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America Is on a Dangerous Path to a Second Korean War

North Korean soldiers poster at the military march in Pyongyang. Pyongyang, North Korea, Jul 2013.
Photo Credit: Astrelok

Most people intuitively get it. An American surety strike to clean out North Korea’s nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, or a commando raid launched with the same thought in mind, is likely to trigger a sequence of events culminating in catastrophe.  That would be loyal above all for the roughly 76 million Koreans vital on presumably side of the Demilitarized Zone. Donald Trump, though, seems unperturbed. His new grant to defusing the predicament there: boasting that his nuclear pitch is “bigger and some-more powerful” than that of North Korean personality Kim Jong-un.

The president’s high school locker-room bragging supposing abounding element for comedians and maybe for shrinks.  Meanwhile, there stays the stability risk of a fight in the Koreas, presumably intentional or triggered accidently by a ship seized, an aircraft downed, a vigilance misread… you get the picture.  No critical person could boot this scenario, but even the experts who lane the justification closely for a vital differ on just how illusive it is.  In part, that’s because, like everybody else, they must reckon with a gigantic furious label — and I’m not articulate about Kim Jong-un.

The Pessimists


On one side are those who warn that President Trump isn’t blowing smoke when he talks, or tweets, about destroying North Korea’s nuclear warheads and missiles, the infrastructure ancillary them, and presumably even the whole country.  By now, it’s common trust that his inhabitant confidence officials — municipal and military (the eminence having confused in the Trump era) — have been crafting plans to strike before that country’s nuclear arsenal becomes entirely operational.  

No one who listened to PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff interviewingNational Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster just after the Trump administration expelled its National Security Strategy in Dec could simply boot the warnings as those of so many Cassandras.  McMaster dutifully epitomised that document, which enclosed a oath to “respond with strenuous force to North Korean charge and urge options to enforce denuclearization.”  When Woodruff then asked presumably he believed fight was apropos some-more likely by the day, he agreed, adding that “the boss has asked us to continue to labour a military option, should we need to use it.”

Others who should be in the know have offering even scarier prognoses.  During an talk with ABC News on the last day of 2017, former authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen claimed that, while McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis had stayed Trump’s palm so far, their ability to continue to curb such a “disruptive” and “unpredictable” boss was diminishing. “We’re actually closer to nuclear fight with North Korea and in that region,” he concluded, “than we’ve ever been.”

Then there’s Trump himself.  He has enlarged given changed from saying, as he did last May, that he would “be honored” to meet Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances” to warning, in August, that if North Korea threatened the United States, it would “be met with fire and ire like the universe has never seen.” In September, he upped the ante again in a speech to the U.N., dogmatic that he would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if that were indispensable to urge the United States. 

Left vague was Trump’s clarification of “defend.”  Would additional North Korean nuclear and barb tests poise a sufficient hazard for him to sequence a surety war?  Was his red line a entirely operational North Korean nuclear force?  Or did he meant that he would retort in kind only if Pyongyang were to attack the United States, Japan, or South Korea with nuclear weapons? If presumably the first or second unfolding represents his threshold, then Mullen’s apocalyptic comment can’t be ignored as hyperbole. If it’s the third, the universe can breathe a bit easier for now, given there’s no fathomable reason for Kim Jong-un to attack a country with nuclear weapons, smallest of all the United States, solely in response to the intensity drop of his state.

In his latest gyration, having unsuccessful to shock Kim into denuclearization, Trump has welcomed talks between Seoul and Pyongyang that he had only recently ignored and, predictably, taken credit for a spin of events that has sidelined him.  He even suggested that the United States could eventually join the negotiations, meant in partial to forestall a dispute during the Feb Winter Olympics in Seoul, and reacted definitely to the luck that they competence continue even after the games end.

Of course, this boss can spin on a dime, so such difference meant next to zero and should offer no solace.  After all, on two occasions he derided Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to defuse the predicament by negotiations, declaring, “I told Rex Tillerson, a smashing Secretary of State, that he’s wasting his time trying to negotiate with little Rocket Man.  Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”

The Optimists (Well, Sort Of)

On the hostile side of the how-likely-is-war discuss are the optimists, a opposite sect of journalists, ex-officials, and policy wonks.  Their simple indicate boils down to this: yes, Trump has finished fire-and-brimstone statements about North Korea, but marker up the unconstrained lecture to his problem with incentive control and his enterprise to feed red beef to his base, while scaring Kim.  

Unfortunately, you can’t put much batch in this take presumably — not once you consider the concomitant caveats.  Gideon Rachman, an Asia dilettante and Financial Times columnist, is standard of this organisation in concluding that fight on the Korean peninsula is doubtful — only to collate the stream atmosphere in Washington to the one that prevailed just before the 2003 Bush administration advance of Iraq.  For good measure, he adds that Lindsey Graham — super-hawk, Trump playmate (to the extent that anyone is), and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — believes that fight is “inevitable.” (This is optimism?)  Rachman’s fallback thought is that Australia, Japan, and South Korea won’t support a surety strike on North Korea.  Now ask yourself this: How mostly does Donald Trump take others’ advice?  When is the last time you listened him contend “multilateralism”?

