by Col. Jim Waurishuk (ret.)
Since the end of the Cold War, the paradox and perception of North Korea by the United States has been that of both a constant threat and a continual joke — with its leaders being the source of as much fear for the American public as derision.
North Korea’s missile and nuclear program is presented simultaneously as a dangerous example of the failure of nonproliferation regimes and as a duct-tape-and-baling-wire operation, notwithstanding the flurry of missile tests and accomplishments that Pyongyang has touted recently. In a recent address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un touted the achievements that the country’s nuclear and missile program had made over the past year and those that it would make in the year to come. Further, His remarks proclaimed a country that had attained the status of a nuclear power in 2016 and was now claiming to be prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
On the morning of July 16, 1945, just before dawn, the U.S. military conducted the world’s first-ever nuclear Weapons test, detonating a plutonium device in the remote deserts of New Mexico. At that moment, America changed the course of human history, bringing the awesome capability and power of global annihilation to the fingertips of man. Since then, the specter of a nuclear apocalypse has loomed off and on over the world, striking varying degrees of fear in the hearts of people, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Moscow and Washington, D.C.
With tensions high in the Western Pacific, many fear that America’s increasingly hard-line stance with Kim Jong-un’s unpredictable tyrannical regime may once again trigger a nuclear showdown, pitting the world’s sole superpower against the rogue Communist regime, sometimes referred to as the “hermit kingdom” run by a deranged dictatorial lunatic despot.
For the most part, the Obama administration attempted to quell Pyongyang’s hostile rhetoric and routine nuclear bomb testing with menial diplomacy to include visits by socialist sympathizers and even basketball star Dennis Rodman. Every single attempt and approach did little, if anything, to slow down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Abandoning the Obama doctrine of passivity, aka; the “Strategic Pause,” President Trump has now signaled and strategically telegraphed that we may resort to military solutions if North Korea continues to provoke the United States. This policy shift has caught the attention of Asia-Pacific leaders in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo as the region gears up for potential military conflict.
First though there are number of things you need to know about the evolving North Korean crisis, what I will refer to as the “North Korea Nuclear Gamble” To understand this we need to evaluate what got us to where we are today and assessment of what we know about the ongoing crisis. Without going back through the history of North Korea and what has transpired since the Korea War and the armistice signed on July 27, 1953, we can get to the heart of the problem which started 40-years later following the end of the Cold War.
1 – So, in 1993 former President Bill Clinton promised that North Korea would never develop nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have conducted five nuclear tests since the U.S. struck an unenforceable, naïve deal with Pyongyang. For two decades prior, again during the Cold War, through negotiations, the U.S. attempted to pay off North Korea to prevent them from going nuclear. However, the Clinton administration signed off on a framework in 1994 that ended up replacing North Korea’s nuclear power plant with light water reactor power plants – supposedly in an attempt to help North Korea develop nuclear energy without the capacity for nuclear weapons.
During that effort, President Bill Clinton said that; “This agreement will help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective: an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world. It reduces the danger of the threat of nuclear spreading in the region. It’s a crucial step toward drawing North Korea into the global community. This agreement represents the first step on the road to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It does not rely on trust. Compliance will be certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States and North Korea have also agreed to ease trade restrictions and to move toward establishing liaison offices in each other’s capitals. These offices will ease North Korea’s isolation.” Certainly, the administration weak diplomacy did not help matters when it sent then Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Pyongyang, thus offering instant official recognition and legitimacy to then regime leader Kim Jung-Il.
Furthermore, over the course of the remainder of Clinton administration, the administration was distracted by other international events with the Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Rwanda, the Iraq No-Fly Zones, the Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, and the growing threat of radical-Islamic terror – all the while North Korea continued to work its nuclear weapons program by side-stepping sanctions and getting covert nuclear logistical support and avoiding albeit toothless UN nuclear weapons inspections.
By 2002, it was clear to the world that North Korea was in fact a nuclear developer, and the Bush Administration so announced in 2003. By 2006, North Korea had tested a bomb. In other words, the United States handed the North Koreans cash and technology – and a signed basketball from Michael Jordan – in order to convince them not to go nuclear. Within a decade, North Korea had gone nuclear.
