We're in for a Bumpy Ride
This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia Pacific Watch List.”
By Greg Chaffin
December 19, 2013
Following a tumultuous 2013, the Korean Peninsula is likely to remain a hotbed of tension and instability in 2014, threatening the security of Northeast Asia. After a successful long-range rocket test in December 2012, North Korea responded to renewed international pressure by conducting its third nuclear weapons test in February 2013, kicking off a period of heightened tension across the 38th parallel that lasted for two months before finally receding.
Although the threat of renewed conflict remains ever present, it would appear that Pyongyang has taken on a more cautious approach in light of the strong stance adopted by Seoul and the continued deterrent of combined U.S. and South Korean military power. Nevertheless, 2014 is likely to see Pyongyang continue to engage in destabilizing actions, such as additional missile and nuclear tests.
As North Korea moves forward with the implementation of the “byungjin line” (the new strategic line)—which is not only aimed at stimulating its long-stagnant economy but also a tacit admission that its security can no longer be assured through conventional means—the regime has assigned even greater importance to its nascent nuclear capabilities as a means of deterring external threats and securing its survival. However, as Pyongyang shifts toward what analyst John Park describes in Strategic Asia 2013–14 as a “North Korean New Look policy,” it must first realize an operational nuclear capability. Additional missile and nuclear tests will be required in order to realize this goal. With the regime now seemingly intent on establishing a nuclear deterrent capability as the central pillar of its security policy, expect North Korea to conduct additional long-range missile and even nuclear warhead tests in the coming year, potentially including tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Following the execution of regime elder Jang Song-thaek, uncertainty over the regime’s internal situation will negatively affect stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the broader region. With the regime apparently entering a transitional phase wherein Kim Jong-un attempts to divest power from his regents—what some North Korea watchers have termed the “consolidation phase”—Pyongyang may be increasingly turning its strategic focus inward. During this period, it is likely that North Korea will be unwilling to engage in any serious negotiations with the international community, although it may feign interest as a means of ensuring a more benign external environment while the internal transition takes place. It is also likely that North Korea may carry out some low-level provocation as a means of securing domestic support for the regime—especially from the military—during a period of potential vulnerability. Indeed, it is possible that North Korea may pursue these two separate courses simultaneously.
The United States and its Asian allies are therefore likely to face continued challenges from North Korea in 2014. With the near-term prospect of restarting denuclearization negotiations being poor, the best option available to Washington may be to maintain pressure on Pyongyang, prepare for more provocations, and continue to enhance the ability of South Korea and Japan to defend themselves from a North Korean attack.
Greg Chaffin is a Project Associate in the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR, where he coordinates research, publications, and logistics for a range of programs, including Strategic Asia, PLA Studies, and the John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies.