Winning the hostilities without fighting a war: US-DPRK machinations and the Korean Peninsula

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Image credit: CBS news

(this article was originally requested by and published on E-IR as ‘Winning hostilities without war: US-North Korea machinations’)



At the end of June 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)— North Korea—through the actions of the North Korean People’s Army embarked on an invasion of South Korea by  advancing toward Seoul.  This action signalled the beginning of the Korean War (1950 – 1953); and was the first military act of the Cold War (1948 -1989).[1]  Three years after the war had commenced the Republican Party in the United States of America (US) came to power largely on a pledge to end the war in Korea, and when North Korean and Chinese forces had been pushed north, back to near the thirty-eighth parallel by United Nations (UN)  forces the war ended in a ‘stalemate.’[2]   Since 1953, the US has deemed North Korea to be a ‘rogue nation/rogue state’[3] and from the perspective of the North Korean government, the war for the unification of their nation remains an ongoing and constant part of their political landscape.  Both of these standpoints have come to the fore in numerous ways in the decades since 1953.

North Korea is regarded as a rogue state by the US.  In order for North Korea to not be judged so harshly it have would engage with the prescribed norms of international politics through the prism of Realpolitik,[4] and via the avenues of the UN to find a solution.  To date North Korea has not sought a solution through these channels.   Prior to North Korea’s current series of missile launches and through overt and persistent belligerence it remains defiant; and moreover seeks to exercise political independence through a strong military presence.  The defiance toward the US and its regional allies, particularly Taiwan, Japan and Australia has come in the form of ongoing missile tests, and the continued threat-of-strikes in the region—in recent times as far southeast as Australia.[5]   The hostility of North Korea through the Kim Jong-il regime (1994 – 2011) was brought to the fore as early as 2002, when President George W. Bush linked North Korea’s non-compliance with international norms  to an ‘axis of evil’ which included Iraq and Iran.[6]  Defining the US’ position, President Bush stated

[Rogue] States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.  By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.[7]


North Korea’s choice of allies, and the ongoing threats of Kim Jong-un, continue to underpin the current crisis.


How does North Korea survive?

For all of its belligerence and pontificating North Korea however does receive support and byproxy support from other regional allies as no country in a globalized world is able to be completely isolated.  Whilst it is true that China recently criticized North Korea for its nuclear test in September 2016[8]  the regional strength that North Korea possesses essentially hinges on China’s largesse which emanates from the political, trade and energy avenues that exist through the cross-diplomacy and other auspices of the Chinese government—China is considered by the international community to be a ‘buffer state’[9] for North Korea.  Another regional power is the Russian Federation operating through the prism of ‘mutually beneficial cooperation,’[10] which offers North Korea an economic and political lifeline, as do the transnational companies utilizing cheap labour in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (in conjunction with the South Korean government), at the southern end of their border.[11]  All represent an ongoing lifeline for North Korea.

North Korea’s ongoing missile program

North Korea’s definitive and strong regional presence occurs in defiance of international norms that are designed to bring recalcitrant powers into alignment with prescribed international norms.  The norms are set by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and therefore, any deviations are able to be addressed by the UNSC through Chapter Vll[12] which stipulates, ‘The Security Council shall determine any threat to the peace, any breach of the peace, or act of aggression…’[13] however to date, the UNSC has not deemed North Korea to be a serious threat to regional peace.   Nevertheless, North Korea is currently under the caution of UNSC Resolution 2321[14] which condemns North Korea’s nuclear test of September 2016.[15]   North Korea has persisted with its belligerence in the decades since the end of fighting, although not the end of hostilities, and this has allowed the development of missile- and  a nuclear-program which have reached a troublesome point in the mindset of the West; and its regional allies—the US, South Korea and Japan in particular.

The current fear that has been generated does have solid antecedents to a kinetic outcome as the posturing of North Korea is relentless, and concomitant to this in 2009 it stepped away from the Six Party Talks[16] which began in 2003—involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the US—and were designed to dismantle the North Korean nuclear program.  Since 2009 however, tensions have continued to rise.[17]  North Korea has contributed persistently to regional tensions by maintaining a nuclear program as well as conducting short-, intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile tests.   China and Russia—both long-time supporters of North Korea—have in recent times articulated a more moderate approach to their previous stance.  For instance, Russia continues to condemn North Korea’s nuclear program,[18] and ‘in March 2013, China finally agreed to sponsor UN sanctions alongside the United States and it has, since then increased its rhetoric for the resumption of [Six Party] talks.’[19]  Although China and Russia remain perturbed about North Korea’s belligerence and missile program, they continue to maintain that bringing North Korea into more fruitful negotiations is the most appropriate recourse for a peaceful solution.  North Korea remains steadfast in its missile mbitions.


