06 Jul 2017
All North Korea options are bad but a plan is still needed
An irked Donald trump took to twitter after North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test: ‘Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?’
The answer, Mr President, is that Kim Jong Un thinks his survival hinges on having an arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles to deter an attack on his country.
Kim’s no fool. He wants to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom gave up nuclear programs and saw their regimes toppled.
The reality is that Kim Jong Un is close to achieving his goal. North Korea is perhaps a year from developing a missile able to hit Los Angeles and New York. A year ago, US assessments thought that a miniaturised nuclear weapon able to fit inside a missile nosecone would take four years of development.
North Korea is now substantially closer to achieving that nuclear-armed ICBM. It’s sprinting to achieve a reliable deterrent with eleven missile tests this year involving fixed and mobile land missiles as well as submarine launched ones. And a sixth underground nuclear test is likely soon.
The ICBM test wasn’t just a poke in America’s eye on 4 July, it was also calculated to annoy Beijing. The ICBM was carried to its launch site on a sophisticated vehicle made in China.
A number of these vehicles – known by the designation WS5-1200 – were illegally exported by China to North Korea and paraded in Pyongyang in 2012. Beijing said they were trucks to carry logs They are strategically important because road mobile missiles are much harder to destroy.
After the ICBM launch Kim posed for photos with soldiers in front of the vehicle. That’s significant for two reasons: It shows that China isn’t really committed to stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Far from squeezing economic ties to pressure Kim, Chinese figures reportedly show a growth in exports to North Korea this year.
Second, such is Kim’s priority on getting his weapons he will accept the risk of annoying Beijing, proving that there is little China will do to stop him.
What can the West do to make Kim Jong Un change his approach? I see three options, none of them good.
Option one – favoured by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – is to keep pressing for harder sanctions and international pressure. But this plan isn’t working. If anything, talk about more pressure has forced Kim to speed up his missile and nuclear testing. It might be possible to pressure China to squeeze harder, but Beijing is not saying or doing anything to suggest this is happening.
Option two is to launch a pre-emptive strike against the North’s missile and nuclear facilities, as well as against the hundreds of rockets and artillery tubes able to hit Seoul. Only a few hours after the ICBM launch, US and South Korean forces held their own exercise of weapons with ‘deep strike precision capability’, showing they do have credible offensive options.
It’s difficult to see how a strike of this type could be contained and there is much to suggest that the North would live up to its blood-curdling rhetoric and try to turn Seoul and Tokyo into a sea of fire. However, a US President might judge that a strike was necessary if they believed Kim might launch a nuclear attack against a major American city.
Option three would be for the US to accept that Kim has already got enough of a nuclear arsenal that it cannot safely be destroyed without risking massive retaliation. Some former senior US officials think this point has already been reached. If that’s correct America’s best option would be to open direct channels of negotiation and to try to stabilise nuclear deterrence in north Asia.
There would be a need to reassure Seoul, possibly by deploying US tactical nuclear weapons back on the peninsula.
Just how far can one trust Kim Jong Un and the brainwashed leadership of his country to behave like a responsible nuclear weapons power? No President would feel comfortable with this choice.
Australia is a bit player in any of these scenarios. Because of our role in the Korean war we are committed to defend the South if its attacked, but our forces will have little early involvement in a strike outside of some intelligence assistance.
Australia could be theoretically hit by a North Korean ICBM, but why would they waste a precious missile and warhead if the prime target was the United States or Japan? Still, a smart Australian approach would be to invest in a shipborne ballistic missile defence capability, most likely to protect deployed Australian forces.
There isn’t much more substance to the Trump Administration’s Korea policy than you see in the President’s tweets. As a matter of urgency America and its closest allies should be getting into a policy huddle to think harder about what to do next.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.