Jeffrey Lewis, a well-regarded consultant on nuclear weapons, discounts the odds of fight for a opposite reason.  He thinks Trump’s lecture is so much bluster, designed to tinkle Kim’s nerves and drive the North Korean personality to relinquish his nuclear cache lest an out-of-control American boss burn his regime.  Given what we now know about the benefaction passenger of the Oval Office, that competence be a modestly convincing suspicion if Lewis didn’t deliver his own qualifiers.  He believes Trump’s faith that China, in hopes of getting mercantile rewards from the United States, will eventually convince (or coerce) Kim to denuclearize is unnoticed given Beijing lacks the required poke in Pyongyang.  Indeed, Kim doesn’t trust China and has killed or sidelined those whom he suspects of being pro-Chinese.  

Lewis also lays out a operation of possibilities, any of which could trigger a spin toward war. These embody North Korea sharpened down an American reconnoitering aircraft or falling a South Korean naval vessel, both of which, he reminds us, Pyongyang has finished in the past (the first in 1969, the second in 2010) — when it still lacked nuclear weapons.  So Lewis’s American-style confidence doesn’t offer any some-more grounds for hearten than Rachman’s British variant.

Where does this miss of accord on the odds of fight leave us?  The answer: no one can really consider the sobriety of the danger, quite given the man who occupies the White House is arguably the many flighty boss we’ve ever had.  

It’s no pleasure to quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but when it comes to the luck of fight in the Koreas, it’s tough not to be impressed by the “known unknowns.”

What We Do Know

The inability to fathom just how close we may be to fight there doesn’t meant we know zero about the Korean predicament that’s worth knowing.    

We know that North Korea has enlarged been committed to building nuclear weapons and constructed tiny quantities (six to thirteen kilograms) of weapons-grade plutonium as early as 1992.

We know that North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it assimilated in 1985) in 2003; that it detonated its first nuclear arms in 2006 during the sequence of Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea’s stream leader; and that it has conducted five other tests since then in 2009, 2013, 2016 (twice), and 2017 — 4 of them after Kim Jong-un took energy in Dec 2011. 

We know that North Korea has been no reduction stubborn in building and contrast ballistic missiles, commencement in 1984, and that the Hwasong-15, test-fired last Nov (with an round of 2,800 miles and an estimated operation of 8,100 miles), has the capacity to strike the continental United States.  And Pyongyang has left over liquid-fuelled missiles (that need prolonged, revealing preparations to launch), testing solid-fueled variants, which can be fired at brief notice.

We know that Pyongyang is close to producing, or has already produced, a warhead that can be placed atop an intercontinental ballistic barb and tarry the heat and stress encountered on reentering the earth’s atmosphere.  In other words, North Korea is but doubt effectively a nuclear weapons state, which means Kim Jong-un’s claim, in his 2018 New Year’s Day speech, that he has a nuclear pitch on his table may not be an idle exaggerate (even if no verbatim button exists).

Finally, we know that American threats and military maneuvers on and around the Korean peninsula, a series of U.N. Security Council sanctions given 2006, and behind-the-scenes tact by China and Russia have not prompted Pyongyang to change course, even nonetheless China, in particular, recently imposed draconian limits on energy exports to that country, which could potentially ravage its struggling economy.

The Denuclearization Fantasy

No one (outside of Pyongyang) could applaud a nuclear-armed North Korea, but no one could pretty be astounded by it either.  Nuclear weapons have enlarged served as a pitch of exclusivity for good powers and their informal cohorts.  It’s no collision that all the Security Council’s permanent members are nuclear states.  Having accorded such weaponry autarchic prestige, who could be repelled that other countries, even comparatively tiny and bad ones, would try to acquire them as good and exclude to be quiet by domestic or mercantile pressure.

Despite several campaigns for nuclear disarmament, the stream nuclear states have not shown the smallest desire to give them up; so the pledge of a nuclear-free universe rings vale and is doubtful to convince states that really wish nukes not to build them.  Beyond consultation status, these weapons make aggressive a country that has them dangerous indeed, providing a de facto pledge against regime change.  

The North Koreans have made this point more than once, citing the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, any of whom gave up his country’s nuclear program and then was taken down by the United States.  The thought that the leaders in Pyongyang are simply paranoid maniacs or can’t presumably trust that they face such a hazard from the United States (which already fought one fight on the Korean peninsula) is preposterous.  If you were Kim Jong-un, you’d substantially build nuclear weapons.