2 – The U.S. Navy is moving assets to the Korean Peninsula as a show of force against North Korea. Last week, the Trump administration said that U.S. Pacific Command had sent the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean Peninsula in an effort to reify the president’s talking points about America’s policy shift toward Pyongyang. It turns out the Carl Vinson didn’t go straight to the Korean Peninsula, but took acircuitous route as part of the Pentagon’s deception strategy. White House officials appeared to be ill-informed about the Navy vessel’s actual sailing route. The Carl Vinson was actually on its way to carry out training exercises with the Australian navy when the Trump team said that it was headed to the Korean Peninsula. Attempting to clear up the confusion, but as part of the deception plan the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the Carl Vinson was still on its way to the region of the Korean peninsula despite the fact that it took a brief detour near Australia. As it stands, joint Naval exercises with the Australians had been expedited so that the strike group could continue to sail north with the intention of stationing a strike group near North Korea. It was also part of the effort to buy time in order to prepare and move other strategic naval assets into position around the Korean peninsula.
3 – North Korea is repeating recycled rhetoric and propaganda about wiping out the U.S. and its allies in the wake of Trump’s tough stance. The Kim Jung-un regime’s bellicose tone doesn’t seem to change despite shifting U.S. policy. Pyongyang’s outrage meter is always dialed up to 11, regardless of the level of external stimuli. Every couple weeks or so, Kim Jong-un, or a hyper-obedient official regime “news reporter” issues a hyperbolic announcement on state-run media, boasting about the regime’s awe-inspiring military capabilities with the express intent of threatening the United States and its allies in the region — primarily South Korea. In the past, North Korean state-run media has suggested that Kim Jong-un’s army could “burn down” Manhattan with an “H-bomb.” Of a total absurdity and fabrication – most nuclear weapons experts with any degree of credibility cast doubt on North Korea’s self-purported capabilities, let alone even being able mount, launch and deliver an ICBM based nuclear weapon.
Indeed, the country’s boastful claims are grounded more in bravado than reality. A recent Rand Corporation analytical piece put Pyongyang’s fear-mongering under a microscope, casting doubt on the dictatorship’s PR stunt suggesting; “The bang they should have gotten would have been 10 times greater than what they’re claiming.” And that “… Kim Jong-un is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they didn’t, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon – or the hydrogen part of the test really didn’t work very well or the fission part didn’t work very well.” Of course, U.S. intelligence knows all too well and its assurances are regularly and certainly being briefed to the Commander-in-Chief, need I say more.
Ripping a page out of the old playbook, North Korea made strikingly similar claims this week on the heels of President Trump’s pushback against the Kim Jung-un’s and his regime’s battle cries that North Korea will launch a “super-mighty preemptive strike” if the U.S. continues to provoke us, as stated in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
4 – The U.S. has sent various aircraft to the region in order to gather intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.One of those the U.S. Air Force dispatched almost two weeks ago is a “nuclear sniffer aircraft” to the east of the Korean Peninsula amid the possibility of North Korea’s imminent nuclear test.
It arrived at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan amid indications that North Korea was preparing for another nuclear test. The WC-135 Constant Phoenix, is a special-purpose, special mission aircraft — its mission is to detect potential nuclear particles and radiation, and to then collect samples from the atmosphere in order to test and identity the possibility of a nuclear explosion. It made its first sortie on April 20th over the East Sea according to sources. Thursday’s flight appears meant to check whether the secretive communist nation has detonated a nuclear bomb. It also tests operational readiness in the event of an actual provocation by the North, added the source.
There was an unconfirmed rumor that North Korea has notified China of its nuclear experiment plan. South Korea’s military said earlier this month that North Korea seemed to be all set to conduct what would be its sixth nuclear test at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in its northeastern region anytime based on the leadership’s decision from Kim Kim Jong-un.
5 – North Korea does not yet possess the technology to hit the western coast of the United States. Despite all its bluster and propaganda, the Communist regime simply does not have the capability to strike the American mainland, specifically the western coast of the United States, according to weapons experts and intelligence officials.
