Since the beginning of this month, we’ve been observing a worrisome episode (now toned down) of reciprocal military threats and fiery rhetoric on the part of the President of the United States and of the leader of North Korea. Some had even been worrying that such an exchange of bellicose rhetoric might lead to a full-blown conflict, even to nuclear war.
This being the case, it is time to lay down the cold, objective facts, separated from any partial or emotional stance, and then to recommend a solution to this conundrum. We will do so first by analyzing the North Korean military threat itself, then the behavior of the main actors, and then, finally, the potential solutions ahead.
- How grave is the North Korean nuclear threat ?
Long dismissed as merely hypothetical or long-term, it is actually very real right now, and has been for several years now.
It is generally agreed by now by the US intelligence community, US Combatant Command leaders, the Joint Chiefs, and even some private analysts, that North Korea has, by now, mastered the art of miniaturizing its nuclear warheads, a condition necessary to be able to deliver them by missiles. It is also by now generally agreed – as opposed to five years ago – that North Korea’s KN-08, KN-14, and Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are hardly mock-ups, but real missiles.
Few people know, however, that some US intelligence agencies, most notably the DIA, had assessed (with “moderate confidence”) as early as 2013 that already by that time the North Koreans had mastered the art of miniaturization. US military leaders have made similar comments on multiple occassions since then.
However, those warnings had been dismissed at that time as mere hyperbole and scaremongering promoted by the so-called “military-industrial complex”. The weak-kneed Obama Administration – keen not to give nuclear deterrence and missile defense advocates any ammunition – immediately walked back the DIA’s finding and declared it “inaccurate”, as did its Director of National Intelligence. Some media, as well as pacifist-oriented activists in the West, still refuse – to this day – to acknowledge this North Korean capability.
Furthermore, as the Heritage Foundation rightly points out, learning how to miniaturize nuclear warheads is not difficult because of :
(1) the vast improvement in computers and in high explosive technology over the last five decades; (2) the public availability of a vast amount of scientific data on both fission and fusion; (3) the U.S. declassification of a great deal of information on nuclear weapons technology; (4) the leak of vastly more classified information on nuclear weapons design; and (5) the proliferation of nuclear weapons designs by China and Dr. A. Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb.
As for North Korea’s ICBMs, they are in theory capable of reaching targets as far ahead as Chicago and New York City if Pyongyang were to launch them on the right trajectory, taking advantage of the Earth’s rotation. However, the reentry vehicles North Korea now has, and the payloads of the missiles themselves, would currently allow them “only” to target the US West Coast, and even that only with a single 500 kg warhead per missile. Furthermore, no North Korean ground-launched ballistic missile has, to this day, flown more than about 1 000 kilometers.
2. How grave is the current crisis/stand-off? Is there is a real risk of nuclear war?
By now, both North Korea and the US have delivery systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons to each other’s homeland. Before, the US had a unilateral advantage over Pyongyang in that regard, and even now, it has an overwhelming advantage in terms of total nuclear firepower. However, the American people – and American politicians – value human life far more than North Korean leaders, so even the destruction of a single major US city (say, Seattle or LA) by a North Korean nuclear (or chemical) warhead would’ve been a disaster for the US (though not a fatal blow, of course).
But paradoxically, as dangerous as this situation may seem, it is actually beneficial for both sides and for world peace and security.
Yes, you’ve read that right : this nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang is good for world peace and security!
The reason is that there now is a “mutually assured destruction” logic between the two capitals, so neither of them can attack the other without incurring a devastating nuclear retaliation in return. The same kind of logic which, since 1949, has assured peace and stability in Russo-American, and since 1964, in Sino-American relations.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, is extremely cruel, ruthless, and prone to grandiose power demonstrations, but not suicidal. His foremost concern – like that of his predecessors, and like that of all governments around the world – is the survival of his regime.
Which is why both leaders, Kim and Trump, have recently walked back their bellicose rhetoric.
Moreover, if there had ever been any risk of a real war reoccurring again in East Asia, someone forgot to tell the US military, which has remained at normal readiness levels throughout the crisis so far, with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan still docked at is naval base in Yokosuka, Japan.
3. So how to finally resolve this problem?
The problem is two-fold : short- and long-term.
The current crisis – which now seems to be abating – is of a short-term nature, and the solution, naturally, would be a cessation (or at least a moderation) of the rhetoric and the actions on the part of both sides. Therefore, as Russia has proposed, Pyongyang should refrain from further missile or nuclear tests, and the US should cancel its planned military exercises in South Korea. This would be a reasonable give-and-take compromise.
The trickier issue is addressing the North Korean threat in the long term.
Maintaining the status quo on the Peninsula – that is, tolerating the regime’s continued existence and standing by as it develops better and longer-ranged missiles, and nuclear warheads of ever-greater explosive power – is unacceptable, no matter what Henry Kissinger, the arch-defender of status quo in global politics, might say.
Attempting regime change by military invasion is also not an option, as North Korea could pulverize the South’s capital, Seoul, in a matter of minutes with its long-range artillery armed with chemical munitions. That is, of course, to say nothing of its ICBMs.
Trying to negotiate the North’s arsenal away is also not an option, for two simple reasons. Firstly, North Korea has already said – as bluntly and explicitly as one can – that it will never, under any circumstances, give up its nuclear weapons (not surprising, given that they need them to ensure regime survival). Secondly, this strategy has already been tried multiple times by successive US Administrations, only to fail miserably each time : the North had promised to denuclearize, or at least freeze its nuclear program, and then it reneged on its commitments every single time.
So diplomacy and “strategic patience” (i.e. ignoring the North Korean threat) have abysmally failed with North Korea, and it would be insane to try them again and expect different results. A military invasion aimed at regime change is also not a plausible option, for obvious reasons.
So what can be done ?
As recommended by the Cato Institute many years ago, the US should try negotiating a secret “quid pro quo” deal with China whereby Beijing would cut off any trade with, and supplies to, North Korea, leading to the regime’s collapse and unification with the South, and the US would terminate its alliance with Seoul and withdraw all of its troops from the Korean Peninsula. To further sweeten the deal with Beijing, Washington could also consent to a reunification (by force, if necessary) of Taiwan with the People’s Republic.
One of China’s greatest nightmares is seeing American troops again on the Yalu river, right on the Sino-Korean border, or even worse, seeing them there on a border between China and a reunified, pro-American Republic of Korea. To reassure China against such a threat, the US should firmly commit to withdrawing all US troops from the Peninsula as soon as the regime in Pyongyang collapses.
China, and China alone, now holds the key to resolving the North Korean problem in both short and the long term. It is absolutely crucial for Washington to engage Beijing on this issue.