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North Korea Threat of War Heightens, As U.S. Options Diminish

Hermit Kingdom's Moves Hold U.S. and Partners in Check

On departing the White House, President Obama warned President-elect Trump that North Korea had become the number one national security threat. With the Trump administration preoccupied with banning entry of people from six Muslim nations, there's little sign so far that the advice has been taken. Trump has said ISIS is his first priority. There was no mention of North Korea in his address to Congress.

North Korea would not be ignored. First came the missile launch that made for indigestion at the President's Mar-a-Lago restaurant where he was hosting Japan's
Four North Korean missiles leave their launch pads simultaneously.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Days later, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un staged a synchronous launch that sent four mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, three of them violating Japan's exclusive-use economic zone. The shoot was a warning to the U.S. and South Korea; it was timed for the sixth day of their joint military exercises that Pyongyang believes are a rehearsal for invasion.

But one action has been taken by the U.S., the sort that persuades Mr. Kim that he is right. The U.S. has just begun installing THAAD missile batteries in South Korea. This line of defense was ordered up not by Trump, but by former president Obama.

cyber not enough

As the launchers were Globemaster'd in, The New York Times broke a story it had begun researching last spring but held back for national security reasons: much like the malware introduced into Iran's centrifuges that had sent them of spinning out of control, the U.S. has used cyber and electronic tools to disrupt — they think — and delay progress in North Korean missile technology. Suggestively, all five tests across several months of the Musudan, a missile intended to target American bases as far as Guam, exploded seconds after takeoff or crashed into the sea. That had prompted Mr. Kim to order an investigation to determine if sabotage was at play, leading to the execution of senior security officials, the Times reported.

But the uncertainty of whether the cyber strategy had worked — design errors could have been the cause of missile failure — and North Korea's progress nonetheless, caused Obama and his advisers to recognize that we have not been able to stop Kim's headlong rush to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads. Hence Obama's warning to Trump.

Gordian knot

What to do about North Korea admits of no easy solution. A tangle of interests has the allies — the U.S., South Korea, Japan and a reluctant China — in a stalemate. The THAAD installation has angered the Chinese enough to boycott South Korea's imports and block its television shows and pop stars, but it is in a furor that the move is encirclement by the U.S., with the system's X-band radar that accompanies the THAAD battery able to peer deep across its border.

The THAAD system (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) exists only to shoot down the North's missiles. Its rockets have no payload; they destroy
U.S. THAAD missile destroyer

by collision at high velocity. As the "Terminal" in THAAD indicates, the system only intercepts projectiles in their “terminal” phase or as they’re hurtling towards the earth in descent. It can stop 90% of what comes at it, but if just one nuclear warhead slips through, an estimated 420,000 in Seoul could be killed or injured.

Offers by the Obama administration as early as a year ago of technical talks on THAAD to assure the Chinese of its limitations and limited intent have gone begging. Instead, it prompted a Chinese general to write in the Global Times that his military "could conduct a surgical hard-kill operation" to destroy the THAADs .

South Korea is relieved to have the THAADs in addition to the American troops stationed there since the end of the Korean War over 60 years ago — 28,500 is the current count. Mr. Kim frequently threatens to ignite Seoul in "a sea of fire" or at least destroy much of the city, which lies close to the border, with thousands of artillery pieces arrayed in position for years along the demarcation buffer zone established at the end of that war. Last September, the South Korea Defense Ministry said it has plans to take out North Korea missile sites and "flatten the capital, Pyongyang with artillery and ballistic missiles if the North shows any signs that it might fire a nuclear weapon".

And yet, with the South Korea president just now removed from office over corruption charges, and elections likely to happen sooner than their scheduled December date, a progressive faction wants the U.S. out, thinking that talks will bring unification of the split country and peace.

no thanks, says china

China has no interest is seeing that happen. The two communist countries — China and North Korea — were formed within a year of each other. They fought side-by-side against the U.S. and South Korea in the three-year war of the early 1950s. China views the North as a buffer against the South and its ally, the U.S. — a buffer that must not be allowed to break, because China's greatest worry is that pressure against the North — the United Nations sanctions made still more stringent, for example — could lead to a possible collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime that would send millions of desperate North Korean refugees streaming across the border into China.