For it to be possible to hit California, Washington, or Oregon, North Korea would need to develop long-range missiles with mounted warheads. The Communist regime at this point has yet to master this technological feat, no matter how many statements to the contrary Pyongyang’s propaganda machine releases. Nevertheless, according to reports Kim Jong-un has dramatically increased missile testing since he took power in 2011. Likewise, North Korea has yet to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could cross nearly 5,500 miles of the Pacific.
In order to do so, North Korea would need to overcome two major technological feats of engineering to threaten the American mainland – these include the following:
Develop a working ICBM system and a nuclear warhead for those ICBMs. Unlike shorter-range missiles, capable of hitting both South Korea and Japan, long-range missiles have multiple engines and flight stages, meaning North Korean engineers have to make both ICBM missiles – and mountable nuclear warheads – that are capable of surviving the violent vibrations of launch, the wrenching g-forces of flight, and the temperature changes of takeoff and the extremely hot re-entry from space.
6 – However, North Korea does have the ability to launch a nuclear strike against U.S. allies in the region, including as previously noted, South Korea and Japan.
Following five nuclear tests over the past decade, North Korea has already shown that it poses a capability as a nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan, roughly 80,000 American soldiers stationed in those countries, and to China, its nominal ally. This past February, North Korea fired a medium-range missile into the Sea of Japan, traveling about 300 miles. North Korea has also developed a missile with an estimated range of 2,200 miles, almost halfway to Hawaii, but so far has struggled to launch it. We know that it is clear that North Korea does possess short-range missile capabilities. It may also possess medium range missile capabilities. Both missiles are detectable with U.S. and allied satellites.
Disturbingly, North Korea’s latest threats have focused on U.S. allies in the region. North Korea has said it will immediately and completely wipe-out not only U.S. military forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas, but also the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes. According to again, North Korea’s state-run media this past week.
Specific threats against regional allies are far more disconcerting than traditional North Korean “annihilate America” talk. Again, the Kim Jung-un regime possesses the ability to make good on these threats. This isn’t just showmanship. While the rhetoric may seem hyperbolic, it’s well within the realm of possibility for North Korea to launch a missile strike against longtime foe South Korea, or even Japan. In the event such an attack occurs, the U.S. may be required to respond with military and nuclear force. It is also well confirmed that the regime as 150,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea which is roughly 30-miles to the south. Such a capability would be extremely devastating to the citizens in and around the capital. Such a threat is equally of concern due to the crisis situation it would present, and the disastrous impact it would cause in terms of a human catastrophe for South Korea and the region.
7 – As I touched on previously, North Korea is actively working to develop a missile-delivery system capable of striking the continental U.S. What has worried Washington for the last few years has been North Korea’s advances in developing long-range missiles or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). If engineered properly, ICBMs can reach the western coast of the United States. But again, for the North Koreans to carry out a nuclear attack against America, they would have to make sure that the ICBMs in question can support a considerable payload, in other words, nuclear warheads capable of being mounted on top of a heat-resistant, travel-resistant long-range missile. North Korea is far from developing this highly technical capability. That doesn’t mean, however, they’re not putting in every effort to try to make this maniacal dream a reality.
The reclusive Communist regime’s ICBM program has been in full swing despite increasing U.S. diplomatic pressure. Sanctions initiated by the UN have also failed to slow down the Kim Jong-un regime. On April 24th, President Trump met with the UN Security Council Ambassadors at the White for a working lunch to stress the use and leverage of increased economic and other sanctions against Pyongyang.
Both U.S. and international weapons experts stated in early January that North Korea’s announcement of an imminent ICBM test-launch was worrying given the country’s significant technological leap forward in 2016. After spending the last year fine-tuning missile-guiding systems and rocket propulsion, North Korea plans on entering a new age of aggression without being weighed down by weak Soviet-era weaponry. Specifically, the country’s recent advances in liquid-fuel engine technology could be a game-changer in the years ahead.
