Relations between the United States and North Korea have reached a nadir, and in most Western media reports it is the seemingly irrational harsh rhetoric emanating from North Korea that is to blame. Inexplicably, we are told, North Korea has chosen to raise tensions.
What is missing from this image of hostile North Korean behavior and blameless American victimhood is context. As is often the case, the media present events in an isolated fashion as if arising suddenly and without cause.
One does not have to look very far back in time to discern what is troubling the North Koreans. In recent months, the Obama Administration has taken a number of steps that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea) has perceived as threatening.
The first step on the path to worsened relations came in October 2012, when the United States granted South Korea an exemption under the Missile Control Technology Regime, permitting it to extend the range of its ballistic missiles so that they could cover the entire territory of the DPRK.  As a result, there was one set of terms that applied to every nation which had joined the treaty, and a different set applying only to South Korea, clearly for the purpose of targeting its neighbor to the north.
That same month, U.S. and South Korean military officials met for the annual Security Consultative Meeting, where they agreed to sweeping changes in their alliance. Most importantly, they developed a plan that they termed “tailored deterrence,” which calls for joint South Korean-U.S. military operations against North Korea in a number of scenarios, including minor incidents. Any “provocation” by North Korea is to be met with disproportionate force, and according to a South Korean military official, “this strategy will be applied in both peacetime and wartime.” 
An essential component of tailored deterrence is a “kill chain” for tracking and striking North Korean missile sites, in which American satellites and drones detect targets and South Korean missiles and warplanes take them out. The plan calls for a preemptive attack based on the perception of an imminent launch of North Korean missiles. Deputy Commander of the UN Command Korea Lt. General Jan-Marc Jouas explains that North Korean missiles could be rapidly targeted “before they are in position to employ.”  To put it plainly, an attack could be launched on missile sites based on supposition, even when North Korean missiles are not in a position to fire.
On December 12, 2012, the DPRK launched an earth observation satellite into orbit, triggering condemnation by the Obama Administration, which charged that the flight was a disguised ballistic missile test. UN resolutions forbade North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, but Pyongyang argued that sending a satellite into space is not the same thing as testing a ballistic missile test. Missile technology experts tend to agree, pointing out that the missile the DPRK launched lacked the performance to serve as an ICBM and its flight path took a sharp turn to avoid flying over Taiwan and the Philippines, an action that is counter-productive for a ballistic missile test. 
South Korean naval vessels managed to salvage debris from the North Korean missile. Analysis showed that a small engine with a low 13 to 14-ton thrust powered the second stage. Munich-based aerospace engineer Marcus Schiller reported that a low-thrust, long-burn time second stage, such as the North Koreans used, is precisely the design needed for a satellite launcher. Such a design is needed to attain a high enough altitude to place a satellite into orbit. That design, however, is inappropriate for a ballistic missile test, as it would cost more than 1,000 kilometers in range. To test a ballistic missile, the second stage should have the opposite design, having a high-thrust and short burn-time. Schiller concludes that Western media reports that North Korea’s satellite launch served as a ballistic missile test “are not true.” 
Michael Elleman, security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes that the results of a satellite launch “have limited application to ballistic missiles,” as only a fraction of issues can be tested. “Other requirements, most notably re-entry technologies and operational flexibility requirements, cannot be adequately addressed by satellite launches.” Elleman reports that for these and other reasons, North Korea’s satellite missile launches “are not a substitute for ballistic missile testing.” 
Interestingly, on the same day that North Korea lofted its satellite into space, India, another nuclear power, test-fired a ballistic missile without American officials voicing a complaint.  The United States is not lacking in aerospace engineers, and U.S. officials were surely aware that North Korea’s satellite launch could not be technologically construed as a disguised ballistic missile test. It appears that the Obama Administration deliberately chose to misrepresent the nature of the launch in order to further its own political ends.
The satellite launch provided the Obama Administration with an opportunity to tighten the noose around North Korea, and after extensive negotiations, it managed to push a resolution through the United Nations Security Council. As U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained it, the Obama Administration’s intent was “to continue to increase the pressure on the North Korean regime. And we’re looking at how best to do that, both bilaterally and with our partners going forward. Until they get the message, we’re going to have to continue to further isolate this regime.”
With the passage of UN Security Council resolution 2087 on January 22, 2013, new sanctions were imposed on North Korea, despite the fact that the international outer space treaty grants the right to explore space to “all states without discrimination of any kind.” 
