NORTH KOREA: TIME FOR CHINESE-LED REGIME CHANGE OR MILITARY FORCE
For a relatively small country, a poor one, and ruled over by a reportedly spoiled psychotic, I spend a great deal of time writing about North Korea.
It is North Korea’s geostrategic position sitting next to neighboring China, Russia, South Korea and close to Japan and nuclear weapons that make it a topic of concern. Very little can be done about geography so we left with nuclear weapons in the hands of someone who seems to be divorced from reality. Now to be clear, North Korea may have as many as 30 nuclear weapons that are basically the strength of Hiroshima-level atomic bombs. It has tested Short-Range and Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles that are likely armed with conventional high explosive, chemical and potentially nuclear warheads. Its Intermediate-Range, Submarine-Launched, and Intercontinental-Range Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) are relatively untested, but may pose a danger if the North can miniaturize a nuclear weapon. So far, they have demonstrated an ability to produce solid fuel, canisterized nuclear-capable missiles but have some distance to go to get to the prize. The minute North Korea can miniaturize a thermo-nuclear weapon, and place it atop a tested a true ICBM, North America and Europe are in danger. The moment it perfects the technology, North Korea will sell it to other states, like Iran for hard currency, and then the world at large is in danger. North Korea-led by all accounts by the mad Kim dynasty, and Iran with its apocalyptic view of world affairs through the lens of religion, present clear and present dangers to just about anybody that is perceived as crossing them.
Now we are in a holding patter, a stand-off, waiting to see if, and when, North Korea will test a nuclear or thermo-nuclear device in its remote mountain testing site. The first clue will be a strong earthquake. Their long-range ballistic missile capabilities are increasing rapidly, and thus hard to restrain, and the North Koreans can always have a country like Iran test, as well, to draw off some of the heat. This upcoming or pending nuclear test is likely to feature an increased yield, and likely to approach the thermo-nuclear threshold. That is an event that must be stopped. North Korea must be prohibited from gaining a thermo-nuclear weapon and it is not going to be easy to halt. For its part, the US has warned that the era of ‘strategic patience’ is over and that it is prepared to act unilaterally with North Korea. Japan is also inclined to act unilaterally with the US to deal with Kim Jong-un, as is, a very nervous South Korea. US Vice President, Mike Pence, is in South Korea for another day or so of talks, while American, Japanese, and South Korean forces remain on high alert and in a heightened state of readiness.
China, Kim Jong-un’s closest ally, is sitting with 150,000 troops on the North Korean frontier, and has warned both sides to de-escalate, while threatening the North not to act and test its latest nuclear or thermo-nuclear bomb. China in the past, could restrain Kim and his predecessors, but their inconsistent, split-personality style policy, has left them with only some control over the North’s thermo-nuclear and Intercontinental-Ranged Ballistic Missile dream. China, to avoid a reunification of the Korea’s has supported North Korea’s drive to maintain its independence even if it meant a nuclear-armed Kim regime. Thus, a day after the region pressured North Korea to relent on its upcoming nuclear test, the North fired an unidentified ballistic missile in the direction of the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group in the Sea of Japan. The launch failed shortly after take-off and there has been some unconfirmed speculation in the press that it was a North Korean Intercontinental-Ranged Ballistic Missile and it was cyber sabotaged by the US. It seems very likely that North Korea, with a nuclear bomb buried deep in its mountain test-site, equipment in place, and a large gathering of personnel, will soon conduct its sixth nuclear test.
Options to deal effectively with North Korea in the aftermath in cooperation with China or unilaterally are limited. China could put enormous economic and political pressure on the North, use military force and potentially move on regime change to oust the Kim Jong-un regime and replace it with one China absolutely controls. The US and its allies are left with taking a defensive posture, an expanded sanctions regime, directed sabotage and cyber campaign, and military force. A defensive posture, that waits for the inevitable in not a good strategic option. Sanctions, even if expanded to Chinese firms assisting the North, are likely to be ineffective, and even counter-productive if you want Chinese strategic cooperation. Cyber and a directed sabotage campaign can slow the inevitable without a high likelihood of war. Lastly, there is the use of force, pre-emptively by the US, or after the fact, to stop North Korea from achieving its ultimate ambitions. Some would argue persuasively that we are past the point where this results in anything other than regional war. A precise, targeted use of force, by the US could stop the North in its tracks for a long-time by strike its nuclear, missile, and Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence facilities and the Kim Jong-un regime may choose regime survival over a costly conventional war. The best strategic option, now, appears to be Chinese-led regime change in North Korea. Only time will tell whether US President, Donald Trump, goes the use of force route, or pushes the Chinese to regime change to stop North Korea and Kim Jong-un once and for all.