Had that test missile worked, it would have headed towards the Sea of Japan and my expectation was that the US Navy Carl Vinson Strike Group, which we had been told had been despatched to the waters off the Korean peninsula, would have shot it down. Then what? Emperor Kim III had ranted and raved about nuking the US should “a single bullet be fired”. Would that have qualified?
They look impressive, but they’ve got a bad habit of blowing up shortly after launching. As for nuclear warheads, they probably don’t have any – YET
The threat to use nuclear weapons against the US was repeated by North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol in a rare BBC interview a couple of days after the failed launch. Shivers ran up and down my spine when he used the term “pre-emptive nuclear strike”. A North Korean propaganda video (available at https://youtu.be/Alszb3bLhPw) shows a US city being obliterated by an H-bomb. Australia too has been directly threatened with a nuclear strike should it continue to “toe the US line”.
Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and his alleged designs for them were mostly fabrications. Kim Jong-un’s WMDs and his plans for them are not. The time for negotiation is over.
To return to my opening line, my relief was dampened by my wife’s erudite take on the failed test of 15 April. Better known for championing the cause of the burgeoning campus feline population than for her geopolitical perspicacity, she simply said, “Oh well, next time.”
For a “next time” there was sure to be. As Steve Evans of the BBC put it, Emperor Kim has learned from the experience of others – naming Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khaddafi – that giving up one’s nuclear ambitions is a self-defeating exercise. To survive, he needs nukes, and by hook or by crook he’s going to have them, and have them atop of missiles capable of delivering them far away from home. Han Song-ryol told the BBC that his country would conduct tests on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis as it saw fit, and the hell to what anyone else thinks about it.
And a “next time” there was, on the 28th. Again, the thing exploded shortly after lift-off. But there is always the possibility that it will work the next “next time”. What happens then?
Could the North Koreans carry out their threats of massive nuclear strikes?
Probably not, for two reasons. There is some doubt as to whether they have mastered H-bomb technology – a test explosion early last year didn’t work very well*. Furthermore, North Korea does not yet have functioning ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) that they would need to be able to attack mainland USA (or Australia). The threat to destroy the US using thermonuclear weapons (i.e. H-bombs delivered by ICBMs) made by Kim In-ryong, the North Korean deputy ambassador to the UN, is blustering bravado. At worst, they might have managed to attach a small nuke (Hiroshima-magnitude) to a short- or medium-range missile – nobody is sure.
There are other ways of delivering a nuke. One is dropping the thing from a plane (WW2 style), another is using heavy artillery to send the bomb on its way (trialled by the US military in the 1950s). The first is not feasible given the clapped-out North Korean Soviet-era air force which would be lucky to make it off the ground should hostilities break out. The second severely limits the attack in terms of scope, although Seoul, which is staring down the barrels of some 500 (BBC source; estimates vary wildly) pieces of heavy artillery on the far side of the DMZ, could be within range. But plastering Seoul would not be ‘nuking the US’.
Hitting a US target does not necessarily mean dropping a nuke on mainland USA. There are regional alternatives, such as US bases in South Korea, Japan or Guam, all reachable by short- or medium-range missiles. And they wouldn’t need nukes on those to cause immense carnage. We know from the assassination in Malaysia of the Dear Leader’s half-brother that North Korea produces VX, alongside which Sarin is pretty tame stuff. A hit on US bases with missiles loaded with this nerve gas is technically feasible and just as horrible as a low-level nuclear strike.
Only regime change in North Korea is going to avert the looming catastrophe. I have been scathing in these annals on previous occasions about external meddling in countries’ affairs with a view to effecting regime change, but this is different. Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and his alleged designs for them were mostly fabrications. Kim Jong-un’s WMDs and his plans for them are not.
There has been a lot of talk about a pre-emptive US strike on North Korean military targets by various commentators. I do not believe this is the way forward. It would result in a devastating war that would involve chemical and/or nuclear weapons and quite possibly cost the lives of millions in both Koreas and quite possibly elsewhere, such as Japan. As I said in my earlier article “How long until someone does something about North Korea?” (Breaking Views 3 December last year), the key to resolving the issue lies with the Beijing leadership. Donald Trump is increasingly inclined towards this view as well. But the Chinese have been downplaying their capacity to influence Pyongyang and are calling for dialogue.
