01 Dec 2017
North Korea on track for a global crisis in 2018
Julie Bishop’s foreign policy white paper last week stressed that Australia faced a more uncertain and dangerous strategic outlook. Launching it an excited Malcolm Turnbull said this was ‘a time when the pace and scale of change is unprecedented in all of human history.’
Calm down, Prime Minister! I can offer you three absolute, 100% certainties that you can take to the bank.
First, it’s an absolute certainty that North Korea will keep testing ballistic missiles. This week’s launch of a missile able to hit any city in the United States – or Australia – was the 89th missile fired in the six years of Kim Jong Un’s brutal regime.
It’s an equally sure bet that international sanctions will do absolutely nothing – I stress: nothing – to stop Kim from developing nuclear weapons able to fit on those missiles. Kim Jong Un will starve his own people to reach this goal because he sees nuclear weapons as the best guarantee of his survival.
After North Korea’s intercontinental missile launch on 15 September, Malcolm Turnbull bizarrely claimed that ‘It is a sign that the sanctions are working.’ No, it isn’t, Prime Minister. The only effect of sanctions has been to speed up the nuclear tests and missile launches.
In a year or two sanctions may force North Korea to negotiate, but not before Kim shows the world he has built a reliable nuclear-armed missile force.
North Korea’s economy is much stronger than it was after the famine in the 1990s, which killed hundreds of thousands. Kim’s leadership group lives a privileged life surrounded by western luxury goods gained through sanctions-busting. In the short to medium term the regime is in no danger of collapse.
So, to the third 100% certainty: by mid-2018 we will face a crisis on the Korean Peninsula every bit as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
This is a certainty because the US cannot put its cities at risk of a nuclear attack from North Korea.
America had no choice about the Soviet Union and China building nuclear arsenals, but Washington took comfort that these two countries wanted a stable balance of power. Telephone hot-lines, arms control agreements and regular leaders’ meetings meant that the nuclear balance was controlled.
North Korea is cruel and authoritarian like Russia and China, but also much more unpredictable. It’s run by a vicious family mafia that’s stayed in power since 1947 by constantly generating international crises and threatening its neighbours.
No US President, and certainly not Donald Trump, will put the security of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles into the hands of Kim Jong Un.
North Korea is still some months away from perfecting essential technology. It needs to make its missiles more accurate and to work out how to stop the nuclear weapon re-entry vehicles from breaking up as they enter earth’s atmosphere.
Kim Jong Un is perhaps six to nine months from perfecting the full weapon’s package. During this time the US must halt or destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. If the US fails, one of the world’s most unpredictable regimes will have weapons able to destroy any city on the planet.
If the US attacks the North, it’s very unlikely that conflict would be limited to a surgical strike on missile facilities. The chances are that a major war would quickly escalate on the peninsula, rapidly bringing in Japan and causing massive damage in North and South Korea.
Faced with this terrible prospect governments should be searching for any solution to prevent a second Korean War, but there’s not a shred of evidence that the US and North Korea are quietly talking about how to get off the path to war.
Australia doesn’t have anything useful to suggest either. Every missile launch gets the same leaden response from Julie Bishop, condemning it ‘in the strongest possible terms’ and calling on the North to play nicely.
This is the moment for a creative Australian government to start a back-channel discussion with North Korea. Sadly, there is about as much chance of that happening as there is for Kim Jong Un to hand over his nuclear weapons to the United Nations.
What will happen over the next few months? The North will continue testing its missiles and nuclear weapons. Here are three things to look out for. Instead of a launch straight up into space, at some point the North will want to launch on a flatter trajectory across the Pacific Ocean to prove its missiles will travel the necessary distance.
Second, the North is working hard on submarine-launched missiles so we should look out for a test of that capability. Finally, and most worrying, the North may want to do an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon. All of this would be designed to prove they have reached their goal of nuclear missiles that will reliably hit the US.
We should all hope otherwise, but I’m not in the business of wish-making. 2018 will be a deeply dangerous year for global peace and stability.