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Will North Korea and the United States Go to War?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • August 14, 2017

    The belligerent rhetoric from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is causing serious concern. While a war appears rather unlikely as neither side can afford it, it cannot be completely ruled out. A miscalculation by either side might lead to a war that is certain to cause loss of human lives and destruction of frightful proportions. Policy driven by belligerent rhetoric can indeed engender such miscalculations as both sides paint themselves into a corner. Unfortunately, the incoherence in US policy under Trump makes one fear that the probability of a disastrous miscalculation is truly worrisome.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki

    It is important to bear in mind that we are in the month of August and should recall with horror the holocaust carried out by President Truman in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two bombs immediately killed more than 120,000 human beings and many thousands more later. Historians have not ceased to debate on the need and justification for such a holocaust. One doubts whether Truman’s predecessor Roosevelt would have done it. It has been argued by the apologists for Truman that it was necessary to use the horrendous atom bomb for compelling Japan to surrender as otherwise US casualties would have been heavy if an invasion of the Japanese islands had been carried out. There may or may not be merit in that argument. But granting that there is merit, the question remains as to why Nagasaki was flattened within three days. Surely, Truman could have waited for a reasonable period for Japan’s response to the destruction of Hiroshima.

    We know now that the US was testing out two types of bombs. The ‘Little Boy’, with uranium 235 on Hiroshima and the ‘Fat Man’ with plutonium 239 on Nagasaki. The bombs could have been tested in an unpopulated area, but the US wanted to know the extent of the destruction in terms of lives and property.

    Why we are where we are?

    It is not the case that only Pyongyang has been repeatedly provoking the US by carrying out nuclear and missile tests. The provocation has come from both sides. In May 2016, candidate Trump had clearly stated that, if elected, he would be willing to talk to Kim Jong-un over a hamburger. But after becoming President, he did not send any signal about talking. The first signal came in early February 2017 when the US and South Korea agreed to install THAAD (Terminal High Area Air Defense) in South Korea. On 5 February, the US and Japan successfully downed a test medium-range ballistic missile with a new interceptor launched from a guided-missile destroyer. That was a message to North Korea that its missiles can be intercepted.

    Six days later, North Korea carried out the first of its 18 missile tests since Trump became President. In April 2017, Trump requested China’s Xi Jinping to restrain North Korea from further tests. Xi indicated that there were limits to his ability to persuade Kim, but that he would try. Trump made a triumphant declaration that he expected China to stop further tests by North Korea. Given Kim’s psychology, such an openly announced agreement between Xi and Trump would have made it impossible for him to stop testing. Is there anyone in the US to whom Trump would have listened if he was told of this likely reaction from Kim?

    On 30 June 2017, it was announced that Trump was being briefed on military options if North Korea were to carry out a new missile test. On 4 July 2017, obviously to coincide with the US Independence Day, North Korea carried out what it claimed as an ICBM test. The US and South Korea responded by holding a joint missile drill to counteract North Korea's "destabilizing and unlawful actions," as a US Army statement noted. Kim’s response was the test of 28 July, claimed to be ICBM once again.

    North Korea’s Capabilities

    It is not known how good and accurate US intelligence on North Korea is. Presumably, the US lacks human intelligence. Pundits are divided on the number of warheads Kim has, with the estimate varying between 20 and 60. There is also a difference of opinion about North Korea’s technical ability to miniaturize the bomb. What is, however, reasonably clear is that North Korea might acquire the ability to deliver a warhead on the continental United States before Trump completes his term in 2020.

    US Success at the UN Security Council

    The US scored a diplomatic victory by getting Resolution 2371 (5 August 2017) unanimously passed at the Security Council. This came even as US-Russia relations plunged to a new low with Putin’s order ‘expelling’ 755 staff from the US mission in Russia (30 July) in retaliation for fresh US sanctions on Russia. North Korea has been under sanctions since 2006, but the new resolution, if implemented, will cut its export earnings by US$1 billion from the current level of $3 billion.

    China’s Calculations

    Though China has publicly advised North Korea to abide by the resolution, only time will tell as to whether it will scrupulously abide by the UNSC resolution. In this context, it is important to raise a question or two about China’s real intentions in the matter. Does it want to see a permanent resolution of the matter by getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons? May be. But, is it not in China’s interest to keep the pot boiling so that the US seeks its help from time to time? Trump has once again said that if China helps in stopping the tests by North Korea he is prepared to accept the huge trade imbalance with China.

