“They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”i These were the words President Donald Trump presented to his Administration at an event in Bedminster, New Jersey, in response to North Korea’s continuing development of its nuclear weapons system.
The latest development came out from a recent report in the Washington Post which concluded that U.S intelligence officials believe the DPRK has a nuclearized warhead that can fit into another nuclear missile. According to the article, “The United States calculated last month that up to 60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.”ii
There has been some pretty strong language coming out of President Trump on this North Korea threat on Tuesday, and some even called this ‘unprecedented’. The U.S intelligence community now assesses that the DPRK has the capabilities to build a nuclear warhead that can be attached to a missile which could threaten the U.S mainland. Despite international sanctions, this has been a milestone for the DPRK to develop its nuclear capabilities and continue its tests that have been conducted for many years. In response to the latest United Nations sanctions, the North Koreans called the sanctions “an attempt “to strangle a nation” and warned that in response, “physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilization of all its national strength.””iii There has also been a report that the DPRK might hit Guam, which is home to two major U.S military bases and many strategic bombers.
Reality or Rhetoric?
The fact that North Korea has the capability of developing a nuclear warhead that can attach to a nuclear missile is an extraordinary development. Frankly, the worst-case scenario for the global community is for North Korea to develop a nuclear device that can mount onto a long-range ballistic missile, and if that missile can survive atmospheric re-entry, then Pyongyang is in a position, to strike any U.S territories at any time, and thereby deter the United States in whichever way it chooses to do so.
North Korea also has road mobile, precision guided, solid fuel capability, so they are also in a position, to engage in warfighting with U.S forces and their allies in the Asian-Pacific arena. North Korea not only has warfighting capabilities, but they also have deterrent capabilities to strike the U.S. The major U.S military bases in Japan like Okinawa are definitely in range of the DPRK’s missile program, but Guam remains to be seen.
Guam may be in the radius of a possible DPRK strike because Guam is home to two U.S military bases and it also has assets like fighter jets that take off to South Korea. President Trump’s words have been a bluster and a truth. We haven’t yet crossed the Rubicon, but we are also close to drawing a red line on the North Korea issue, and President Trump will simply not tolerate North Korea’s disturbing actions. A few days ago, in an interview with MSNBC, National Security Advisor H.R McMaster said that a preventive war with North Korea is a possibility and, “we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.”iv
The Chinese Response
China has been watching these developments very closely and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been talking about the need for dialogue and negotiations as the only options for resolving the Korean Peninsula issue. It was a big achievement for China and Russia to jump aboard the UN Security Council’s toughest sanctions on North Korea since 2006 and the question becomes how can the parties coordinate to deter North Korea’s nuclear capabilities? Unfortunately, the strong remarks by President Trump have created a lot of confusion in capital cities like Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo about what the policy towards the hermit kingdom is going forward.
There is also a lot of confusion on what the U.S policy is as well. Secretary of State Tillerson reiterated that the United States is not an enemy of North Korea and that there will be no regime change or military operation in North Korea, while President Trump uses words like fire and fury to ramp up the already escalating tensions on the peninsula. This is also a bad situation for China because they do not know who to believe. Do they believe the statements from Secretary Tillerson or President Trump? So, there is also confusion on the Chinese front as well about mixed signals coming from the Trump Administration.
There is one view coming out of the Trump Administration that is pressuring China to do more to resolve the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but what else can they do? China put the freeze to freeze proposal on the table, they banned coal imports and reduced trade to the DPRK, but China’s leverage on the DPRK has caught a lot of attention in the Beltway.
The latest round of sanctions from the UN Security Council have been called the toughest sanctions on the DPRK, and this is going to cut around a third of North Korea’s foreign reserves such as exports on sea products and mineral resources, as well as coal. These goods are also being sold to China so this will also hurt China’s economic ties with Pyongyang. But let’s also remember that there is a lot of dissatisfaction from North Korea to China and the DPRK’s missiles can always change directions, so there is also a worry about Beijing being a target along with the U.S and Japan. Out of all the parties in the Korean Peninsula discussions, China is suffering the most not only because of its leverage in the North Korean government, but because they have taken the necessary actions to cut some of its support to North Korea. China is not only cutting support to achieve the goal of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, but it also wants to cooperate with the United States on moving forward with the peninsula issue.
Crossing Red Lines
It is one thing to have a nuclear weapon, but it is another thing to have a delivery system loaded with multiple missiles. In the case of North Korea, they almost already have their threshold of having the delivery capacity to carry out a preventive strike. In addition, the miniaturization of their nuclear capability is definitely a milestone, but a source of concern for the global community.
Realistically, there are only three options for the global community going forward towards their North Korea policy. One is the sanctions route, which so far has proved to be ineffective, given a successful test a few weeks ago, but whether we like it or not, the sanctions have not worked at all.
Playing the blame fame is not exactly the correct way to solve the peninsula issue, and it seems like this has played into North Korea’s advantage of containing a deterrence capability against a strike or some sort of regime change approach.
The second option is the pre-emotive strike which NSA Advisor McMaster mentioned in the MSNBC interview which could be devastating for the entire region and a predicted one million casualties from all sides if a confrontation were to occur. The second option is still up for debate because U.S intelligence and military strength can neutralize the DPRK’s launching capability. If you look at the statements made by Secretary for Defense James Mattis over the past few months, he is still studying the best options moving forward. President Trump can talk about fire and fury, but even the officials in the Pentagon are still scratching their heads over whether a pre-emotive strike is the best solution to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Even if the U.S neutralizes North Korea’s ability to for example, strike the U.S or Japan, then South Korea, specifically Seoul could be a sacrificial lamb if North Korea decides to retaliate by using its chemical weapon artillery shells and Seoul is right across the border. So, South Koreans are in a very tough position as well.
The third option is negotiations which have been agreed upon by all parties in the UN Security Council and this must continue of there is any hope of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. When South Korean president Moon Jae-In came into office, he urged for there to be a diplomatic solution through negotiations with the north. President Moon also reiterated along with the global community that regime change would never be an option, and they would accept North Korea as a nuclear power which is politically controversial. We are also reaching this boiling point because the global community is now in a position where it must continue negotiations that work for all parties and not just to impose its will on the North Koreans.
The first option of the sanctions is not the best option, but the global community must make a choice between either a pre-emptive strike or continue negotiations through a diplomatic settlement with a full-fledged nuclear power. The global community must accept the reality that North Korea has a nuclear capability and engage this hermit kingdom to freeze their nuclear assets, and be cautious about making irrational choices like war. As long as the global community avoids any confrontation with North Korea, we can only hope that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula can be accomplished not only for the Asia-Pacific region, but for the world.
ii. Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima, and Anna Fifield, “North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S Analysts say” August 8, 2017 Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-now-making-missile-ready-nuclear-weapons-us-analysts-say/2017/08/08/e14b882a-7b6b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?utm_term=.c11476022637
iii. Joby Warrick, Ellen Nakashima, and Anna Fifield, “North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S Analysts say” August 8, 2017 Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korea-now-making-missile-ready-nuclear-weapons-us-analysts-say/2017/08/08/e14b882a-7b6b-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html?utm_term=.c11476022637
iv. Tyler Durden, “McMaster: U.S. preparing for “preventive war” with North Korea” August 6, 2017 Centre for Research on Globalization http://www.globalresearch.ca/mcmaster-u-s-preparing-for-preventive-war-with-north-korea/5602863
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