Well, it happened again: on September 3 North Korea conducted yet another nuclear test, its most powerful ever. Initial estimates put its yield in the proximity of 100 kilotons, which is much stronger than all earlier tests: the explosion was at least five times more powerful than the one conducted in September 2016.
State media has already said that this time Pyongyang tested a thermonuclear device, also known as a hydrogen bomb. On the day of the test, Kim, Jong Un was depicted on the first page of the Rodong Sinmun standing next to what is claimed to be the device being mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
While it is up to the technical experts to decide to what extent these claims are true, it appears highly plausible that, this time, North Korean media is telling the truth.
The major strategic goal of Kim Jong Un has been to develop and deploy nuclear weapons and their delivery systems – in shape of ICBMs or submarine-based SLBMs – capable of hitting targets in the continental U.S. He has worked on this goal persistently and with remarkable success, showing no sign of being deterred by the action of the U.S. and other major international players who, predictably, do not like what he is doing.
It seems that the goal is within his reach, so the chances that he will stop are low. We should expect more missile launches and, perhaps, another nuclear test or two in near future. No UN Security Council Resolution or increase in sanctions is going to make much of a difference.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD?
Does this mean that we are going to see the international community follows the same old circle: first condemnation, then (inefficient) sanctions, and then another North Korean nuclear test or missile launch?
Most likely yes. But the unusual intensity of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear quest in recent months might trigger a more radical reaction than what we have seen before.
No UN Security Council resolution or increase in sanctions is going to make much difference
There are two other scenarios: decisive Chinese action and a U.S.-led military operation. Both are now within the realm of possibility.
The September 3 nuclear test was quite annoying for the Chinese and, in particular, for President Xi Jinping. It happened exactly when Xi Jinping was hosting a summit of the BRICS country leaders (BRICS is a semi-formal group of countries which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Only one and half months remain before the next Congress of the Communist Party of China will open in Beijing. It is not clear whether the decision to conduct the test during the BRICS summit was calculated to provoke Chinese leaders, but even if it was a result of poor planning, it is likely to be perceived as such.
For many years, the Chinese position on the North Korean nuclear issue has remained essentially unchanged: China did not like Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, but was afraid that excessive economic pressure will lead to a regime collapse in North Korea, and saw that as a greater threat than a North Korea with nuclear weapons.
This time, however, Beijing’s attitude might change, prompting China to stop shipments of subsidized oil to North Korea. Such a decision will not necessarily result in complete economic collapse, but will create serious economic difficulties, and, perhaps, will even bring about a real threat of internal discontent.
Given the bellicose mood in Washington – to be discussed later – such a decision would make sense: China does not want the U.S. going kinetic, and an oil embargo will probably help to avoid a military confrontation: it will be possible to persuade President Trump to wait until the oil embargo starts to bite. Even if it does not, it will win Beijing a few months, at least, and it is possible that during that period passions in Washington will cool.
This time, however, Beijing’s attitude might change
THE KINETIC OPTION
The second probability is a U.S. strike against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities and/or command centers. The major reason why such an option has never been seriously considered is the risk that it could provoke a full-scale confrontation. It appears highly likely that the North Koreans, if attacked by the U.S., would retaliate with a massive artillery barrage on Seoul, conveniently located right near the border.
There is also a possibility that the North Koreans will use medium-range missiles to hit targets much further afield, perhaps as far away as U.S. military bases in Japan.
Such an exchange will almost definitely mean the beginning of a massive land war in Asia. China has recently made clear that in the case of North Korea being attacked, it will support Pyongyang to some extent. Even if the U.S.-ROK coalition prevails eventually, the cost of war will be prohibitively high – like nothing the U.S. has experienced since at least the end of the Vietnamese War in the 1970s.
Some claim that North Korean leaders, when subjected to limited-scale precision strikes, would not dare to bombard Seoul, and would be aware that such a move would result in an unwinnable war which is highly likely to get them killed.
However, there are reasons why it may happen. It might be difficult for North Korean generals to distinguish between a limited precision strike, targeting only missile and/or nuclear facilities, and the launch of a major attack aimed at “decapitation” or regime change.
It is worth mentioning that one of my contacts, a former North Korean artillery officer who served in a division stationed near the DMZ, informed me that in 2013 his division received a new order. Their commander had been informed that in case of war breaking out, he was to start shelling Seoul and other designated targets in South Korea without waiting for confirmation from Pyongyang.
It might be difficult for North Korean generals to distinguish between a limited precision strike… and the launch of a major attack
The existence of such an order means that the chances of all-out war breaking out in case of a limited attack are much higher than were before 2013.
Even if the U.S. government makes the limited scale of the attacks clear, the North Koreans, who are not known for their trust in Americans, will not necessarily attach much value to official pronouncements. Additionally, unavoidable confusion is likely to provoke the generals commanding artillery units in the vicinity of Seoul launching a counter-strike against the South Korean capital and major U.S. targets in South Korea.
This is why one has to take seriously the recent news from Washington where, despite the long weekend, North Korea’s nuclear test provoked an unusually intense reaction. This time we face the real possibility of the U.S. going kinetic – and this is really dangerous for all of us.
Nevertheless, it still appears far more likely that the obvious risks of overreaction will prevent the Trump administration from using military force, and we will spend the next week or two watching the exchange of heated rhetoric and insults between Washington and Pyongyang. This is, at the end of the day, is better for all sides.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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