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North Korean

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Adult Supervision

Here’s the scenario. Late one evening Donald Trump is watching Fox News and a report comes on that North Korea is planning to launch a missile that can reach the United States. (Kim Jong-un’s regime has said it is going to do that one of these days – but only as a test flight landing in the ocean somewhere, not as an attack.)

Trump misunderstands, and thinks Pyongyang is going to launch a missile AT the United States. After all, there was a graphic with the report that shows the trajectory of the North Korean missile reaching the US, and Trump trusts Fox much more than his own intelligence services. So he orders all US strategic forces to go to DEFCON 1: Defence Readiness Condition One – nuclear war is imminent.

The North Koreans spot all the unusual activity in the American forces – leave cancelled in Strategic Air Command, US nuclear subs in port sailing with zero warning leaving part of their crews behind, etc. – and conclude that an American preemptive attack is imminent.

The North Koreans go to their own equivalent of DEFCON 1: mobilising and dispersing their armed forces, evacuating their leadership from the capital to some bunker in the countryside, and so on. American intelligence reports all this activity, and this time Trump actually listens to them. So he orders a disarming strike on all North Korean nuclear weapons and facilities. With US nuclear weapons, of course. Nothing else would do the job.

That’s how the Second Korean War starts. Not many Americans would be killed, and probably no civilians, because in fact North Korea doesn’t yet have any long-range missiles that can accurately deliver nuclear weapons on the United States, but millions would die in both parts of Korea. With luck, the Chinese would stay out even as their North Korean ally is reduced to rubble, but who knows?

It’s just a scenario, but it’s one that keeps many people awake at night – including many senior people in the US military. That’s why reports have been surfacing recently that the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, the National Security Adviser, General H.R McMaster, and Trump’s Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, have made a secret pact that all three will never be abroad at the same time.

Why not? Because at least one very senior military officer must always be in the country to monitor orders coming from the White House, and countermand them if necessary.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these reports, but I believe them. In fact, I was already assuming that some arrangement like that was in place. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are serious, experienced and professional military officers, and it would be a dereliction of duty for them not to ensure that there is always at least one responsible adult between Trump and the nuclear button.

If one of these generals actually found himself in the position of having to stop Trump, he would face an agonising decision. All his training tells him that he must obey civilian authority, and he will certainly be court-martialled if he disobeys a presidential order. On the other hand, he must not allow millions of human beings to die because of a stupid mistake.

I’m sure they think about it, and I doubt that any of them knows which way he would actually jump if the situation arose. Providing adult supervision is a tricky business, especially when the child is technically your superior.

And having said all this, it occurs to me that some senior military officers in North Korea must face the same dilemma. They too have a child-man in charge, and they will be all too aware that if “little rocket man”, as Trump calls him, stumbles into a war with the United States, then they, their families, and practically everybody they have ever met will be killed.

Their dilemma is even worse, because they serve a petulant god-king who has the power of life and death over them and their families. To stop Kim Jong-un, if he were about to make a fatal mistake, they would have to kill him and accept that they would almost certainly be killed themselves immediately afterwards. Would they actually do that? They don’t even know the answer to that themselves, but I‘m sure they think about it.

There is probably not going to be a Second Korean War. Probably neither set of senior officers is ever going to face this ultimate crisis. A subtle form of adult supervision is exercised on a daily basis in both capitals, because even the loosest of loose cannons has to work through other people in order to get his orders turned into actions.

But things have come to a pretty pass when we can have this discussion without sounding crazy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Their dilemma…it”)

North Korea’s Nukes

The last time when North Korean nuclear weapons might have been headed off by diplomacy was 15-20 years ago, when there was a deal freezing North Korean work on nuclear weapons, and then one stopping the country’s work on long-range ballistic missiles.

If they had been negotiated with the same attention to detail that was given to the recent deal that has frozen Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years, maybe North Korea’s quest for nuclear-tipped ICBMs could have been stopped for good – or maybe not, because North Korea has always wanted an effective deterrent to the permanent US nuclear threat.

At any rate, both the nuclear and the missile deals with North Korea failed after a couple of years. Pyongyang and Washington were equally to blame for the break-downs, resorting to tit-for-tat retaliation for various perceived breaches of the deal by the other side.

But it was the United States that had more to lose, since it faced no nuclear threat from North Korea UNLESS the deals were abandoned and North Korea’s weapons research went ahead. What we have seen recently – two ICBM tests in July, another one last month, and now what was almost certainly North Korea’s first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) – is the inevitable result of the failure then.

It took a lot of time and effort to get Pyongyang’s bomb and missile programmes to this point, and it seems clear that Kim Jong-un’s regime decided the safest way to test the new weapons and vehicles was all at once. He’s right.

Stringing the tests out over a couple of years might have given the country’s enemies time to organise a complete trade embargo against North Korea, or maybe even some form of attack. The safer course was to bunch the tests up, get the outraged reactions over fast, and then hope the whole issue will fade into the background.