    Obviously, China does not want the regime in North Korea to collapse for good and sufficient reasons. If the regime were to collapse, millions of Koreans will seek refuge in China. Further, Korea will be united under Seoul. Such a united Korea will adversely affect China’s security as US troops can be stationed in the north of Korea. In short, the assumption that China will put pressure on Kim to halt and reverse his nuclear programme is rather naïve. China’s putting pressure by hurting North Korea’s economy itself might start an exodus of North Koreans to China.

    US Policy in Disarray

    It is important to note the mixed signalling from the US. On 8 August 2017, Trump threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury’ if it does anything to endanger the US. The implication was that he might use nuclear weapons. Hours later, North Korea paid back in the same coin by threatening to send a missile that will fall in the waters 30 to 40 km off Guam. The US has an important military post in Guam with B-1 bombers and fighter jets that might be used against North Korea in case of war. It should be noted that North Korea did not say that it was going to send a missile to Guam.

    Secretary of State Tillerson is doing his best to let the world know that the words of his President should be taken with a pinch of salt. Earlier, he had said that the US did not want to change the regime in North Korea, North Korea was not an enemy, and talks can take place ‘under appropriate conditions’. Tillerson gave an unconvincing defence of Trump by saying that the latter was speaking in the only language understood by Kim and that Americans could sleep peacefully at night. Promptly, Tillerson was rebuked by White House aide Sebastian Gorka who said that it was ‘nonsensical’ for Tillerson to speak of ‘military matters’. Tillerson’s spokesperson Heather Nauert hit back by saying that her boss was the fourth in succession in case of a vacancy in the White House and that he carried a ‘big stick’.

    What is sad and frightening is that Kim might take Trump’s words seriously. The US lacks access to Kim to talk to him. Talking through the media to a man like Kim is most dangerous.

    Why Does Kim Want Nuclear Weapons?

    If the 1953 Armistice had been followed by a peace treaty that North Korea had asked for repeatedly, Kim might not have been seeking nuclear weapons. Basically, he believes that keeping in mind what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi after they abandoned their search for nuclear weapon capability, his own survival and that of his regime calls for the pursuit of nuclear weapons until a proper peace treaty is in place.

    A Possible Solution?

    Reflection will show that the US has to sit down and talk to North Korea. Kim has rejected Seoul’s offer to talk as he feels that he has to talk to the US. Washington should approach the issue with a sense of realism. Sanctions have not worked in the past. They are unlikely to work in the future. Even if the North Korean economy breaks down, Kim might survive even after half his population tries to flee to China. The six-party talks (the two Koreas, US, Japan, Russia, and China) in the past did give some results.

    The talks have to start without conditions and what is realistic is a halt to North Korea’s programme against economic aid and political respect; as the confidence level improves, it might be possible to denuclearize the Korean peninsula over a period of time after signing a peace treaty ending the Korean War.

    It will make more sense to have two-party (US and North Korea) talks rather than revive the six-party talks. Trump who promised out of the box thinking on foreign policy should be able to see the advantages of talking to Kim. And Trump has a better chance of getting domestic support for such talks than Obama ever had. Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ was flawed as he should have combined it with talks.

    What might happen?

    Neither Kim nor Trump will stop their belligerent rhetoric. There are enough indications that the Secretaries of Defense and State are of the firm view that the US should not carry out any 'preventive' or 'pre-emptive' strike for obvious reasons. Kim might or might not send a missile to land in the sea 30 or 40 km off Guam. Even if he sends one, it might be intercepted and in any case no harm will come to anyone in Guam even if it is not intercepted. Trump will have no good reason to order the Pentagon to carry out a strike. If he chooses to do so, there are two possibilities: Either the order is carried out or the Defense Secretary resigns.

    This is the time the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres should make a discreet intervention. He should ask Kim and Trump what each wants from the other. A public statement that he is ready to mediate if both sides ask for it will not do.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    NOTE: The last two paragraphs in the original post have been removed. These had been inadvertently retained from an earlier draft. We regret the editorial oversight.