Cancelling US-Korea Military Exercises Could Induce North Korea to End Its ICBM Program
By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
With North Korea’s successful July 4 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-14, Kim Jong-un is closer than ever to becoming the first North Korean leader to field an operational ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead.
This event has taken decades to achieve, despite all of the international political and economic sanctions against the Kim regime. And despite ongoing discussions in the U.N. Security Council about imposing more sanctions against North Korea, it’s clear that new sanctions will not change much in Pyongyang.
China’s De-Escalation Plan Is Worthy of US Consideration
The United States should accept China’s “de-escalation” plan, proposed by Beijing this week. With Russia’s support, China is proposing that North Korea declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea cancellation of their annual major military exercise, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG).
This military exercise is held in South Korea toward the end of every summer and includes U.S. participation. Despite Kim’s declaration that he will not compromise with the U.S. or the West, China and Russia have the ability to make this de-escalation plan happen.
What is ahead in the near future if the United States decides not to accept this plan? Within a year or so, North Korean scientists are likely to successfully launch a Hwasong-14 ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead.
Then what? At this point we need to assess the man who has control of this frightening capability.
Kim Jong-un’s Past in North Korea
Kim Jong-un has been the Supreme Leader of North Korea since his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011. Kim Jong-un is in his early 30s and married with several children.
Unlike other world leaders, Kim Jong-un is considered a demi-god by his people, just as his late grandfather Kim Il-sung and late father Kim Chong-il were similarly deified. Whatever Kim Jong-un decrees automatically becomes law. In fact, they could have anyone put to death for no reason and without consequences.
Kim’s Ruthlessness Shown by His Execution of Family and Government Officials
The only question asked when Kim Jong-un orders someone to be executed is “In what manner?” In 2013, he executed his uncle Jang Sung-taek by firing squad, along with all members of Jang’s family.
Defense Minister Hyong Yong-choi was executed in public in 2015 with an anti-aircraft gun. Similarly, Education Minister Ri Yong-jin was executed by a high-caliber machine gun for falling asleep during an event in 2016.
Earlier this year, five members of security chief Kim Won-hong’s staff were killed with an anti-aircraft gun for providing inaccurate security reports. Also, Kim is widely believed to have ordered his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated in a Malaysian airport terminal using the deadly VX nerve agent.
It is difficult (if not impossible) to know how Kim actually thinks because we have witnessed only a dozen or so true megalomaniacs in world history, most recently Stalin and Hitler. The combination of such a megalomaniac having ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads capable of reaching the continental United States is something we do not want to contemplate.
Kim Could Use Nuclear ICBMs to Blackmail Other Countries
Using Western rationale, no world leader would dare attack the United States with a nuclear weapon for fear of certain and devastating retaliation. However, this line of thinking would not necessarily occur to a megalomaniac like Kim Jong-un.
Without a freeze on North Korea’s ballistic missile program, it is likely that once Kim acquires operational ICBMs, he will use them for blackmail. He could threaten the United States and Japan with ballistic missile launches if the UFG exercises are not terminated.
US Should Agree to End UFG Exercises before Kim Has Nuclear ICBMs
With sufficient pressure from Japan, the U.S. would probably agree to cancel the combined military exercises. So why not agree to do so now before Kim acquires an operational ICBM force? As for replacing UFG, the U.S. and South Korea could return to holding separate smaller exercises, as they have done in the past.
With Russia and China backing this initiative, we can be fairly confident that North Korea would not acquire such a threatening capability in the near future.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He was a Defense attaché in Seoul, South Korea, from 1995 to1997.