Influencing factors: domestic and international

The election of Donald Trump as the President of the US has brought about a change in the way in which the US views North Korea.  The change, it is fair to argue, is one that adheres to the political overtones of the mid-1990s Project for the New American Century (PNAC).[20]  This project was designed to re-establish US preponderance after the perceived failures of the Clinton administration (1993 – 2001) with regard to international relations.   The rhetoric of President Trump is following a core PNAC tenet which states, ‘we [the US under a Republican administration] need to … challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.’[21] The political dynamic is one of the US being more pro-active about threats and as with the machinations suggested in the PNAC document, the newfound focus has its legacy in the recent past.  Underpinning the more forceful approach and change in attitude is the political-memory and perceived malaise of the Obama administration in  dealing with North Korea which was through a prism of ‘strategic patience,’[22] which included consultations about North Korea with US allies (read: Multilateralism).

The Trump administration therefore, has brought to the fore numerous political tenets that it feels it must confront in order to differentiate from the ‘outstretched hand’[23] of the Obama administration which comprised setting a new tone for US foreign policy, and of incorporating a more bilateral approach to rogue states such as North Korea[24] and replace it with a ‘clenched fist’[25]approach (read: Unilateralism), and is one that ensures any policy toward other recalcitrant countries is backed up with a show of force or threat-of-force.  Whilst the new approach may be the opposite of the ‘America first’[26] rhetoric of Trump’s campaign—which is focussed on ‘a foreign policy based on American interests’[27]—is a moot point and need not be discussed here whereas, the post-Obama approach definitely reduces Realpolitik as a means-to-an-end; ‘brinkmanship’[28] will be met with decisive decisions and if need be, overwhelming force; and signals the US will remain a forthright actor in the region.  With regard to domestic audiences the US moving a strike group moving toward the Korean Peninsula comprises, to show Trump’s domestic audience that a more decisive president is in control of America’s geo-strategic ambit; a clear signal being sent that to that a departure from the indecision and the tolerance-base of the Obama administration is no longer in play; offers America’s allies a show-of-force assurance; that the use-of-force has been placed on the Trump administration’s agenda; and that US preponderance has been reinvigorated.   For Kim Jong-un and the North Korean military the issues are it will keep its regional status as a military power; that their current leader is as robust and capable as his father; the preponderance of the US and its regional allies will be confronted militarily if the need arises; and the sovereign nation-state of North Korea will not be influenced by military asymmetries in regional power-stakes.

Relevant addendums to this polity consist of but are not limited to, President Trump has delivered on his rhetoric with regards to North Korea within the framework of establishing a more predominant US presence in the Asia-Pacific region; of signalling that the US is committed to the Asia-Pacific security issues in general; and of showing a willingness to use military force.   This was stipulated in the first instance by the current National Security Advisor McMaster who stated “… the president has made clear he is prepared to resolve this situation one way or another,”[29] which is a direct and intentional statement giving credence to, and for, a kinetic outcome.  Whether this would be through US airpower in the form of ordnance deliverance via long-range bombers, or cruise-missile strikes would no doubt, be decided by strategic planners at the time.

The rhetoric of war and the requisite power-stakes

In 2013 the (then) US Secretary of Defense Hagel, stipulated North Korea was a ‘clear and present danger to the United States.’[30]  In 2017, the US was ‘having a big problem with North Korea.[31]  United States rhetoric has however, been moderated somewhat from the original tension-filled position to one of President Trump exclaiming he would be ‘honoured’ to meet Kim Jong-un under the ‘right circumstances.’[32]  Whether there is a kinetic exchange between the US and North Korea remains fluid, although no nation-state has reinforced their rhetoric beyond anything other than a requisite ‘display of power’ to pacify their domestic audiences—the US moving the USS Carl Vinson strike group near to the Korean Peninsula,[33] and the North Korean government warning that it is ‘ready for war.’[34]  Therefore, with the current dialogue happening—rhetoric- and tension-filled as it is—the chances of a war breaking out is diminished considerably.   There are also overarching elements that both parties would not want as an outcome and they can now be discussed.