So North Korea is treated as a kind of ward of the Chinese state. About 90% of North Korea's trade is with China, about $6 billion annually, which keeps the North supplied with almost all its oil, food and consumer goods. China treads carefully, fearful of destabilizing relations with its capricious and unpredictable neighbor. That has led to a gaping loophole in the sanctions: there are exemptions meant to protect the "livelihood" of North Koreans that 18-wheelers regularly drive through. Inspection of the trucks at Dandong, China, the main border crossing, is limited. A U.N. Security Council study released at the end of February revealed a matrix of false identity North Korea companies fronting an international smuggling network that supplies cash, technologies and materials for the weapons program. China looks the other way.

Don't blame us for not taking the lead, say the Chinese. "North Korea isn't aiming its missiles at us", they effectively say. They blame the U.S. for the current predicament. We refused "to sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang” after the war; it is still only an armistice, leaving the North paranoid in its isolation. In a Global Times of China editorial,

“The Americans have given no consideration to the origin and the evolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue or the negative role Washington has been playing over the years. Without the reckless military threat from the US and South Korea and the US’s brutal overthrow of regimes in some small countries, Pyongyang may not have developed such a firm intent to develop nuclear weapons as now.

Still, China is not enthusiastic about having an erratic nuclear power as its next door neighbor. It lost patience after a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2016, agreed to Washington's appeals, and signed on to tough U.N. sanctions that, in addition to expanding the list of North Koreans subject to asset freezes and travel bans, more crucially bans import of North Korean coal, a $1.6 billion a year lifeline to Mr. Kim's regime. Having canceled coal, China says it has done its part. The rest is up to the U.S.

Donald Trump disagrees. "China has control, absolute control, over North Korea", he said. "And they should make that problem disappear".

China wants us to engage directly with the Kim regime in talks that allay the North's security anxieties. The last attempt, with North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Russia at the table in 2009, ended when the North walked out. There is no trust on either side. The U.S. can point to the North Koreans secretly cheating in defiance of agreements, such as during the moratorium on weapons development negotiated by the Clinton administration. The North Koreans see the U.S. as entirely deceitful, with our conduct providing examples for why they should never consider winding down their nuclear and missile programs. They see what we did in Libya after Gaddafi gave up nuclear; they see what we did to Iraq despite Hussein insisting he had quit his nuclear program. And they see in a democracy a political system where a new administration can do the opposite of the old one and rip up prior agreements.

Moving THAAD into South Korea presumably confirms Kim's belief in an American threat, defensive though its rockets be. After a New Year's Day speech in which he said North Korea had reached a "final stage" in preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, Kim saw Trump tweet "It won't happen", which he could only interpret as a military threat that enforces his fear of invasion. It doesn't help that Trump has called Mr. Kim "a maniac" ("If you look at North Korea, this guy, I mean he's like a maniac. OK?").

We find ourselves in a kind of fatal embrace in which America, which has no desire to attack, must nevertheless be poised to do so because North Korea, out of fear of attack, has built an arsenal to attack us that we must defend against.

preemption anyone?

In fact, military options are dim. North Korea now uses mobile launchers in place of fixed sites. Mobile launch vehicles can be hidden in tunnels in the country's mountainous terrain, making for an insurmountable targeting problem. The North has just now learned how to produce solid fuel for its missiles. When they leave their bunkers, a retinue of liquid fuel tankers visible to satellites no longer trails behind, and in constrast to the hours needed to load liquid fuel, solid fuel rockets can be readied for take-off in minutes.

Moreover, any perceived military threat from the U.S. would strengthen Kim Jong-un's hand, spurring national patriotism and a stiffening acceptance by his people of the hardships they endure in his brutally repressive regime. A ground attack would trigger war with North Korea's 1.2 million man army. The country would have China's support.


The question is whether Donald Trump will grasp that the situation is so far along that the U.S. needs to realize that Kim Jong-un has us in check and we had best negotiate a draw.

How does one deal with him? He is spoken of as volatile and unstable, known to binge on food and alcohol. In the paranoid world of his and his family's own creation — three generations of the one family have now ruled the North for seven decades — Kim reportedly is obsessed with the fear that he will be overthrown, assassinated. To head that off, he has executed scores of officials, even his uncle in 2013, whom he thought might challenge his power, and weeks ago his half-brother in the airport at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. International security analyst Alexandre Mansourov of the Nautilus Institute warns that if he believes he is about to be attacked, he might "rush to use nuclear weapons out of fear of losing them to allied preemption".

