President Trump, who is preparing for his first trip as Commander-in-Chief to the Korean peninsula in early November, declared on the Fox Business Network on October 22 that the U.S. “is prepared for anything” when it comes to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Speculation on what “anything” might mean has included, among other things, the possibility of a surgical strike on a North Korean missile or nuclear testing site.
Such a strike could come with little forewarning, as was demonstrated when the President carried out missile strikes in Syria last April. At that time President Trump was playing host to Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a summit meeting at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
In the President’s own words, he informed Xi of the military strike as the pair ate “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen.”
Xi’s reaction to the news was not recorded. A strike directed at a defense treaty ally and bordering country of Beijing, which North Korea is, however, would certainly draw a more visible reaction from China’s paramount leader than military actions in the more distant Middle East.
A POTENTIAL TARGET
Punggye-ri, Pyongyang’s premier nuclear test site in the mountainous northeastern part of the country, lies a short distance from both the Chinese and Russian borders.
When Pyongyang conducted its latest nuclear test there on September 3, for example, China’s Global Times reported that tremors from the test were felt in a number of border cities and that school children in the city of Yanji, near the border “ran out in the open when they felt the shaking.”
A strike could come with little forewarning, as was demonstrated when the President carried out missile strikes in Syria last April
Yanji lies about 120 miles north of Punggye-ri, a closer distance than from Washington to Philadelphia. The test was, according to South Korean government seismologists, five to six times more powerful than past tests and, according to CBS News, had almost ten times the force of the Hiroshima blast of 1945.
During the same test, experts at the U.S.-Korea Institute’s 38 North website reported a second smaller seismic event on the magnitude of 4.6 after the initial blast.
One possible explanation would have been an at least partial tunnel collapse which these experts warn “increases the likelihood of a radionuclide gas release.” The U.S. Geological Survey, recording the second event approximately eight minutes after the test, linked this event to a “collapse” of the cavity.
Containment of radiation is, according to these experts, dependent upon the airtight sealing of the tunnels as any fissure or collapse of the experimental tunnels could result in leakage. Small amounts of radioactive particles and gases have been detected as reaching neighboring countries after previous nuclear testing at Punggye-ri.
A U. S. surgical strike on Punggye-ri, using Tomahawk missiles as in the attack on Syria, could presumably do major damage, even paralyzing efforts at future testing at the Punggye-ri site.
However, depending on what nuclear materials are stored at the site in preparation for future testing, such a strike could possibly lead to the inadvertent release of radiation into the atmosphere.
While the health of the North Korean civilian population living in adjacent areas such as the cities of Rason and Chongjin, the nation’s third-largest city, might not be a compelling concern if the Trump administration “prepares for anything,” what of the health of the school children in the Chinese city of Yanji, a mere 120 miles away?
What of other even closer Chinese border cities like Hunchun and its two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants? What of the population in the major Russian port city of Vladivostok, little more than 150 miles away?
And, depending on which way the winds are blowing, what of America’s South Korean allies, or Japanese civilian allies living a short distance away across a narrow sea?
The image of any radiation poisoning of the atmosphere, food or water of a people who remain the only victims of nuclear weapons used in conflict is not a pretty one.
Military actions have, throughout history, led to unintended consequences. The Habsburgs in Vienna did not anticipate the imminent collapse of their empire when they entered into conflict in 1914.
The Japanese ignored the warning of Admiral Yamamoto at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 that “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
The deadly costs of a Second Korean War and the reaction of North Korea’s unpredictable leader to any military provocation from the American side have been analyzed at great length elsewhere.
But the reaction of others in North Korea’s neighborhood to any fallout, political or radioactive, resulting from an American surgical strike is equally important. China and Russia are major nuclear powers and South Korea and Japan are essential allies.
And it does not take much guesswork to ascertain that Xi Jinping’s reaction to a surgical strike on any facility near the border of his country would not be as muted as when he was told of the strike on Syria.
A “let them eat cake” laissez-faire attitude would not be in the offing when the security and health of his own people could be put at immediate risk. China, as Napoleon famously observed, is another sleeping giant best not to be disturbed. Is Washington ready to find out?
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
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