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. i 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.” ii
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.” iii 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.