The upshot: brief of a war, there’s no possibility of denuclearization. That, in turn, means: were Trump and his generals to launch an attack on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and even a singular warhead means of distinguished the United States survived, Pyongyang competence good use it to retaliate.  According to the experts who rivet in such gruesome estimates, a 15-kiloton nuclear arms (equivalent to “Little Boy,” the atomic explosve the U.S. forsaken on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug 6, 1945) that lands somewhere in, say, Los Angeles would kill some-more than 100,000 people immediately and nonetheless some-more thereafter.  To put this in perspective, bear in mind that the estimates of the produce of the warhead North Korea tested last Sep run as high as 250 kilotons.  And don’t forget that, even if it couldn’t effectively strech the United States, the North could still aim presumably South Korea or Japan, causing a harmful detriment of lives and promulgation shockwaves by the global economy. 

And even if Kim couldn’t retort with nuclear weapons, he could still sequence the thousands of artillery pieces his military has lerned on the South Korean capital, Seoul, to fire.  The capital and its satellite towns are home to nearly 25.5 million people, half of the country’s sum population, so the death fee would be enormous, even holding into comment the limitations of the North’s artillery.  And given that some 28,500 American troops and nearly 137,000 American civilians are formed in South Korea, many close to the border, Trump’s reported remark to Lindsey Graham that, in the eventuality of such a war, people will “die over there” is not just cruel in its negligence for Korean lives, it’s ignorant.  Even an American commando raid into North Korea could trigger a wider fight given the North Korean care competence pretty courtesy it as a preface to a incomparable attack.

The bottom line?  Trump could perform his vouch never to concede North Korea to turn a nuclear-armed energy only by resorting to a surety war, as Pyongyang hasn’t been and is doubtful to be changed to lame by sanctions or other forms of pain.  And a surety fight would be calamitous.

Stopping the War Machine

Here’s a exigency for avoiding fight in Korea: stop desiring in the North’s denuclearization, appealing and fascinating as it competence be (if achieved by diplomacy).

It doesn’t follow, however, that fight can’t be avoided.  Kim Jong-un and his middle round are not, in fact, undiscerning beings defence to deterrence.  Their peerless aim is to safeguard the presence of the North Korean state. Starting a nuclear fight would destroy it.  Yes, many people have perished in North Korea (whether due to hang-up or famine), but anticipation worked in the cases of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, both of whom enacted policies that killed millions. Mao presumably even boasted that China could tarry a nuclear fight given of its outrageous population. 

Coming to terms with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea and guileless in anticipation may not sound like a ideal ending, but under the resources it’s positively the best way to avert catastrophe.  And that, unquestionably, is the obligatory task.  There are other ways, down the line, to make the Korean peninsula a better place by discourse between the two Koreas, by sketch the North into the informal economy and shortening troops and weaponry on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.  These shouldn’t be ruled out as infeasible.    

For them to happen, though, South Korea would have to apart itself from Trump’s fight plans by refusing to concede its emperor space (land, sea, and air) to be used for such a surety war.  The symbolism would be critical even if Trump could strike in other ways.  

Seoul would also have to build on two new certain developments that emerged from a warn Jan 9th assembly between the Koreas.  The first is the agreement on Kim Jong-un’s proposal (initially modernized by the South last June) to send a North Korean fortuitous to the Feb Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  The second flowed from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s follow-up idea of restoring the hotline between the countries and commencement discussions of how to tamp down tensions on the peninsula.  (Pyongyang close down the hotline in Feb 2016 after South Korea’s regressive supervision sealed the Kaesong corner industrial section located in the North, which then employed some-more than 50,000 North Koreans.)  Moon’s thought presumably eased the way for the successive agreement to hold future military talks aimed at shortening the risks of war.

There are serve stairs Seoul could take, including dogmatic a duration on military exercises with the United States — not just, as now (with Washington’s consent), during the Feb Olympics and the Paralympics that follow and finish in March, but but a preset time limit. While such corner maneuvers don’t shock Pyongyang, moves like flying American B1-B bombers and F-15C warrior jets in general airspace off North Korea’s seashore do ratchet up the tension.  They boost the chances of one side final that the other is about to attack. 

Trump may continue his threats around Twitter and again darken the value of negotiations with Pyongyang, but South Korea is a absolute country in its own right. It has a $1.4 trillion economy, the 11th largest in the universe (versus North Korea’s paltry $32.4 billion one), and ranks sixth in global exports.  It also has a formidable military and will spend $34 billion on invulnerability in 2017 — some-more than North Korea’s whole sum domestic product.  It is, in short, anything but the Asian homogeneous of a banana commonwealth for which Donald Trump should be means to write the script.

Trump’s generals and the rest of the American unfamiliar policy investiture won’t acquire eccentric initiatives by Seoul, typified by the condescending remark of a former central about the hazards of South Korea “running off the leash.”  Predictably, mainstream warnings have already begun.  Cunning Kim Jong-un wants to drive a “wedge” between the United States and South Korea.  He’s trying to remove the sanctions.  Agreeing to talks with Pyongyang will only promulgate weakness.  The United States must denote its solve and strengthen its credibility.  And so it goes. 


Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, many recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

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