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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Back in August of 2012, then President Obama caused something of a diplomatic sensation when he gave Syria a “‘red line’ warning on chemical weapons,” according to a Washington Post headline at the time. Speaking at an impromptu news conference, the President said that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
The Assad regime responded almost exactly one year later by striking the opposition-controlled area of Ghouta with rockets containing the chemical agent sarin killing hundreds of people, mainly civilians.
The Washington Times reported subsequently, on November 7, 2013, that Abdulaziz Sager, director of the Gulf Research Center, had called “Mr. Obama a ‘paper tiger president’ for threatening to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for deploying chemical weapons against his opponents and then allowing Russia to broker a deal.”
Obama apparently came belatedly to learn the value of ambiguity, as opposed to drawing a line in the sand, in speaking of an ongoing security crisis.
A NORTH KOREAN RED LINE?
One of the greatest ongoing crises of the twenty-first century has been Pyongyang’s arduous but steady march, through three American administrations – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – toward its avowed goal of being internationally accepted as a “nuclear weapons state.”
The 1998 nuclear tests by the two South Asian nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, were the last such tests conducted outside the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang, therefore, carries the dubious distinction of being the only state to conduct nuclear testing during the new century.
So what is the new President to do if, as Assad did with Obama, Kim Jong Un decides to call his bluff?
Beginning in 2006, Pyongyang carried out a series of five tests of increasing intensity, the last being conducted in September 2016. In close parallel with this nuclear program, Pyongyang has sought to develop a credible delivery capability through miniaturization of weapons for mounting on a missile warhead and through a vigorous program of missile testing.
It, therefore, should have come as no surprise when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in his annual New Year’s Day speech, which was broadcast on the North’s state-run KCTV, said that “We have reached the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket.”
He added for good measure that North Korea would continue to bolster its weapons programs as long as the United States remained hostile and continued its joint military exercises with South Korea. (The U.S.-South Korean joint annual military exercise “Foal Eagle” began on March 1st and will run through April 30th.)
Kim Jong Un has proven to be a man of his word when speaking of the scheduling of tests related to the development of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Further, as Kim has not been restrained in the least by the repeated admonitions of Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, Beijing and the UN Security Council, one can expect the launch of a long-range ballistic missile in the not-too-distant future.
The Twitter-prone Donald Trump immediately sent out a message upon hearing the latest on the North Korean leader’s game plan. The-then American President-elect sent out a tweet on the evening of January 2nd which said:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
That sounds just as definitive a red line as former President Obama’s on Syrian chemical weapons. So what is the new President to do if, as Assad did with Obama, Kim Jong Un decides to call his bluff?
A MATTER OF TIME
The North Koreans often favor commemorative dates for major undertakings. The then-new leader Kim Jong Un, for example, chose a date near the April 15th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea’s founding father Kim Il Sung, to conduct a missile test which brought the nascent “Leap Day” deal with the Obama Administration to a screeching halt in 2012.
Obama had hoped to turn over a new leaf with the then-largely-unknown new leader in Pyongyang by brokering a deal on both a nuclear and missile test moratorium. The Americans even sweetened the deal with an offer of 240,000 metric tons of food aid. Kim, however, clearly signaled that commemorating the 100th anniversary of Grandpa’s birth and continuing his program of missile development took precedence over any diplomatic overtures from Washington.
With no postponement or cancellation of the Foal Eagle 2017 military exercise, what happens if Kim Jong Un launches despite Trump’s warning, presenting the first major security challenge to the new American President?
If Kim Jong Un decides to send his missile again southward, the Trump Administration could simply choose to ignore it
In December 2012 North Korea successfully launched a three-stage rocket with a southward trajectory. Pyongyang claimed the purpose was to put a weather forecast satellite in orbit but “the U.S., Japan and South Korea have called the launch a disguised attempt to test the country’s long-range missile technology,” according to a report in the Telegraph.
Some of the rocket debris was found off the northern coast of the Philippines’ Luzon Island. If Kim Jong Un decides to send his missile again southward, the Trump Administration could simply choose to ignore it.
A long-range missile heading eastward over the Pacific, passing over or near U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan or Guam and splashing down in waters near Hawaii or Alaska however, would be a decidedly different matter. In that case, does the President decide to give orders to attempt to shoot it down? And what if the attempt fails and America’s widely hailed missile defense system is exposed to Pacific allies as seriously flawed?
A June 14 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times noted, in part, that “the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, was supposed to protect Americans against a chilling new threat from ‘rogue states’ such as North Korea and Iran.”
“But a decade after it was declared operational, and after $40 billion in spending, the missile shield cannot be relied on, even in carefully scripted tests that are much less challenging than an actual attack would be, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found. The Missile Defense Agency has conducted 16 tests of the system’s ability to intercept a mock enemy warhead. It has failed in eight of them, government records show.”
A long-range missile heading eastward over the Pacific… would be a decidedly different matter
If you are sitting in Los Angeles in a few short years and a long-range ballistic missile with a miniaturized nuclear warhead is heading your way from North Korea, would you find a fifty percent success rate for America’s missile defense shield to be reassuring?
Then there is the alternate question of what happens if President Trump’s pledge of “it won’t happen” succeeds, and the North Korean long-range ballistic missile is indeed shot down?
Kim Jong Un is known for having quite a temper: he recently had five senior security officials executed with anti-aircraft guns for “enraging” him by presenting false reports, according to Yonhap. So what if Kim responds with a major provocation on the DMZ or along the maritime Northern Limit Line (NLL) which, with the current military exercise going on, could involve U.S. casualties? What if he decided to lob a few mortar shells into Seoul, a major urban center a mere 35 miles from the DMZ?
And what about a potential future attack on the United States? North Korea’s most recent high-profile defector, former DPRK Deputy Ambassador to London, Thae Yong-ho, said that “Kim Jong Un would fire a suicidal nuclear weapon at Los Angeles if he felt his power was being threatened,” adding that “the dictator would be prepared to ‘press the button’ despite the inevitable consequences.” Mr. Thae has previously said that North Korea is aiming to complete its development of nuclear weapons by the end of this year.
Even though President Trump is known for his tenacity and for not backing down in the face of even the most daunting challenges, the question arises: is drawing a red line for North Korea worth risking U.S. military casualties and South Korean civilian lives? Is the satisfaction of shooting down a North Korean test missile worth putting Seoul or – even Los Angeles – at risk?
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
Edited by Oliver Hotham