Giving Pyongyang a “Bloody Nose”

By March 1, 2018

BESA Perspectives, No. 756, March 1, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Washington’s “bloody nose” strategy against Pyongyang forces South Korean President Moon Jae-in to strike a delicate balance between the American demand to end the North Korean nuclear and missile programs and Pyongyang’s insistence on keeping these programs intact.

There is fresh talk in Washington about a new military strategy for containing Pyongyang. This will reportedly include the intensification of the economic sanctions against North Korean companies and officials linked to the missile and nuclear industry, as well as their extension to foreign entities and individuals assisting Pyongyang to bypass the sanctions. The new element in the discussed strategy is a tactical military strike on North Korea’s strategic sites that will give Pyongyang a “bloody nose” and send an unmistakable message that Washington will not tolerate nuclear threats against its homeland. Will Kim Jong-un get the message, or will he choose to retaliate for the “bloody nose” attack?

A few recent examples from the Middle East can offer a clue about Pyongyang’s possible response. The Israeli destruction of the North Korean-Syrian nuclear site in Deir ez-Zour (September 2007), for one, sent an unequivocal massage to Damascus about Israel’s red lines but did not lead to direct confrontation, let alone a full-fledged war, between Israel and Syria. Likewise, Israel’s repeated interceptions of missile shipments from Iran to its Hezbollah proxy through Syrian territory generated harsh condemnation by the Assad regime but no military retaliation. Nor did Damascus respond to the April 2017 US cruise missile strike against Syrian air bases after the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its subjects.

Yet this prolonged pattern of restraint changed on February 10, 2018, when Syrian-Iranian forces responded to the downing of an Iranian drone with massive anti-aircraft fire on Israeli airplanes. The specter of a full-scale confrontation loomed large though no one wished to start a war.

How indicative is the Syrian experience of Pyongyang’s possible response to the “bloody nose” strategy?

To begin with, it should be borne in mind that North Korea is not Syria. It has not been embroiled in a bloody civil war for seven years and its armed forces are perfectly capable of massive artillery strikes against Seoul and missile attacks on US bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. Pyongyang might perceive an American attack as casus belli, yet refrain from starting an all-out war given its keen awareness that it will lose such a war. Pyongyang’s response will likely seek to convey a clear massage of its disinterest in war while indicating its adamant refusal to tolerate any tactical attack on its strategic sites. In practical terms, this can take the form of a tactical strike on US bases in the region or a nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean.

Both Pyongyang and Seoul fear that Washington might execute its “bloody nose” strategy despite claims that the threatened attack is just a part of its deterrence posture vis-à-vis Pyongyang. By way of preventing such an eventuality, the Moon Jae-in government is trying to open a dialog with Pyongyang in order to reach an understanding that will forestall a general conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. The invitation to visit North Korea, given to President Moon by Kim Jong-un’s sister during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, opens a window of opportunity to reach an agreement before time runs out. The South Korean president will thus have to walk a tight rope between his constituents’ distrust of their North Korean brothers, Washington’s refusal to allow Pyongyang any gain without surrendering or at least freezing its nuclear and missile programs, and Kim Jong-un’s determination to gain as much as he can without giving anything substantive in return.

President Moon’s next deadline is April 1 – when US and South Korean forces will begin a joint military exercise that has been postponed because of the Olympics games. Another request by Seoul to postpone the exercise to allow the continuation of the negotiations with Pyongyang will likely be seen in Washington as an attempt to appease the North.

The Trump administration can thus be expected to pressure Seoul to hold the exercise as planned, unless Moon succeeds in reaching a deal with Kim Jong-un that will be sufficiently enticing for Washington to start a dialog with Pyongyang that will avert the need for a surgical attack.

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula, and Asian international organizations.

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BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Dr. Alon Levkowitz
Dr. Alon Levkowitz

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula, and Asian international organizations. Email: [email protected]