Further, heavy taxes on wealthy businessmen operating duplicitously in the country’s unofficial market economy, small arms sales to rogue entities, and unlimited free labor have largely contributed to the pariah state’s weapons cache. Despite the self-imposed obstacles of economic stagnation, closed borders, and suffocating insularity, Pyongyang may be just a couple years away from raining missiles down on the U.S. west coast states. Once fully developed, a North Korean ICBM could threaten the continental United States, which is approximately 5,500 miles from the North. ICBMs have a minimum range of about 3,400 miles, but some are designed to travel 6,200 miles or further.
For North Korea, while fear-mongering and showmanship is still part and informational tool-box of the country’s propaganda machinery, Pyongyang’s calculated actions have been taken to gradually align with its hyperbolic and hardline words. Through its state-run media apparatus, the Kim Jong-Un regime has regularly threatened the U.S. with annihilation many-a-time only to be scoffed at by weapons experts, essentially calling-out their shortfalls.
However, things are changing. Today, North Korea has enough uranium to build at least six nuclear bombs, according to U.S. experts. Again, as previously noted, all it needs now is a missile delivery system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 5,600 miles across the Pacific to the U.S. west coast.
8 – The Trump administration is united in its no-nonsense stance against North Korea. “All options are on the table.” Note, I’ve addressed the evolving Trump Doctrine in this column last week. One after another, Trump administration officials have lined up to deliver unapologetically stern statements against the Kim Jung Un regime over the past week, placing the Asia-Pacific region and the world on notice that the U.S. and its regional allies mean business.
The United States “will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response,” said Vice President Mike Pence during a symbolic address at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) earlier last week. Again, thus far a further reaffirmation of America’s alliance with South Korea and Japan. VP Pence further proclaimed that: The U.S. stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Republic of Korea – and the service and vigilance of some 37,500 U.S. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines on this frontier of freedom stands as a testament to the enduring partnership between the U.S. and the people of South Korea.
The alliance between South Korea and the United States is the linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and indeed throughout the Asian Pacific. The United States’ commitment to South Korea is ironclad and immutable … VP Pence added that the “era of strategic patience was over” after stating in plain words that “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.” VP Pence’s speech came just days after National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told ABC News last week that “all options are on the table, undergoing refinement and further development.” General McMaster also said that avoidance of military conflict was preferable in pursuit of the Trump administration’s objective to “denuclearize” North Korea’s government and stop its development of long-range missiles. The General further emphasized that: “This is a problem that has been passed down from multiple administrations. It’s really the consensus, with the president, our key allies in the region – Japan and South Korea, in particular – but also the Chinese leadership that this problem is coming to a head. It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can short of a military option to resolve this peacefully.”
9 – China appears to be responding to U.S. diplomatic pressure. Following a meeting earlier this month with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Chinese President Xi Jinping seems ready to have started shifting his country’s sympathetic policy stance toward North Korea. Both leaders came out of the meeting suggesting that they’ve made major inroads when it comes to the North Korean question. Certainly, these changes have been a long time coming and were not able to happen under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.
10 – It has been noted, that the shift has been evident in recent months, in Beijing’s decision to back heavier sanctions against Pyongyang by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the steps it took to more fully implement existing sanctions. That is significant because China had in the past expressed reservations over the sanctions and even objected to some of them. Further, international security analysts have further noted the change as one of emphasis that in the past, Beijing placed greater emphasis on regime survival in Pyongyang and stable relations with its close neighbor and less on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; it now places equal emphasis on both.
Now that Beijing seems to be distancing itself from Pyongyang even further, China appears poised to cut energy exports to North Korea, a move that would have a devastating impact on North Korea’s economy. With economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the international community alienating North Korea, the communist regime largely relies on China for energy and commodities. That may soon change. We have so far to date seen the refusal by Beijing to accept coal imports to China. Likewise, recent suspension of both cooking oil and fuel oil will further strain and put pressure on Pyongyang to cooperate.
North Korea relies almost entirely on China for oil. The Asian giant shipped about 500,000 tons of crude to the North each year until 2013, according to the Chinese customs agency. Bilateral ties cooled that year after Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test, and exports officially have remained at zero since 2014. But China is believed to still provide crude to North Korea off the books. A complete freeze would impact the North Korean economy. To that end, North Korea’s nuclear experiments must be stopped, and that China should make clear that it will cut off crude exports in response to further tests.
