed and configured to counter Russia’s missile threat to Europe. If and when Russia deploys intermediate range land-based cruise missiles and walks out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the entire continent – not just the Baltics – will be faced with a serious coercive threat while lacking sufficient means to mitigate or neutralise it. That much has already been acknowledged by the commanding general of the US Strategic Command. NATINAMDS design, coverage and posture must be adapted urgently to address this development as well as Russia’s missile threat in the Baltic area. The Alliance also has to maintain a close dialogue with its two global partners – the ROK and Japan – in order to learn from the latter countries’ mistakes and successes when dealing with the DPRK (and, on the diplomatic and geopolitical front, with China as well).
The Kremlin is almost certain to kick off major hysteria whenever it sees shifts in the NATINAMDS or US posture in the Baltic area and across Europe to reflect the threat posed by Russia – both for geopolitical and military reasons. Beijing’s objections to THAAD deployment in the ROK very closely echo Moscow’s campaign against the elements of the US missile defence elements in Europe, which is not surprising given their common desire to break US-led alliances and dominate their neighbourhoods. (Indeed, Moscow joined Beijing in condemning THAAD deployment to the ROK). However, that should only serve as an indicator that the Alliance is doing exactly the right thing in order to protect itself and militarily reaffirm the geopolitical reality of its primacy in the security and defence of the continent. Yet, for now, much hinges on how the things play out far away from home, in the Korean peninsula—and on whether the golfing and tweeting president in the White House gets it right.