North Korea reacted angrily to being singled out as the only nation on earth denied the right to launch a satellite. The DPRK was disinclined to acquiesce in the imposition of additional sanctions when its economy was already reeling from existing sanctions. A DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed out that by ramming the resolution through the Security Council, the United States had violated the UN Charter, which states “the Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”
Speaking at the United Nations, DPRK delegate So Se Pyong declared, “There were no less than 2,000 nuclear tests and at least 9,000 satellite launches in the world since the UN came into existence, but never has there been even a single resolution of its Security Council that banned nuclear test and satellite launch.” Adding that the United States has carried out more nuclear tests and satellite launches than any other nation, the delegate said that the United States should not be allowed to block North Korea from exercising its right “to use space for peaceful purposes,” nor to use the United Nations “as a tool for executing its hostile policy toward the DPRK.” 
To no one’s surprise, North Korea chose to express its resistance to the aggressiveness of U.S. policy by conducting its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. Several days later, in an apparent reference to Iraq and Libya, North Korean media recalled the fates that had befallen those nations that had abandoned their nuclear weapons programs in response to U.S. pressure. Those examples, it added, “teach the truth that the U.S. nuclear blackmail should be countered with substantial countermeasures, not with compromise or retreat.” 
One day after the nuclear test, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense announced that it had deployed cruise missiles capable of striking anywhere in North Korea and that it would accelerate the development of ballistic missiles of similar range. Furthermore, the implementation of the kill chain would be sped up.  Originally planned for completion in 2015, the kill chain is now on track to be in place by the end of this year. 
While discussions were underway in the United Nations Security Council on imposing additional sanctions on North Korea, the European Union forged ahead with its own set of measures, including a prohibition on trade with North Korean public entities and trade in DPRK public bonds. It also placed a ban on European banks opening in the DPRK and North Korean banks establishing a branch in the EU. 
It took more than three weeks to negotiate a United Nations Security Council resolution in response to the North Korean nuclear test. The most contentious issue was whether or not to include Chapter 7, Article 42, which would have authorized military enforcement. The United States and South Korea both argued strongly for its inclusion. Another difficult issue was the inspection of North Korean cargo ships, and there was extensive discussion before the United States and China agreed on the extent of inspections. 
The Chinese refused to agree to military enforcement, rightly fearing that it would increase the risk of war. Nor would they go along with some of the harsher measures that the United States had included as a wish list in its draft.  Military enforcement would have been particularly dangerous, given the history of how Article 42 has served as a path for the United States to wage war.
Although the United States did not get everything it wanted, the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2094 on March 7, 2013 saw it achieve many of the aims it had advocated. The resolution requires all nations to inspect North Korean ships and planes that are suspected of carrying prohibited goods. Strong restrictions are placed on North Korean banking operations. Nations are ordered to prevent North Korean individuals from transferring bulk cash, including diplomatic personnel, who are to be subjected to “enhanced vigilance” in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.  By targeting North Korean diplomats for surveillance, searches and detention, the United States aims to cut off one of the few remaining means the DPRK has for engaging in international monetary transactions. UN and United States banking sanctions have made most international banks unwilling to transact with North Korea, forcing the DPRK to conduct much of its foreign trade on a cash basis.
It is the measure restricting business with North Korean banks that promises to inflict the most harm on the North Korean economy. “Going after the banking system in a broad-brush way is arguably the strongest thing on the list,” observes former U.S. State Department official Evans J. R. Revere. “It does begin to eat into the ability of North Korea to finance many things.”  Primarily normal trade, it should be noted.
Just days later, the U.S. Department of Treasury followed up with its own sanctions, prohibiting transactions between North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank and U.S. individuals and businesses, and placing a freeze on assets held under U.S. jurisdiction. The Foreign Trade Bank, the Treasury Department points out, is “North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.”  The ban effectively prevents banks and businesses in other nations from trading with the Foreign Trade Bank, lest they are excluded from contact with the U.S. financial system. “When there’s a foreign bank that U.S. banks aren’t doing business with, banks in other countries start to avoid transactions with it,” remarks a financial specialist. “They’re worried about suffering the consequences themselves.” Typically, international trade is based on the dollar, requiring transactions to process through the U.S. financial system. For that reason, “Chinese banks aren’t going to be able to help North Korea out,” adds the financial analyst. 
