Part One: Korean Peninsula – Of Practical Risk Management and Appropriate Duty of Care

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K. – North Korea) has carried out its seventh nuclear test in response to the latest round of sanctions and military posturing by the United States of America (U.S.) and its allies.” While this is a fiction statement, given the recent progress of the North Korean military missile and weapons program, it does not seem a far fetched headline.

In this three part series, I will provide a brief on the Korean Peninsula developments at current, the near term and far term risk management considerations, in light of the Winter Olympics and operating in the Korean Peninsula region respectively.

Despite the ongoing geo-political tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding region, the shows of force through missile launches, live war drills, economic sanctions imposition, and a nuclear device test, there remains a very low probability of an imminent outbreak of war in the peninsula.

Nevertheless, as part of a holistic and practical risk management methodology, managers with operations and personnel in the region should closely monitor ongoing developments, regularly assess and implement resources and contingency plans to account for any emergent situations associated with the region. Your organization’s proactive stance and ability to react during emergency incidents, will be instrumental in achieving an appropriate duty of care program.

While we will discuss operational tripwires in this series to help inform decision makers on key signs to consider consolidation of operations, it also important to caution against overreaction based on rhetoric and/or misinformation. Decision makers responsible for operations in the region are encouraged to take into account reliable and vetted information before taking actions such as a call for suspension of operations, and/or evacuation orders for personnel. Any aggressive reaction to unverified information or based on emotion, if not in sync with an organization’s risk profile and tolerance could impact reputation, finances, and legal liability.

Summary & Assessment

The age old idiom ‘not if, but when,’ appropriately applies to the ongoing Korean peninsula tensions – not if North Korea will carry out another weapons test, but only a matter of when. Even as a further set of economic sanctions, recently approved by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council on the country, were going into effect, North Korea responded by launching another intermediate ballistic missile test – reportedly its furthest launched yet and the second to traverse over Japanese territory recently. Regional analysts have, however ,been quick to indicate that despite the international community’s condemnation of the tests as a direct threat to Japan, further assessments indicate they were carried out in a manner indicative of risk reduction (i.e. measures were imposed to avoid untoward incidents).

Despite the sanctions aimed at pressuring the regime and curtailing their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, action and analysis show that North Korea has steadily continued, to be able, to develop its military missile program. North Korea, for its part, continues to address the international community by stating its ambition to have a full-fledged, nuclear-armed ICBM is the only true means to securing their identity and future as a country. And, reports indicate that the North Koreans are nearly at this point – with some former diplomats from the Asia Pacific (APAC) region even suggesting that denuclearization is no longer a feasible option and deterrence of use should instead, now, be the focus.

Barring any direct or perceived provocation on North Korea, Kim Jong Un will not risk his regime’s progress and survival by instigating an attack that would provoke a heavy-handed response from the international community. The U.S., notwithstanding the President’s rhetoric, (which has been labeled as erratic provocation even by Asian diplomats), will also not likely risk carrying out a unilateral pre-emptive attack. Any such action against North Korea would likely result in significant fatal ramifications against long-term allies, South Korea and Japan, whilst also wreaking havoc on the global economy.

The U.S. government, while needing to show responsive force that is reasonable to Kim Jong Un’s actions, also acknowledges that there are 20+ million civilians in North Korea alone that would need to be considered prior to any action against the North Korean regime. The civilian considerations are also a key factor as to why aid and humanitarian sanctions have not yet been leveraged. This is in addition to the fact that hundreds of U.S. citizens work and live in the concerned region as well.

Furthermore, every other country in the immediate region, including China and Russia, have their own internal and external considerations, risks, and rewards to assess regarding North Korea’s actions. The U.S. would also have to consider those countries’ reactions to any pre-emptive action on North Korea. South Korea itself is dealing internally with a public that is both exhausted and seemingly immune to threats from their northern counter-part, and protests have recently escalated against a controversial U.S. missile defense system being installed in Seongju, South Korea. China and Russia share immediate borders with North Korea, and they are at present, also not willing to risk a complete economic collapse within North Korea that could potentially drive the North Korean regime to unfathomable actions and inevitably result in hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing their borders.

Currently, the most rational option still remains attempts through diplomatic engagements and negotiations – a hopeful outcome if all stakeholders remain resolved on addressing the North Korean nuclear quest issue rather than attempting to leverage the discussions for their own gains. Although popular analysis puts responsibility heavily on China’s perceived economic leverage over North Korea, it would be prudent to acknowledge that Kim Jong Un is a leader in his own right – with a keen understanding of his ability to push and pull regional tensions – a rational small actor playing geo-politics between giants. For example, analysts have suggested that the early 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam by reported North Korean agents was carried out while he was allegedly under the protection of the Ministry of State Security of China’s government. There is also no reason to believe that Kim Jong Un could not reorient his missile’s to point towards China if the regime feels pressure from this quarter.

As a professor of political risk management recently surmised, Kim is searching for recognition – it might be negative recognition – but its global recognition nevertheless and the international community should not be complacent or under the assumption, that Kim or the D.P.R.K. is merely a paper tiger. Currently, the major stakeholders involved in discussions with the North Korean government, including the U.S. , China, and Russia, agree on the stance of not attempting to impose regime change. Any deviation from this agreement could significantly jeopardize any hopes of an amicable resolution to the Korean Peninsula tensions at present.

Stay tuned for our next installment of the series, Part 2: Short-Term Indicators and Considerations: Winter Olympics.

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The information provided to you within this analysis has been compiled from a multitude of available sources and is based on current news and analysis at the time of writing. The security team at On Call International, LLC. has provided this analysis, supporting advice and recommendations in good faith to assist you in mitigating risks that could arise. However, no implied or express warranty against risk, changes in circumstance, or other fluid and unforeseen events can be provided. Any reliance you place on this information is strictly at your own risk and expect that you will not hold On Call International, LLC. or the authors responsible for any inaccuracies, errors or oversights herein.