Limited war and Total war: the challenges

There is much to be taken into account in order for a kinetic exchange not to occur.  The fear of a limited-strike escalating into a ‘limited war’[35] from which limitations are imposed.  The limitations are for the US would entail the objectives sought; weapons and manpower employed; the time, terrain, and geographic area of hostilities; and the emotions, passions, and energy, and intellect committed by a nation[36]—in this case the US.  There is also the possibility of a limited war developing into a ‘total war’[37]—especially if a ‘pre-emptive military action’[38] was launched—and this would produce a situation in  which the US would indubitably be blamed by a majority in the UN General Assembly.  If a total war developed it would be deemed by all both belligerents to ‘take on the characters of a fight for survival, they tend to mobilize resources and means to wage battles with few restraints … The goals in total wars are much more open-ended and often expand as the war progresses.  Total often demand the complete overthrow of the leadership of the other side whether through the demand of unconditional surrender…’ which would inevitably draw in other actors.

As the US is deemed the most ‘mature nation-state’ in the current machinations a kinetic exchange would by necessity, create a situation from which the US would be incapable of political extraction.  Furthermore, a unilateral action that was not approved of by the UNSC Permanent Five,[39] which is a body-politic that comprised five permanent members—Britain, China, the Russian Federation, France, and the US—would assuredly move China and Russia to overwhelmingly condemn the US; and ensure severe political responses from Britain and France.  Concomitant and reinforcing the  current state-of-affairs and because of North Korea’s limited, military capabilities by comparison to the  US, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that there can be ‘no winners’[40] in a war between North Korea, the US and South Korea.   Therefore, the chance of a war at this time has a near-zero chance of happening.



To be sure and as with any political situation there are also somewhat hidden elements that drive the need for an actor to increase pressure on a belligerent.  Whilst North Korea does have a reputation for being pugnacious even to its closest ally China there are nevertheless, inconsistencies in how North Korea is represented by the West.   The claim that North Korea is isolationist however is misleading as it has well-entrenched ties with China, the Russian Federation, and moreover based on the comments of President Bush also has a connection with Iran.  This is not a sign of a politically-isolationist nation-state and it is fair to argue, the West—the US in particular—has difficulties with the geo-strategic allies that the sovereign-state of North Korea has chosen, as much as the concerns of missile-strike capabilities.  There is another enormous issue driving the US’ need to be rid of the ‘rogue’ state of North Korea and it is the production of counterfeit US one hundred dollar bills—so-called ‘super dollars’—which North Korea has been producing since the 1970s, and are for all intent and purpose, indistinguishable from genuine US currency.[41]  Moreover, a flood of this currency onto the world market would pose a serious threat to the US economy.

Other extenuating circumstances that would impact on US World War Two dominance are a war actually happening would result in US and South Korean losses which cannot be estimated in terms of what a future political milieu would produce.  Regardless of the outcome the circumstance of going to war would allow for the possibility of a reduction in the overall regional power of the US; allow China to gain an immediate exponential geo-political and geo-strategic rise; offer an opportunity to the Russian Federation to gain regional geo-political and geo-strategic ground; include European Union involvement in political stability; and embroil other actors in asserting their regional demands. The aforementioned milieu holds the US back from a strike—pre-emptive, tactical or strategic—and whilst the ongoing  threats of Kim Jong-un destabilise the region politically, if the US thought North Korea posed an overwhelming threat to US and/or regional security it would have acted (unilaterally) earlier in the twenty-first century—possibly as early as 2002.

[1] ‘Korean War’  History.comstaff., 2002.

[2] Gabriel Kolko.  Another Century of War?  New York: The New Press, 2002, 92 – 93.

[3] A ‘rogue nation’ is an early-twentieth century term for a nation-state ‘which acts in an unpredictable or belligerent manner towards other nations; (in later use) specifically – “rogue state”.’  See: Oxford English living Dictionary.

[4]Realpolitik’ is posited in the notion of power and the desire and to a certain extent the ability to use it in a forum of sophisticated peers and recognized institutions.  Realpolitik is posited in, and summed up as ‘traditional power politics … Realpolitik [however] is a ‘jungle’, so to speak, where dangerous beasts roam and the strong and cunning rule, whereas under the League of Nations [now the UN] the beasts are put into cages reinforced by the restraints of international organization, i.e. into a kind of ‘zoo.’’  See: Robert Jackson and Georg Sorensen.  Introduction to International Relations. Theories and approaches.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 38.  Italics mine.