For its part, South Korea has adopted policies that increase the danger of war. According to a South Korean military official, “Commanders have been given the authority to act first at discretion in the event of a North Korean provocation to inflict a retaliation that is more than ten times as harsh as the level of provocation.”  Director of Operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Kim Yong-hyon states that in response to an incident, South Korean armed forces “will resolutely punish not only the origin of the provocation but also its commanding forces.”  It does not require much imagination to recognize how such a policy has the potential of transforming a minor skirmish into a war.
The United States and South Korea have recently signed a counter-provocation plan, in which U.S. forces are pledged to provide support when South Korean forces attack a North Korean target. The plan spells out actions that are to be taken in response to various scenarios. According to a South Korean military official, it takes into account the South Korean policy, “which calls for launching counterstrikes at not only the origin of provocation, but also forces supporting it and its commanders.” In some scenarios, “U.S. weapons could be mobilized to strike back at North Korea’s territorial waters and soil.”  The counter-provocation plan requires South Korea to consult with the United States before taking action, but if Seoul requests assistance, the United States cannot refuse to take part in military operations. 
In a mighty demonstration meant to intimidate North Korea, the United States and South Korea began their annual Key Resolve military exercise on March 11, overlapping with the two-month Foal Eagle military exercise that began on March first. During the exercise, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers took off from Guam and dropped practice munitions in South Korea.  U.S. commanders knew this action would inflame North Korean sensibilities, given the stinging memory that North Koreans have of the Korean War, when U.S. bombers carried out a scorched earth policy and razed every North Korean town and city to the ground.
The United States further ratcheted up pressure on the DPRK by sending the nuclear-powered submarine USS Cheyenne, equipped with Tomahawk missiles, to participate in Foal Eagle.  Soon thereafter, B-2 Stealth bombers flew over South Korea in military exercises. “As the B-2 has radar-evading stealth function, it can penetrate the anti-aircraft defense to drop conventional and nuclear weapons,” commented a military official. “It is the strategic weapon most feared by North Korea.”  The B-2, it should be noted, is the only plane capable of delivering the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb, which can bore through 200 feet of concrete before detonating. The plane can also carry multiple nuclear weapons. Continuing to escalate the show of force, the United States next sent advanced F-22 Stealth fighter planes to South Korea.  The South Korean government asked the United States not to show the planes in public because it would be an unneeded provocation to North Korea. That request went unheeded by the United States. 
In a boost to South Korea’s arsenal, the United States has approved the sale of 200 bunker-buster bombs, suitable for targeting North Korean underground facilities. Plans call for the bombs to be deployed by the end of the year.  South Korea also plans to purchase 200 air-launched Taurus cruise missiles from Europe, which are capable of penetrating up to six meters of reinforced concrete. 
As part of its planning for future contingencies, the United States has formed a military organization responsible for entering North Korea and seizing nuclear facilities and weapons in the event of a crisis in the DPRK. In that scenario, U.S. forces would also arrest “key figures” and gather classified information. Which North Korean individuals would be subject to arrest by U.S. forces has not been disclosed. The force would be comprised of U.S. armed forces, intelligence operatives, and anti-terrorism personnel. A mock drill implementing the plan was part of the recently concluded Key Resolve exercises. 
Having done everything to provoke the North Koreans, the Obama Administration has seized the opportunity to point to their reaction as justification for deploying a wish list of anti-missile hardware. The Pentagon announced that it would station an additional 14 interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska, and would proceed with its plan to place a second anti-missile radar in Japan.  A Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery is slated to be trotted out on Guam for its first deployment,  and the sea-based SBX-1 X-Band Radar platform is moving closer to the western Pacific, in what the Navy says may be the first of other naval deployments.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the show of military force was planned, in what the Obama Administration termed “the playbook.” The United States acted with the deliberate intention of threatening North Korea. According to the article, the administration decided to place the playbook on “pause” only when the media revealed the deployment of two guided-missile destroyers to the western Pacific, and it was felt that perhaps this news risked pushing the North Koreans too far. The deployment of destroyers, it was said, was not meant to be publicized. The next steps in the playbook have been put on hold for the time being.  It has also been reported that the United States will delay a test flight of a Minuteman ICBM by one month, in order not to raise tensions.