That’s what both India and Pakistan did in 1998, and it worked for them. Everybody eventually got used to the idea that they were more or less legitimate nuclear weapons powers.

India and Pakistan didn’t bother doing all their missile tests at once, because they had enough space to carry them out over their own land and maritime territory. North Korea is much smaller and entirely surrounded by Chinese, Russian and Japanese territory, so any long-range tests are bound to pass over one of those countries. Pyongyang chose Japan, because it is a US ally.

But even its ICBM test on 30 August, when the Japanese government ordered its citizens in parts of Hokkaido into the shelters, did not enter Japanese airspace. The missile crossed Japan at a sub-orbital altitude, and the Japanese authorities knew that it would as soon as the boost phase ended. The pictures of allegedly panic-stricken Japanese civilians in shelters were propaganda meant to serve Prime Minister Abe’s project for remilitarising Japan.

There is no good ‘military option’ available to the United States and its allies in the current crisis, even though President Trump says “We’ll see.”

A direct US attack on North Korea using only conventional weapons would not get all of North Korea’s nukes, which are hidden in hardened underground sites or moved around by night on mobile launchers. It would also call down “fire and fury” on Seoul from ten thousand North Korean artillery pieces and short-range rockets.

A US nuclear attack would probably still not get all of Kim Jong-un’s nukes: North Korea is the hardest intelligence target in the world. Pyongyang may already be able to reach the United States with one or two ICBMs carrying thermonuclear warheads, and it can certainly reach all of South Korea and Japan.

The political options for the United States and its Asian allies are equally constrained. Trump’s talk of stopping US trade with any country that trades with North Korea is really aimed at China (which already operates selective embargoes on various North Korean exports). But cutting US trade with China would cause immense disruption to the American economy, and it’s unlikely that Trump would actually do it.

Normally, when human beings encounter a problem that they cannot eliminate, they find ways of living with it. It often takes a while for them to get there, however, and we are currently in the dangerous phase where people (or at least some people) are convinced that there must be SOMETHING they can do to make the problem go away.

The only excuse for radical action now would be a conviction that Kim Jong-un is a crazy man who will use his nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, even though it would certainly lead to his own death and that of his entire regime. If you truly believe that, then the right course of action is an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea right now.

Otherwise, start dialing back your rhetoric, because you are eventually going to have to accept that North Korea now has a usable nuclear deterrent. You can live with that, because it’s better than fighting a nuclear war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“India…Japan”)

Kim Jong-Trump

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, Mr President, but I do say not more than ten or twenty million dead, depending on the breaks.” So said General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, urging the US president to carry out a nuclear first strike, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film ‘Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.’

But nobody in Kubrick’s movie talked like Kim Jong-un (“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” he crowed, celebrating North Korea’s first successful test of an ICBM). They didn’t talk like Donald Trump either (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”)

Kubrick’s film came out the year after the Cuban missile crisis, when the world went to the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba to deter an American invasion. It was a terrifying time, but neither US President John F. Kennedy nor the Soviet leaders used violent language. They stayed calm, and carefully backed away from the brink.

So Kubrick’s fictional leaders had to stay sane too; only his generals and civilian strategic ‘experts’ were crazy. Anything else would have been too implausible even for a wild satire like ‘Strangelove’. Whereas now we live in different times.

Trump may not understand what his own words mean, but he is threatening to attack North Korea if it makes any more threats to the United States. That’s certainly how it will be translated into Korean. And Pyongyang will assume that the US attack will be nuclear, since it would be even crazier to attack a nuclear-armed country like North Korea using only conventional weapons.

Maybe the American and North Korean leaders are just two playground bullies yelling at each other, but even in their more grown-up advisers it sets up the the train of thought best described by strategic theorist Thomas Schelling: “He thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will, so we must.” This is how people can talk themselves into launching a ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ nuclear attack.

Is this where the world finds itself at the moment? ‘Fraid so. And although a nuclear war with North Korea at this point wouldn’t even muss America’s hair – the few North Korean ICBMs would probably go astray or be shot down before they reached the US – it could kill many millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

A million or so Japanese might die as well (that would depend on the fallout), and a few tens of thousands of US soldiers in western Pacific bases (from targeted strikes). Indeed, as the scale of the potential disaster comes home to North Korean strategists, you can see them start to play with the idea of a “limited nuclear war.”

North Korean planners have announced that they are “carefully examining” a plan for a missile attack on the big US base on Guam. In that way they could “signal their resolve” in a crisis by only hitting one isolated American military target. Their hope would be that such a limited attack would not unleash an all-out US nuclear counter-attack that would level North Korea.

‘Limited’ nuclear war typically becomes a favourite topic whenever strategists realise that using their cherished nuclear weapons any other way means unimaginable levels of death and destruction. It has never been credible, because it assumes that people will remain severely rational and unemotional while under attack by nuclear weapons.

