11 Aug 2017
Devastating war between US and North Korea edges closer
The most worrying thing about the North Korean nuclear missile crisis is that the only country with a real plan of action is, you guessed it, North Korea.
Kim Jong-un’s nasty family dictatorship is completely open about what it’s doing: it’s building nuclear weapons and planning to fit them on missiles able to hit the United States and Australia.
The North Koreans have been on this path for 25 years. Kim Jong-un’s grandfather started the nuclear gambit in the early 1990s when he abandoned the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The West has tried everything to stop North Korea, but decades of sanctions, negotiations, isolation, closer engagement, economic aid, military pressure and now Donald Trump’s threats of ‘fire and fury’ have done nothing to stop the regime’s nuclear plans.
Kim isn’t mad. He calculates that nuclear weapons will keep his regime safe from attack.
His country is a fast sprint away from the ultimate goal of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Most of the technology has already been proven by North Korea. Japanese and US intelligence sources now accept that the North has made nuclear weapons small enough to fit into a missile’s nose cone.
One of the last technical hurdles is to work out how to stop the nose cone from breaking up as it becomes white-hot re-entering the atmosphere above its target.
North Korea will work that out, too. The regime is even posting videos of nose cones being heat-tested under the rocket engines of old Scud missiles.
While its plan of action is clear, that can’t be said for Donald Trump’s responses or those of America’s key allies.
America only has two options. It can learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea and try to strengthen deterrence by basing tactical nuclear missiles in South Korea, opening a dialogue with Pyongyang, and putting in a phone ‘hotline’ to manage crises. That strategy worked with the Russians and the Chinese. The crucial question is: Can the North be disciplined into accepting the logic of ‘mutual assured destruction’?
Many senior Americans doubt that deterrence can work with Kim Jong-un. That leaves option two: mount a pre-emptive strike against the North’s missile and nuclear weapons.
The window of opportunity is closing fast for the US to strike before the North can hit back with nuclear weapons. The North has the ability right now to launch a massive artillery barrage against the South Korean capital, Seoul, and hit Japan and US forces based in Guam with medium-range missiles. There are no obvious signs that the US is taking active steps to either strengthen a deterrence strategy or position for a pre-emptive strike.
What we have instead is undisciplined comments from Trump, which his national security team scrambles to explain away.
Threatening the North with ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ is risky. If Kim concludes that his regime is about to be decapitated, he has nothing to lose in striking first.
The US has the military might to turn much of North Korea into an irradiated wasteland, but that could come at the cost of the North massively damaging its neighbours.
Trump has no time for diplomacy. Last March he thought he had got an agreement from China’s President Xi Jinping that Beijing would pressure North Korea into stopping its nuclear and missile testing. But within weeks Trump was tweeting his disappointment that China wasn’t helping.
There are times when Trump’s tweets are delusional. Yesterday he tweeted that America’s nuclear arsenal ‘is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before’.
That’s just not true. Trump has ordered a review of America’s nuclear weapons, which are badly in need of modernisation, but nothing has happened yet.
For most of America’s allies, there is no plan B if the current sanctions efforts against North Korea fail—as they will, because China has no intention of bringing ‘little brother’ to its knees.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has said that a nuclear-armed North Korea is an ‘unacceptable existential threat to our country’.
If that’s really true, it’s surprising that Bishop told ABC Radio yesterday that ‘we were not a party, in the legal sense, to the [Korean War] armistice so there is no automatic trigger for Australia to be involved. As far as the ANZUS alliance is concerned, that is an obligation to consult’.
It’s the wrong moment for our usually very assured foreign affairs minister to say the alliance just requires consultation—that’s the paper treaty, not the reality of Australia–US ties. It would create panic in Canberra if Donald Trump dismissed ANZUS as just about consultation.
Australia will have no choice about being in the fight if war comes to the Korean peninsula. If conflict damages North Asian trade, then our own economy will flatline within days.
It will probably take about six months to demonstrate that international sanctions against North Korea will have no effect on Kim’s missile and nuclear programs.
As we move into 2018, the options of deterrence or open conflict will be so stark not even Australia will be able to pretend that diplomacy can solve this crisis.
War is getting closer. This is the appalling future we’re heading into.