Will the North Korea crisis hit boiling point in 2018?

Will the North Korea crisis hit boiling point in 2018?

With Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ effectively replaced by Trump’s policy of ‘limited patience’, GRI’ Alex MacLeod explores whether the Korean crisis hit a tipping point in 2018.

Another year has passed with North Korea continuing to act brazenly, conducting a number of ballistic missile tests and completing its sixth nuclear test. The regime’s missile tests and threats to “destroy the western world” have become a common fixture in today’s headlines.

Although Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is unlikely to cross the ‘red line’ by deploying Pyongyang’s missile technology in a direct, offensive capacity, the situation will not be helped by US President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and irrepressible social media outbursts. Nevertheless, Trump’s energies will be directed chiefly towards a United Nations-aligned strategy which deploys targeted sanctions against, and heaps diplomatic pressure on, countries, firms and individuals accused of supporting the regime.

Where are we now?

Although missile testing has been ongoing throughout the year, Pyongyang’s latest test, on 29 November, represented an important turning point. Launched over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and into the Sea of Japan, the new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) reached an altitude of 4,500km – higher than the International Space Station.

According to state broadcasts, the regime is now nearing the completion of its missile and nuclear weapons programme. This is most likely mere propaganda churned out by the regime, particularly with the New Year approaching; still, experts do concede that most of the US would have been within range had the missile been launched at a shallower trajectory.

How far will the North push?

Although current estimations of Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear technology vary significantly, its capabilities are likely overblown. In particular, there is debate as to whether its ICBMs are capable of surviving re-entry into the atmosphere. Should Pyongyang’s missile technology actually prove more advanced than many predicted, there would be a need to test its missile-bomb capability. The logical step for Kim would be to conduct a missile test using a live nuclear warhead. However, the risks attached to such an action would be probably calculated as too high, given that a live missile would fly over densely populated areas.

Such a provocative move, even by Kim’s standards, would not only generate an unprecedented diplomatic backlash, but due to the risk of radioactive fallout, would be deemed a ‘red line’ for many countries keen to see the regime’s end. The more likely course of action for Pyongyang will be to continue to conduct missile testing in and around the Sea of Japan sporadically throughout the year, particularly around important political events such as national days of celebration and regional political summits.

Although conservatives in the United States and South Korea believe otherwise, Kim most probably views his missile programme as a deterrent, not an offensive measure. Importantly, it is a means of ensuring his domestic legitimacy, and likely has its own momentum that would be difficult to contain even if Kim wanted to. Recall that the military is the pre-eminent, and single largest, institution in North Korean society, as dictated by the songun or ‘military first’ policy.

Trump’s bark worse than his bite

In recent years, North Korea-US relations have fluctuated between relatively low-level tension and periods of high tension, when dangerous rhetoric and demonstrations of military strength abound. Under Trump, the latter is becoming much more common. Washington regularly cranks up its rhetoric against Pyongyang, most recently threatening that the regime would be ‘utterly destroyed’ in the event of war. These threats are dangerous, as elevated tensions increase the risk of strategic miscalculation.

Research by Goldman Sachs monitoring spikes in the CBOE volatility index (VIX) demonstrated that Trump’s tweets were more influential than Pyongyang’s missile launches when it came to market reactions. In essence, Trump’s late-night tweets about “little Rocket man” have made the situation more volatile.

In any case, Trump’s bellicose rhetoric does not translate into reality – although it risks provoking the North and reducing options for dialogue. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded that Washington is hoping to avoid military confrontation, which suggests dialogue will still be on the table next year.

Meanwhile, US strategy remains dictated by broader UN consensus. In August, secondary sanctions were introduced against Chinese and Russian firms and individuals accused of aiding North Korea’s weapons programme. These sanctions were in accordance with a UN decision to target the rogue regime’s foreign exchange earnings, chief among them iron, lead, coal and seafood exports.

Trump has also insisted that all sovereign nations sever diplomatic links with the North, or face consequences. In November, Singapore suspended trade ties with Pyongyang, while Sudan and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic relations the month before. However, a variety of African countries remains supportive of Kim – and will likely be targeted under future UN sanctions.

As a result of Trump’s unpredictability, there has been growing political uncertainty in South Korea. Among conservatives and media commentators, there is a belief that the US cannot provide adequate protection under Trump. These groups have urged for stronger pre-emptive measures and retaliatory capabilities, including the implementation of a nuclear weapons programme. Although South Korean President Moon Jae-in is taking steps to quell this pressure, next year he will face battles with prominent conservatives who argue for even more severe options.

The role of China

The main obstacle to Trump’s sanctions strategy is the power of UN Security Council member China. China maintains close relations with North Korea, which acts as a buffer between China and South Korea. China has become increasingly assertive with the North, as China is impatient with its erratic behaviour. This impatience is driven by a concern that a major crisis would drive a massive influx of refugees across the border into northern China. But for the same reason, China has long resisted attempts to impose the strongest sanctions on North Korea – such as cutting off the North’s oil supply or freezing Kim’s assets – as it is wary of the effects that economic instability could bring. In late December media did report that China had finally agreed to an embargo on oil trade with Pyongyang. However, subsequent accusations that China has already breached this promise suggest that what China says and what it does may prove very different in reality.

Even in the face of existing restrictions, Pyongyang will be able to develop its nuclear programme through the use of ‘slush funds’. These slush funds refer to the money stored within Chinese banks used for illicit purposes and closely managed by a sub-branch of the North Korean regime. It is possible that the US will introduce more stringent sanctions against Chinese banks next year – but the effectiveness of further sanctions is less than certain, and will probably meet with another veto from Beijing.

With the potential for ever stronger sanctions, the UN Security Council risks fragmentation on the Korea question, with China merely giving the illusion of cooperation. Former Washington sanctions policy official Richard Nephew warned that without a broader strategy for those sanctions, there is a risk of ‘using sanctions for sanctions’ sake’. Sanctions will only work if backed by a unified message of condemnation from UN members. Aside from significantly watering down the UN’s sanctions proposals, persistent vetoes or even abstentions from Beijing signal to Pyongyang that China is unwilling to dance to the tune of the UN when it comes to punishing North Korea.

There is a low risk of outright conflict over North Korea affecting Chinese territory, and thus limited incentive to act more harshly just yet. But the North will present a persistent security dilemma for China over the next 12 months, so Beijing’s North Korea policy could become increasingly stringent.

For now, China prefers the diplomatic route. In November it called for an end to joint South Korea-US military exercises in return for a denuclearisation commitment from North Korea. Given the entrenched military alliance of both countries, this is highly unlikely. They rejected the proposal, although Beijing is likely to continue to push the issue, which it sees as the best way to de-escalate tensions.


Little will change with regard to the material danger that North Korea’s neighbours face. Even with the North constituting an ever-growing security threat, any military confrontation will remain highly localised. The main, and enduring source of risk will arise from sporadic incidents of violence along the demilitarised zone (DMZ).

Despite the ineffectiveness of sanctions, the possibility of the US opting even for limited military strikes remains unlikely. Given the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, the recent ramping up of pressure could be ascribed to the US and Koreans’ desire to send a strong message and avoid an escalation taking place around that time.

The geopolitical stalemate regarding the acceptable role that China should play will constitute the more important battleground next year. While Beijing will argue that applying pressure on Pyongyang may lead to economic and political instability that ultimately compromises China’s security interests along the North Korea border, this line of argument will be increasingly indefensible should Kim continue to act in ways that undermine the stability of the entire Pacific region.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at https://seaofrisk.wordpress.com/