Is the United States going to blink? With tensions on the Korean peninsula at the highest level in years, Obama administration officials have stated they are seeking to “turn the volume down.” Although avoiding further intensification of the situation is a laudable goal, telegraphing to North Korea America’s intention to descend the escalation ladder may not be the best course of action.
Pyongyang has been issuing bellicose warnings at a fever pitch over the last few weeks, even threatening a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. There is no more serious threat that one nation can make against another.
Washington’s reaction has been remarkably constrained. The publicized inclusion of B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 fighter aircraft in the ongoing Foal Eagle military exercises in South Korea was planned months ago, aimed at reminding Pyongyang and reassuring Seoul of America’s commitment to its allies. The recent decision to deploy missile defense assets to the Western Pacific, meanwhile, was both prudent and predictable given North Korean warnings of missile strikes.
North Korea, of course, claims that these annual exercises serve as pretext for an allied invasion across the 38th parallel. But it would be a mistake to take this stated fear at face value. The U.S. and South Korean militaries have been carrying out similar exercises since the 1970s and not once have the maneuvers led to an attack on the North. Pyongyang, obviously, knows this.
Indeed, Kim Jong-un doesn’t fear joint U.S.-South Korea exercises. He needs them. The exercises provide him with a pretext to accuse the United States and South Korea of harboring ambitions to destroy North Korea. A threat of such magnitude, of course, requires a strong leader and necessitates that the North Korean people make sacrifices to ensure their country’s security; living in poverty and without freedom is a small price to pay to avoid fiery death at the hands of American imperialists.
When the exercises come to a close later this month without the supposedly feared invasion, Kim will claim victory, boasting that his iron-fisted approach deterred North Korea’s enemies from carrying out their wicked designs. Kim will have bolstered his credentials, solidified his leadership, and thereby ensured the continued survival of his regime.
There is little the United States or South Korea can do to shape that narrative. But imagine the boost that Washington will give Kim now if it ditches its plan for the current exercises, as administration officials told The Wall Street Journal the United States would now do, in response to Pyongyang’s escalatory moves. Should the U.S. change course, Kim’s assertions that his actions scared off the Americans will not be spin. And due to the claim’s veracity, it will be especially effective in shoring up the support of the regime elites that are actually privy to what happens beyond North Korea’s borders.
The United States should stick to its preplanned course for the duration of the Foal Eagle exercises in South Korea. Failure to do so will convince Kim that he needs only to “raise the volume” when confronted with actions he deems hostile. Softening U.S. behavior would likewise convey to Kim that his nuclear weapons program has, ultimately, made him more secure. Neither perception should be encouraged as neither will further U.S. aims for security on the Korean peninsula. Precisely the opposite.
Accommodating Kim now may lower tensions in the near term, but long-term stability will suffer for it.
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.