Thinking about limited nuclear war, while unrealistic, is evidence that the planners are starting to get really scared about an all-out nuclear war, which is just what you want them to be. Nevertheless, we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of the process, not least because the other two major nuclear powers in the world, China and Russia, both have land borders with North Korea. And neither of them loves or trusts the United States.

What “process” are we talking about here? The process of coming to an accommodation that lets North Korea keep a nuclear deterrent, while reassuring it that it will never have to use those weapons. Because that’s what these North Korean missiles and nuclear warheads are about: deterring an American attack aimed at changing the regime.

They couldn’t be about anything else. North Korea can never have enough missiles to attack the US or its local allies and survive: it would be national suicide. But it can have enough of them to carry out a “revenge from the grave” and impose unacceptable losses on the US if it attacks North Korea. Deterrence, as usual, is the name of the game.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefly said that the US was not seeking to change the North Korean regime last week, although he was almost immediately contradicted by President Trump. In the long run, however, that is the unpalatable but acceptable way out of this crisis. In fact, there is no other way out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Maybe…attack”; and “They…game”)

“Solving” North Korea

Never mind the legalities of the situation. Never mind morality either. Just answer the pragmatic question: Is it ever a good idea to start a nuclear war? Because that’s the notion that Donald Trump is actually playing with.

He didn’t say exactly that, of course. He said that “If China is not going to solve (the nuclear threat from) North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” But in the context of that interview with the Financial Times, it was clear what he meant.

Trump was saying that if China did not use the tools at its disposal (political influence, trade sanctions, withholding financial aid) to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and long-range rockets, then the United States would use the tools at its disposal (the world’s most powerful armed forces) to accomplish the same goal.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States would launch a large nuclear attack against North Korea. If you are really serious about carrying out a “disarming strike” that destroys all of North Korea’s nukes, you probably should do exactly that. (You never get a second chance to go first.) But maybe the US Air Force would promise that “precision” non-nuclear weapons could accomplish that goal, and maybe some gullible people would believe it.

It would still turn into a nuclear war in the end, unless American “surgical strikes” miraculously eliminated every last one of North Korea’s nukes at the same time. Kim Jong-un’s regime would find itself in the position known in nuclear strategy as “use them or lose them”, and it is hard to believe that it would not launch whatever it had left.

The targets would be in South Korea, of course, but probably also American bases in Japan. Maybe even Japanese cities, if North Korea had enough weapons left. The regime would know it was going under – the United States would not take this huge risk and then leave it in power – so it would take as many of its enemies as possible down with it.

North America would probably not be hit, because Western intelligence services do not believe that Pyongyang has ballistic missiles that can reach that far yet. (But “intelligence” is not the same as knowing for sure, and they could be wrong.) At worst, the victims would be one or two cities in the Pacific north-west of the United States.

This would be a very bad outcome for people living in Seattle or Portland, but it would not actually be a “nuclear holocaust”. The kind of war that the super-powers would have fought at the height of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear weapons used by each side, would have killed hundreds of millions, and might even have triggered a “nuclear winter”.

A nuclear war over Korea would be a much smaller catastrophe, perhaps involving a few million deaths – unless China got drawn in. Unfortunately, that is not inconceivable, because China, much as it dislikes and mistrusts the North Korean regime, is determined not to see it destroyed.

Many people are uncomfortable with this kind of analysis, especially when it draws comparisons between “bad” and “less bad” nuclear wars. Herman Kahn, the dean of nuclear strategists in the 1960s and 70s, was frequently the target of this kind of criticism: how could he talk about potential mass death in such a cold-blooded way?

His response was always the same: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?” “Thinking About the Unthinkable”, as he put it in one of his books, is absolutely necessary if the Unthinkable is not happen. In this case, that means taking the possibility that China might be drawn into the conflict seriously.

The destruction of the North Korean regime would bring American military power right to China’s own border. You might reasonably ask: So what? This is the 21st century, and what matters strategically is the big, lethal long-range weapons (like nukes), not the whereabouts of a few American infantry battalions. Quite right in theory. Not necessarily right in practice.

During the Korean War, when American troops were operating very close to the Chinese frontier in late 1950, the Chinese regime sent troops in to save the North Korean regime – and succeeded. The scenario this time, with nuclear weapons already being used on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea frontier, would be different, but it could be even more dangerous. China has lots of nuclear weapons, and delivery vehicles too.

Donald Trump is the fourth American president to be faced with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons, and none of them has found a safe and effective way of dealing with it. But all the others avoided making open threats of violence, because that would probably just make matters worse.

Of course, Trump may just be bluffing. In fact, he almost certainly is. But if your bluff is called, you have to go through with your threat or accept being humiliated. The Donald doesn’t do humiliation.
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To shrten to 725 words, omit paragraphs10 and 11. (“Many…seriously”)