As diplomatic efforts by the U.S. continued over the past several weeks, China likely now feels pressured by U.S. President Trump’s tough talk on North Korea, including his willingness to consider military and economic options. He and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at their summit in Palm Beach month that Pyongyang posed a serious threat. Trump is known to have also pushed China to use its influence over the North.
Furthermore, calls for a crude freeze have increased since around April 12th, when Trump and Xi spoke once again by phone. Some think the two leaders have reached some agreement to toughen up and put increased pressure on Pyongyang. The effort seems to be trying to threaten North Korea into abandoning future nuclear tests.
As reports have shown and have been known for years, the Kim regime has left its own people to starve. Grocery stores and food markets are empty and food shortages are a fact of life. The country hardly produces anything of value to keep its isolated economy churning. Add that to its exclusion from the global marketplace, and North Korea could face incredible economic turmoil if China were to back away from a trade relationship.
So what is in for China? If China wants anything, it’s regional stability. As China continues its aggressive push into marketplaces in Africa, the Middle East, and South Pacific, it can’t afford volatility from its neighbors and missile fire along its shores. Stability in the region is critical to be able to invite international business representatives to China.
Further, with the U.S. moving naval vessels toward the western Pacific, China has placed its cruise-missile-capable bombers on “high alert” in preparation for a potential military conflict involving North Korea and the United States. A staggering number of Chinese military planes are also being brought up to full readiness through intensified maintenance as a contingency. China is deeply uncomfortable with U.S. naval movement near its shores. As a result, Beijing appears to be responding by preparing its military and sending Kim Jong-Un a clear message.
So where do we stand — the rogue regime in North Korea poses one of the most dangerous threats to U.S. national security interests. Pyongyang presents a multifaceted military threat to peace and stability in Asia as well as a global proliferation risk. The Communist regime has developed enough fissile material for 10–16 plutonium-based nuclear weapons and conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Pyongyang has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility, increasing not only the potential threats from an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal, but also the risk of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, North Korea has contributed to nuclear proliferation by assisting with similar programs in both Iran and Syria.
North Korea has declared that it already has a full nuclear strike capability, even altering its constitution to enshrine itself as a nuclear-armed state. Among North Korea’s many direct verbal threats to the U.S., in December 2014, came from its National Defense Commission when it warned that Pyongyang would “carry out an ultra-harsh war of reaction targeting the entire U.S. mainland, including the White House and the Pentagon. Stating our military and our people are perfectly prepared to fight with the U.S. in all kinds of war, including a cyberwar.” North Korea will continue to conduct additional provocative acts in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In the end, North Korean’s “dear-leader” Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as belligerent and dangerous as his predecessors, his father and grandfather.
One of the ironies of the Cold War was that the race between Washington and Moscow for nuclear weapons in some ways obviated the potential for their use according to the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) principle. During the conflict, each side kept a close eye on the other to ensure that neither party was gaining an advantage that would change the equation. In the decades since, the United States has maintained a strong stance against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. After all, the more countries that possess nuclear weapons, the harder it is to manage them and prevent their use.
However, these worst-case scenarios feed back into the United States’ view of North Korea. If North Korea achieves its nuclear weapons goals, the situation could become all the more tenuous. Alternatively, there are also fears and concerns in the U.S. that Pyongyang may also be crazy enough to either use its nuclear weapons — or perhaps sell them to another non-state actor — or is too unstable to maintain positive control over its arsenal.
With regard to use, the government in North Korea, may not and presumably does not use the same cost-benefit analysis in assessing its national security that other nations do. Consequently, Kim Jung-un and its political and military leaders may consider the use of nuclear weapons a viable option, even if in only a first-strike capacity. If North Korea’s leadership is that crazy, as most assume, then it may not realize or care that using nuclear weapons would provoke a much larger response, and that the in the end, the regime would lose any war it started. If this is an accurate assessment, then the United States has little recourse to shape Pyongyang’s behavior short of removing its leader. Perhaps that is another card in the deck, or perhaps strategically placed under the table.