[5] Andrew Greene.  ‘North Korea threatens nuclear strike against Australia if it doesn’t stop ‘blindly toeing US line.’  ABCnews.  22 April, 2017.

[6] See: ‘Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address.’  The Washington Post. 29, June 2002.

[7] The address was made on January 29, 2002. See: ‘Speeches by US presidents, 2002, George W. Bush.’ State of the Union Address Library. <>

[8] Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu.  ‘The China-North Korea Relationship.’  Council on Foreign Relations, 26 April, 2017.

[9] Alexander Dor.  ‘North Korea’s Growing Isolation.’  5 Sept, 2015.

[10] For a comprehensive analysis. See: Liudmila Zakharova. ‘Russia-North Korea Economic Relations.’ Joint U.S. – Korea Academic Studies. 2016, 210 – 215.

[11] ‘What is the Kaesong Industrial Complex?’ BBCnews.  10 Feb, 2016.

[12] ‘Charter of the United Nations.  Chapter VII—Action with respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches to the Peace and Acts of Aggression.’


[14] See: ‘Security Council Strengthens on Democratic Republic of Korea, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2321 (2016).’  United Nations.  30 Nov, 2016.


[16] Xiaodon Ling. ‘The Six Party Talks at a Glance.’  Arms Control Association. May, 2012.

[17] ‘North Korea. Nuclear.’  Nuclear Threat Initiative.  Sept, 2016.

[18] Joint U.S. – Korea Academic Studies, 2016, 210 – 215.

[19] JayShree Bajorta and Beina Xu. ‘The Six Party Talks On North Korea’s Nuclear Program.’ Council on Foreign Relations. 30 Sept, 2013.

[20] The Project for the New American Century has many contributors and the directors are William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Bruce Jackson, Mark Gerson, and Randy Scheunemann.  The project was established in the Spring of 1997 and is an initiative of the New Citizenship Project.  See: Project for the New American Century.

[21] Project for the New American Century.

[22] ‘U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.’ Jan, 2013.

[23] Scott Snyder.  ‘U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.’

[24] Maria Cotudi.  ‘The limits of “strategic patience”:  How Obama failed on North Korea.’  NKNews. 2 Nov, 2016.

[25] ‘U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.’

[26] ‘America First Foreign Policy.’  The White House.


[28] According to Gochman brinkmanship becomes part of political manoeuvrings when, ‘decision makers perceive a dramatic impending shift in the balance of power in favour of an adversary and/or a substantial internal challenge to their own political position at home.’  Best included in the body of the article. See: The Process of War.  Advancing the Scientific Study of War. Edited by Stuart Bremer and Thomas Cusack.  Australia: Gordon and Breach, 1995, 97.

[29] Harriet Agerholm. ‘US national security adviser says ‘be prepared for military action against North Korea.’     1 May, 2017.

[30] Joel Wit and Jenny Town. ‘7 Reasons to Worry About North Korea’s Weapons.’ 16 April, 2013.

[31] ‘We have a big problem’ in North Korea: Trump.’ Reuters/video. 5 April, 2017

[32] Jeremy Diamond and Zachary Cohen.  ‘Trump: I’d be honored to meet Kim Jong-un under ‘right circumstances.’ CNNpolitics.  2 May, 2017.

[33] Edward Helmore.  ‘Tillerson: China agrees on ‘action’ on North Korea as navy strike group sails.’ The Guardian.  10 April, 2017.

[34] Samuel Osborne.  ‘North Korea says it is ‘ready for war’ with Donald Trump’s United States.’ Independent.     21 Mar, 2017.

[35] ‘Modern limited war required a nation-state to place artificial restraints in the conduct of war to preclude it from escalating into more total war’.  See: Adrian Lewis.  The American Culture of War.  The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom.  New York: Routledge, 2007, 203.  Emphasis in original.

[36] The American Culture of War, 203.

[37] John  Vasquez.  The War Puzzle.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 67.


[39] The UNSC P5 also has 15 ‘observer nations’ which share voting influences and are selected on a revolving basis, however these nation-states do not have the right of veto in the assemby.  See:

[40] ‘North Korea: War with North Korea can bring no winners, China says.’  ABCnews, 18 April, 2017.

[41] Moon Sung Hwee.  ‘Super Notes Still in Production.’ Daily NK.  6 April, 2009.

This entry was posted in American politics, Asia-Pacific Politics, Asian Century Politics, international relations, north korea, Rise of China, war, warfare and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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