This is nonsense. The North Korean economy, and indeed its war machine, are entirely dependent on the PRC. Without Chinese energy imports, there would be no fuel and no electricity. The Chinese have already been turning North Korean coal exports back, much to the ire of the Pyongyang leadership who have been making some caustic references to their northern ‘ally’ of late.
As for diplomacy. we’re beyond that now. We had a deal with Pyongyang in the 1990s which they reneged on. And there’s no point in negotiating with a regime that is evidently hell-bent on developing offensive nuclear weaponry with a view to obliterating countries they don’t like.
That the Chinese take the threat of war between North Korea and the US deadly seriously was shown by their moving 150,000 troops into the border area between the two countries once tensions ratcheted up, which according to Western analysts was to deal with an anticipated influx of hordes of North Korean refugees. The Chinese appear to be getting close to regarding their upstart neighbour as a strategic liability and are open to suggestions.
The sticking point is Beijing’s angst about having a border with a reunified Korea, especially one that has a military pact with the US. Get around that and I think we’d see developments resulting in the removal of the Kim Dynasty and the avoidance of what would be a truly calamitous war.
Korean reunification is a pipedream. North Korea is no East Germany. Other than Pyongyang, it is a backwater barely out of the Dark Ages. The place needs to be gently ushered into the modern world. This will take time – generations, even – given a people who never throughout their history have known anything but despotic rule be it in the guise of feudalism, heavy-handed foreign domination, or just as heavy-handed communism.
Rural North Korea: into a time tunnel
The answer lies, I suggest, in the UN Security Council placing post-Kim North Korea under Chinese administration (under the auspices of the UN) for the next half century or so – rather like the old UN Trust Territory system. This would provide all the assurances Beijing needs by effectively maintaining North Korea’s status as a buffer between the PRC and the South.
I do not envisage any major objections to this plan being raised at the Security Council. Russia takes a dim view of Emperor Kim III and his merry men.
But we have to get rid of the Socialist Fairyland Emperor first. I do not believe that a military option is the one to pursue. Economic besiegement is the way forward, and that is where the PRC comes in. All the Chinese have to do is pull the plug on the North Korean economy completely. A naval embargo would ensure that nothing moves in or out of the place from elsewhere.
There have been rumblings of dissent in the corridors of power in Pyongyang – defectors in 2015 spoke of plots and purges. Should push come to shove, Emperor Kim could go the way of Caligula. The Chinese, or a third party, could offer him asylum as an enticement to leave before meeting that fate.
With His Imperial Highness gone, the house of cards that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would collapse very quickly. North Korea would go the way of Somalia and Libya, but it would be too dangerous to let it stew in its own juice, and the Chinese could go in and restore order with UN authority.
The Emperor may, of course, liquidate his foes within, and try to fight it out.
Once he starts a war, it would need to be a swift one involving large-scale airstrikes on military and military-industrial units aiming for the total paralysis of the regime’s capacity to wage war. Given the reliance of the military on a crippled economy and hopelessly impoverished resource base, that should not take long. The cordon of heavy artillery threatening Seoul would have to be carpet-bombed into oblivion right at the outset – a few of those MOABs (the massive bomb used on ISIS last month) would come in handy.
Ready to roll: these tank crews, and another 4,000 like them, are ready to respond to the Dear Leader’s command to invade the South at a moment’s notice. They won’t be able to keep it up for long without [Chinese] fuel, though.
The nightmarish possibility that arises from this scenario is that Kim III brings his nerve gas and nukes into play – he could get a nuke into South Korea on the back of a truck among those thousands of tanks. Would he, though, if warned beforehand that any such move would bring about retaliation in the form of multi-Megaton strategic nuclear weapons? If survival is his main priority, he would surely desist, especially if there was an offer of sanctuary on the table and he could bolt. Again, the prospect of a revolt against him arises – there are sure to be members of even his inner circle who don’t want to end their days as wisps of vapour in a thermonuclear mushroom cloud.
This is certainly the stuff of high-risk strategies. But not as high-risk as doing nothing. The longer we leave it, the more damage Emperor Kim III will be able to do, and the more ghastly the inevitable outcome will be. Perhaps the prospect of a pile of glowing radioactive ash on their doorstep will convince the leadership in Beijing that it is time for them to grasp the nettle, failing which Trump may well be true to his word and “go it alone”, with dire consequences for all.
Come on, fellas, just DO IT!
* An H-bomb needs a little A-bomb to raise it to the temperature at which nuclear fusion will occur. The 2016 explosion was of A-bomb magnitude.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org