The first days of January were marked by a remarkable, semi-direct exchange of veiled threats between two unlikely (or perhaps, given their brinksmanship, likely?) personalities – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
In his annual New Year speech, Kim Jong Un said that North Korea was finishing preparations for a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. It was implied, but not said explicitly, that such an ICBM will be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S.
Donald Trump reacted in his usual manner, by tweeting: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
The President-elect’s remark can be understood in three ways. First, it can be read as a claim that North Korea was, essentially, bluffing. Second, it could be construed as a signal that the U.S. administration will somehow prevent such a launch through the diplomatic measures. Third, it could be seen as a sign of a pre-emptive possible military strike against North Korea.
The first two explanations do not look particularly plausible.
TAKING PYONGYANG AT ITS WORD
North Korean engineers, working hard, have demonstrated that they are likely capable of launching an ICBM. After all, they successfully tested a submarine-based ballistic missile SLBM, developed in merely few years, and conducted a number of ballistic missile launches. Given their track record, it seems that designing the ICBM mentioned by Kim Jong Un in his New Year Address is merely a question of time – and a rather short time, perhaps.
It would be naïve to pin too much hope on diplomacy. Both soft lines and hard lines have been tried, alternatingly, many times – and both failed. Right now, hopes are pinned on sanctions, but, given the increasingly tense state of relations between Washington and Beijing, one should not expect that China will become a zealous participant in this project.
This leaves us with the third option: a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and missile production and development facilities. Such an option, taboo for many years, is now being widely discussed: for the first time, perhaps, since the first nuclear crisis of the early 1990s. It is telling, for example, that Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, mentioned such a possibility in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.
It would naïve to pin too much hope on diplomacy
Indeed, if North Korean nuclear development proceeds with its current speed, at some point in his presidency Donald Trump is going to be briefed that North Korea has successfully tested an ICBM, and begun preparations for the deployment of a force of, say, one or two dozens ICBMs in silos or on mobile launchers, perhaps augmented with 2-3 SLBM-armed submarines cruising somewhere in Pacific.
Such a force would be able to partially survive a U.S. non-nuclear strike and then deliver a devastating attack against American cities. This will mean that North Korea will become the third country in the world, after China and Russia, capable of annihilating Chicago or LA, if this is what the leader deems necessary.
How will the U.S. President react to such news – especially given that he will likely have a few months (or more) before the North Koreans complete actual deployment?
The temptation to strike preemptively, to wipe out the “clear and present danger” will be high, especially for a person with Donald Trump’s personality and support base.
Unfortunately, there are some valid reasons to argue in favor of such a solution, if one concentrates exclusively on U.S. short-and mid-term interests alone.
While a politically stable North Korea is highly unlikely to unleash a nuclear holocaust, an outbreak of serious instability might prompt Pyongyang to take extreme measures, both in order to deliver revenge and to create chaos which might give the regime some chance to survive a crisis.
However, there are equally valid reasons for the U.S. not to conduct a pre-emptive strike. The problem is that such a strike, if delivered, is likely to provoke a large-scale war at worst, and will destroy the U.S.-ROK alliance at best.
Of course, when we are talking about a strike, we are not talking about a full-scale war which is, clearly, not part of U.S. plans. Most likely, the preemptive strike will be similar to what Israel did to Iraq in 1981 and, again, to Syria in 2007 – a sudden and massive air strike against missile and nuclear research centers, test sites, production facilities and military bases.
Many of these targets are unknown, and many more are well-protected underground, but even a partial destruction of infrastructure is likely to paralyze the North Korean nuclear program for years.
But how will the North Koreans react to such an attack? First of all, it is possible that they will just bite the bullet, afraid that any ‘kinetic’ reaction will merely lead to further escalation. However, it appears more likely that they will not turn the other cheek (they never do), but will retaliate.
Since the North Koreans will be unable to hit the U.S., they are likely to satisfy themselves with the second best target: South Korea and, especially, Greater Seoul, the megacity which includes Seoul and its satellite towns and is home to some 24 million people, half of South Korea’s entire population.
Greater Seoul is located near the DMZ, so its entire territory is within shooting range of North Korean heavy artillery – amassed not far away.
Of course, when we are talking about a strike, we are not talking about a full-scale war
A massive artillery barrage, delivered by the KPA’s 200-300 heavy guns, would leave thousands dead and destroy large areas in Seoul. Most likely, it will trigger a massive counter-strike by the South Korean military which, probably, will escalate into a Second Korean War.
The U.S. would be pulled into such a conflict immediately, and one cannot be sure whether other players, including China, will stay away.
However, even if North Korean shelling does not provoke a full-scale conflict, it will deliver a deadly blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance.
For the South Koreans, who will be woken by the sounds of explosions in their neighborhood, things will look crystal clear: in order to prevent a hypothetical threat to themselves, the U.S. put its ROK partners in grave danger.
After such an incident, the alliance is likely to become shaky or even disappear completely.
For a majority of U.S. presidents, the fate of Seoul and future of the U.S.-ROK alliance have been worries strong enough to discard the very thought of a pre-emptive strike, but it remains unclear to what extent such issues matter to Donald Trump.
After all, during his campaign the President-elect repeatedly expressed his disapproval of the alliance system, and specifically scorned the U.S.-ROK alliance.
WILL ACTION MATCH RHETORIC?
One can expect that the very real threat of an escalation will be enough to stop the U.S. administration from ‘going kinetic.’ No U.S. president would be happy about unleashing a major war in East Asia – especially a war which is certain to produce a significant number of U.S. casualties.
Admittedly, though, one cannot rule out that the tough stance and threatening remarks are, above all, negotiation tactics – curiously, the same tactics that North Koreans have applied to the world for a long time and with great success.
Trump and his advisers might hope that bellicosity of their rhetoric, combined with their reputation for unpredictability, will push North Koreans towards the negotiation table. Once again, if this is indeed the case, we face a curious reversal of the pattern the world has seen for last few decades.
No U.S. president would be happy about unleashing a major war in East Asia
However, even if this is indeed the case, one should not pin too much hope on the success of such negotiations. As long as the U.S. consider “complete, irreversible and verifiable de-nuclearization” as the only acceptable outcome, negotiations are bound to fail.
No matter what, the North Korean government will not surrender the nuclear weapons they see as the only guarantee of their security, political and personal survival.
The only realistic compromise is a nuclear freeze, but at the current stage, it is doubtful that any of the two sides will even consider such an option – both are likely to perceive a freeze as an unwarranted and unacceptable concession to their adversary.
It is likely that the next few years will be a very dramatic period in the history of intra-Korean relations. More and more signs are emerging that we should prepare for a tough ride.
The first days of January were marked by a remarkable, semi-direct exchange of veiled threats between two unlikely (or perhaps, given their brinksmanship, likely?) personalities – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.In his annual New Year speech, Kim Jong Un said that North Korea was finishing preparations for a test launch of an
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.