Last month I visited Washington D.C. – and came back seriously worried about what I heard there.
Talks with academics, experts, and officials have left an impression that the Korean Peninsula might soon face a crisis on a scale which has few, if any, precedents in living memory.
Of course, a measure of discretion is advisable, and I’d prefer to refrain from naming names and institutions, but the general atmosphere leaves little reason to doubt that for the first time since the early 1990s, “kinetic” action against North Korea is being discussed seriously by American decision makers and their advisers. Even at the height of the ‘first nuclear crisis’ in the early 1990s, this discussion was far more muted than it is now.
In a sense, this new emphasis on the use of the force is not surprising, since it reflects mounting disappointment in both negotiations and sanctions: the only two available alternatives to what is now euphemistically known as “kinetic” measures.
NO EASY OPTIONS
For more than two decades, the U.S. has tried to either negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization, promising Pyongyang hefty rewards in exchange, or to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program via sanctions. Neither carrot or stick have worked so far, and this is has become painfully clear as time has gone by.
On the other side, under Kim Jong Un’s watch, North Korea seems to be determined to develop a full-scale nuclear arsenal, complete with an ICBM capable of hitting the continental U.S.
In his New Year speech, Kim Jong Un said North Korea will develop an ICBM this year
Judging by the surprising speed of North Korea’s technological advancement in recent years, many experts believe that North Korean engineers will manufacture an ICBM in the very near future – and Kim Jong Un has claimed it will happen this year.
When it happens, North Korea will become the third country on Earth, after Russia and China, capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
Under Kim Jong Un’s watch North Korea seems to be determined to develop a full-scale nuclear arsenal
The question is whether the U.S. will accept this and learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, or whether it will consider taking out the North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons by force.
It is widely known that earlier U.S. administrations have been deterred from using force by concerns about a North Korean retaliation against Greater Seoul which is located, after all, right on the DMZ and well within range of North Korean heavy artillery.
There is an additional worry that a counter-strike by North Korea against Seoul, provoked by U.S. ‘kinetic action’, will be met with an overwhelming response by the South Koreans, and will thus lead to a Second Korean War.
These worries have been strong enough to dissuade Donald Trump’s predecessors from using military force, but will this work with the incumbent?
After all, Donald Trump has made clear that he values America’s security and well-being well above such abstract notions as world peace and the well-being of U.S. allies, most of whom are, according to Trump, ungrateful free riders anyway.
Admittedly, we should not overestimate the significance of Donald Trump’s idiosyncratic qualities, since things are more complicated and less related to Trump’s persona than we might think.
A former high-level diplomat from the Obama administration privately told me recently, for example, that even a Democratic President would have considered military action, had he or she faced such a direct threat to the U.S. from North Korea.
No admirer of Trump, this official assured me that the kinetic option would have been seriously discussed under President Hillary Clinton, had the election turned out differently. The same retired diplomat also said that even Madame President would probably have considered risking a Second Korean War acceptable if it resulted in the removal of the nuclear threat from Pyongyang.
Donald Trump has made clear that he values America’s security and well-being well above such abstract notions as world peace
Indeed, while neither Russia nor China are admired in the U.S., both are seen as reasonable and responsible players who are unlikely to start a nuclear holocaust. North Korea, on the contrary, has a very different reputation, being widely seen as an ‘irrational regime’. Experts on the country might have a different opinion, but people close to the President are likely driven by the media image of North Korea as a bizarre and unpredictable place, not to be trusted with nuclear weapons.
It is important to emphasize that this option would only be chosen if the North Koreans crossed a red line by successfully testing an ICBM with a range of over 7000-8000 km. If such a test is successfully conducted, the kinetic option will become realistically possible.
NO BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Another thing is clear: nobody in Washington wants a full-scale war. Any kinetic action is likely to be as limited as possible, in the form of attacks against launch pads and testing facilities, or attempts to intercept missiles just after launch (the latter option is attractive because it does not involve strikes against North Korean territory and thus is less likely to become a casus beli).
While neither Russia nor China are admired in the U.S., both are seen as reasonable and responsible players who are unlikely to start a nuclear holocaust
Some people argue that, even if the U.S. military delivered strikes against a number of military targets deep in North Korean territory, such strikes would not have to be made public, thus giving the North Koreans the option of staying silent.
This approach is reminiscent of what Israel did in 2007, when the Israeli air force destroyed a Syrian nuclear research center, permanently disabling the country’s nuclear program. They only admitted to the fact much later – and with a lot of omissions.
Optimists in Washington may hope that if an attack remains unknown to the public, it is less likely to provoke a full-scale confrontation in the region.
Assuming that a North Korean ICBM will be tested soon, one should ask whether the hawks, currently very influential, will prevail at the end of the day. This is an open question, especially given that the majority of North Korea experts, both inside and outside the government, are against any military operation.
For the time being the situation looks tough, not least due to the personal traits and political convictions of the incumbent President
Perhaps they will prevail. A veteran of U.S. foreign policy privately told me that he estimates the probability of a kinetic operation is at a relatively low 20%. Nonetheless, he emphasized, it is still telling that it is being taken seriously at all.
What are the alternatives? Conversely, it seems that, for the first time in many years, many lower-level officials in the State Department and elsewhere, including the Pentagon, are seriously considering the ‘freeze option’ which has long been taboo in official circles.
Such an option involves North Korea stopping testing nuclear weapons and missiles, but allowing the DPRK to keep what has been already produced – while the U.S. will reciprocate by providing them with political concessions and generous aid.
Until recently this idea was described, with righteous outrage, as “paying the blackmailer” (admittedly, not necessarily inaccurate), but now it seems to be dawning on many people in Washington that in our imperfect world such a flawed option might still be seen as the least unacceptable, given the available alternatives.
Perhaps such moderate views will eventually prevail, and the focus of U.S. policy will shift from the unrealistic push for disarmament to a far more realistic push for arms control.
Nonetheless, for the time being the situation looks tough, not least due to the personal traits and political convictions of the incumbent president.
An armed confrontation on the Peninsula is far from being certain, but not since the late 1960s have we been so close.
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Featured Image: Washington DC - Sunset by Richard Ricciardi on 2016-04-01 19:37:01