The possible meeting between the U.S. and North Korean governments marks the first that leaders from both nations have officially talked. Beyond the impact on the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, these talks could influence geo-political situations across the world as well as how countries conduct their cyber operations. In a series of blog posts, Cybereason will explore the challenges surrounding this potential meeting as well as how these talks could influence global foreign policy and hacking campaigns. Be sure to read post one and post two.
Friday will mark the first time a leader from North Korea has traveled south of the 38th parallel since the armistice that halted the Korean War was signed. Recent pronouncements about finally converting that armistice into a peace treaty and a potential demilitarization of the border between North and South Korea are positive steps in reducing tensions in one of the world’s most dangerous hot spots. These movements toward reconciliation are a natural evolution of the North’s desire to restart their economy and get out from under the heel of sanctions. However, the recent news that North Korea has dropped the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula as a precondition to denuclearization changes the paradigm.
This move makes no tactical or strategic sense from a conventional North Korean perspective. Despite sanctions, the country’s missile program advanced last year, giving North Korea leverage over the U.S. The missile program, above all else, would force the U.S. to compromise on military matters and could force a more favorable conventional military balance on the peninsula between the North and the South. Furthermore, the removal of troops from the peninsula gives Kim the domestic leverage to explain any reversal on a missile program (assuming the upcoming talks lead to the end of North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear ambitions) that the country sacrificed so much for. The missile program worked, the imperialists are gone is how such a development could be framed.
After achieving the goal of a viable deterrent, to throw away that bargaining chip for nothing but security guarantees is more likely to have the Kim family wind up like the Husseins or Gaddafi than the Castros. Dictators who give up weapons of mass destruction have met very unpleasant ends in the last two decades. The lessons of history are one thing the North Korean government has generally been good at understanding.
Why would North Korea commit negotiation suicide?
What is driving this seemingly reckless and potentially suicidal negotiating tactic? Was the decision motivated by fear or anger? Is it just theater? Or maybe its diplomatic calculus for the new political reality?
Given the extent to which sanctions have been enforced, North Korea may be crying uncle for the first time. Despite the successes of 2017, the price has finally become too much to bear and North Korea is willing to drop some preconditions to expedite the negotiation process and end the sanctions. Couple this with an unpredictable U.S. government that’s pushing hawks into prominent security positions, North Korea may finally be breaking.
This argument doesn’t explain the aggressive moves the North made in 2017. Kim Jong Un could have started negotiations on these terms at any time. There was no need to build and demonstrate ICBM technology if he was going to squander the leverage this provided before even sitting down with the U.S..
North Korea and China’s relationship has been strained almost to the breaking point since the death of Kim Jong-Il. China’s slow, mounting pressure with sanctions has done more to harm Pyongyang than anything else. North Korea has realized that it is incredibly vulnerable to China. Oil, food, currency and information can all literally be turned off by Beijing and were in 2017. North Korea also learned that Beijing’s indifference to its survival is far greater than previously thought. The amount of pain Beijing inflicted through sanctions along with the simultaneous movement of troops to the border and discussions with the U.S. about collapse contingencies drove home the point that China does not actually care if the North survives as Beijing’s interests are served.
Being treated as a rabid guard dog rather than a cherished brother may be enough for North Korea to finally pursue a new strategy of alignment against China to hem in the growing behemoth to its north. Cutting China out of the negotiations and offering a token of goodwill to start things off would certainly open doors that would otherwise be unavailable. Kim Jong-il voiced a similar concern about China in 2000 when he stated he was amenable to keeping some forces in Korea as part of a settlement to balance power in the region.
Given the recent clandestine trip of CIA director Mike Pompeo to North Korea, the country may have already negotiated a troop alignment and will drop the precondition publicly because it was already met in private. With American first at the core of the Trump administration’s agenda, a deal decreasing forces as certain denuclearization goals are met would make sense. Fewer troops in Korea would free up resources to be used in the Middle East, reduce defense costs and demonstrate to Trump’s base that the age of needless foreign entanglements with free-loading allies is ending. A secret agreement also provides the U.S. with time to negotiate the new force posture with the South Korean government using the potential peace agreement as a justification for the changes.
Deterrence in the new millennium
Instead of drawing lessons from the failed states of Iraq and Libya, North Korea might be taking a cue from Iran. Despite significant tensions, the international community is working very hard to insure that Iran’s nuclear deal stays in place and that no punitive actions are taken against the country even as it runs a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and supports factions in Syria. While many factors explain why Iran survived while its neighbors fell, one of the major outliers to its military capability is its developed cyber program. The cyber program allows Iran to strike any potential adversary in a way that even its nuclear and missile programs can’t. This simple fact has been enough to change the risk benefit calculations of all potential combatants that fall outside of Iran’s missile range. The ability to bring the fight home to London, Paris and Washington D.C. makes it a lot harder to justify another war over things that serve no direct vital national interest.
North Korea, who’s cyber program is more developed than Iran’s, might be banking on this capability to keep the U.S. from reneging on its security guarantees. This sleight of hand will pay off handsomely if North Korea can leverage its cyber program in the same way while avoiding the enormous costs (and sanctions) associated with developing a nuclear missile program.
North Korea’s endgame is still unclear
North Korea has changed the game by dropping the troop withdrawal precondition. It is too early to tell which way the regime is leaning, but there is more to this play than simple acquiescence. The devil is in the details, but we cannot evaluate the details until we know the end game that those details will bring.
This new wrinkle serves to only increase the chance of miscalculation and will push one or more of the main players into an unenviable position. In the short term this move will make negotiations more likely but does nothing to clarify what exactly North Korea’s endgame is. It also increases the odds of the talks breaking down. The stakes have increased for all and the less predictable North Korea becomes, the more likely it will see its leverage turn into failures.