What does Kim Jong-un want? The highest-ranking defector from North Korea said that Kim does want to negotiate. Some of his objectives seem remarkably banal — and easy to satisfy. More than once the media has reported that one of his wants is to roll back sanctions that ban import of luxury items — gems, yachts, sports cars — that he needs to buy the loyalty of his high-ranking officials. In return for suspension of missile and nuclear tests he wants an end to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

But the biggest carrot would be to offer a heavy and long-term package of economic rehabilitation and an opening to the world. That would surely please China, to see its invalid ward find its own legs, so China's monetary support should be required equal to ours. If all this looks like perpetual and probably ascending blackmail, it is, but that's the consequence of paying so little attention to a growing menace.

squeeze play

To add force to any such talks, the U.S. should maximize economic pressure on Mr. Kim and his regime. China may urge us to go to the bargaining table to solve its problem with North Korea for them, but is unhelpful. We know from the U.N. of dozens of Chinese firms trading with blacklisted North Korea entities that we want shut down with so-called "secondary sanctions", but China has not cooperated out of its destabilization worries.

Also, about 50,000 to 60,000 North Koreans work abroad, mostly in China, and send money to families at home — half of which the North Korean regime pockets. If refused entry to China, that could deprive the North's government of some $300 million annually.

If we demand this cooperation from China, they may demand that we relax our objections to their fortifying the South China Sea as their private lake. That could factor into our negotiations with the North Koreans as well. Our ships and aircraft getting into firefights with China would say to the North Koreans that we have no intention of letting go of control in the Far East.

In return, we cannot accept mere suspension of North Korea's nuclear and missile development. But given the deep and decades-long paranoia of a closed nation, it would be hopeless to expect that North Korea would agree to dismantlement. Our minimum would have to be mothballed facilities with unlimited and permanent on-site inspections by resident crews.

Will Donald Trump realize that talks appear to be the only path left? The Wall Street Journal reported that there has been an internal White House review of the North Korean problem but that the leanings, with Trump now surrounded with generals as advisers, and with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left out of the loop, appear instead to be toward military force and attempted regime change. Stay tuned.

3 Comments for “North Korea Threat of War Heightens, As U.S. Options Diminish”

  1. D B Hay

    As for THAAD, you are correct to say that it’s deployment was approved under ‘the Obama administration’, but it was not DEPLOYED until Trump approved it. It should also be said that NO‎ progress was made in STOPPING North Korean nuclear development during the past 8 years and even before under Bush and Clinton. North Korea was given the plans by Russia for a nuclear EMP device in the early ’90’s and has had workable nuclear weapons for almost a decade. Yes. Cyber penetration under the Obama administration thankfully impacted and slowed down North Korean missile development. But North Korea is not a technologically backward country when it comes to nuclear and missile matters. They have orbited 2 satellites. Some are concerned about what is in those satellites.

    It is truly fair to say, what is the next move and who makes it? If NK launches an ICBM saying they are putting a satellite into space for whatever “good” reason, and THAAD knocks it down. It that an act of war? ‎It Trump”s ‘Saber rattling’ provokes NK to launch an attack across thr DMZ, who bears the full cost? The US or both Koreas? No easy answers.

    If the media is truly to be the fourth estates then it should ACCURATELY criticize, and sometimes compliment, governments of all political persuasions. That way it will re-earn public trust.

  2. Al Rodbell

    Comprehensive and incisive analysis, which becomes frightening in itself when we know that the President of this country does not make the effort to internalize such conundrums. The “mad man” theory can be effective, but the model collapses when it’s not a ploy, but the actual mentality of both key leaders.

    Solving this particular hot spot, as well as many others in the world requires not only traditional diplomacy, but realizing how technology is changing the world in ways we are forced to anticipate. Both Kim jong-un and Donald Trump are pathologically egocentric and each have the ability to light the world on fire without much hindrance. And unlike WWI and WWII, the catastrophe that could ensue would make those previous wars seem like brush fires.

  3. North Korea feels that it needs a deterrent against action against it by the U.S.; and, as your article points out, U.S. policy is in the hands of military generals who favor such military action. Our generals annually reinforce North Korea’s fears by joint exercises with South Korea, practicing a land invasion of North Korea.

    If Saddam Hussein had had such a deterrent, he would be alive today.

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