The perception that the Obama Administration wishes to convey to the American and world public, then, is that the United States is acting responsibly in order to defuse the situation. A high-ranking defense official, however, says, “There was no White House secrecy order” regarding the deployment of the destroyers. Furthermore, recently deployed military hardware are not withdrawing, while the large-scale combined U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercise on North Korea’s doorstep continues without letup. 
Despite claims that it is toning down its actions, the Obama Administration is doing the opposite. U.S. officials say they do not intend to reengage with the DPRK.  Tailored deterrence and the kill chain are on accelerated schedules, placing the Korean Peninsula on the knife-edge of war. Meanwhile, the United States is working hard to persuade other nations to sanction the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank and is considering other ways in which it can bring about North Korea’s economic collapse. An unnamed U.S. State Department official remarked that there was still room for enlarging sanctions. “I don’t know what will succeed, but we haven’t ‘maxed out’; there is headroom, and we have to give it a try.” 
U.S. officials have asked the European Union to sanction the Foreign Trade Bank, and further discussions are expected along those lines.  Japan and Australia have already agreed to join the United States in sanctioning the bank, and Treasury Department official David Cohen and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have both asked China to do the same.  President Obama made a personal phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging him to sanction the Foreign Trade Bank, and U.S. officials continue to pressure China, insisting that if China does not “crackdown” on North Korea, the U.S. will increase its military forces in Asia. 
That outcome, the Chinese surely recognize, would be aimed at them as well as North Korea. The choice that the Obama Administration is offering is that the Chinese can either watch the United States expand its militarization of the region and tighten its encirclement of China, or cave in to American pressure and cooperate in bringing economic ruin to North Korea. It is probable that in choosing the latter option, the Chinese would discover that the United States has no intention of slowing down its Asia pivot, and its military presence in the region would grow regardless.
A diplomatic source reveals that whether or not China agrees to go along with U.S. demands, the effect on North Korea’s economy may be the same. “What the U.S. government is seeking is to put psychological pressure on Chinese banks. If U.S. banks avoid transactions with Chinese banks that have ties with blacklisted North Korean banks or other entities, it could lead to effects similar to those from secondary boycott sanctions.” 
Without question, North Korean officials and media have been issuing fire-breathing proclamations, and they have taken actions such as severing the military hotline with South Korea, announcing their intention of restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and temporarily closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which appear to recklessly exacerbate tensions. Yet, there is logic to their behavior. The Obama administration has never been willing to negotiate with North Korea, and it clearly aims to effect regime change as it piles sanctions upon sanctions and develops military plans that threaten the DPRK’s existence. In effect, U.S. actions have encouraged North Korea to develop a nuclear weapons program as its only real deterrent against attack, given the outmoded technology of its conventional weaponry.
However, North Korean officials know that the U.S. knows that they do not yet have a usable nuclear weapon, nor do they have a suitable delivery vehicle. The DPRK has limited options, and for now, North Korean officials apparently feel they have only two choices. They can either meekly accept round after round of punishment while helplessly witnessing the mounting damage to their economy and threats to their nation, or they can ramp up their rhetoric as a means of sending a message to the United States. That message is that if the United States hits North Korea it will get a stronger response than it expects, and it should think twice before striking, and the more the United States applies pressure, the more the DPRK will resist.
Unfortunately, this produces a feedback loop, where the more the United States punishes the DPRK, the stronger the North Koreans resist, and the more they resist, the more punishment comes their way. The only apparent way out of this impasse is a peace process, but the Obama Administration remains adamantly opposed to negotiations.
International Affairs analyst Chen Qi of Tsinghua University points out that the United States “did not respect the security concerns of the DPRK and that is the reason why the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has not been solved.” Chen suggests, “Washington may not want Pyongyang’s nuclear issue to be solved because it offers an excuse for the U.S. to deploy anti-missile systems and hold military drills in the region, which are in line with its military rebalance to East Asia.”  U.S. officials, it should also be kept in mind, have never hidden their desire to bring about regime change in North Korea, regardless of the dangers of that policy.
A change in U.S. policy may never come about unless South Korea firmly leads the way, and that is an unlikely prospect at present. Such a change may have to wait five years, when the next presidential election takes place in South Korea. That is a long time, given U.S. plans to heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula. If South Korea does not show leadership for an alternative approach before then, the question is how long tensions can simmer without boiling over into a dangerous crisis.
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Originally published on Counterpunch