The North Korean Pandora’s Box
The North Korean Pandora’s Box
The UN Security Council condemned Tuesday’s North Korea launch of a Hwasong-12 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) that flew over Japan’s northern island Hokkaido, and impacted in the Pacific 1180 kilometers from the Japanese coast, as strategic options to deal with Pyongyang narrow leading to the unthinkable pre-emption military strike.
North Korea's Hwasong-12 IRBM launch over Japan early Tuesday appears to have been be orchestrated as demonstration of its ability to strike near the US island territory of Guam. South Korea reportedly believes Pyongyang test-fired the Hwasong-12 IRBM because it is the same type likely to be employed if the North carries out its threat of two weeks ago to strike the seas around Guam with four missiles. In the past, in 1998 and 2009, when North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles over Japan it claimed that they were satellite launches. There was no such pretext or excuse this time. The Hwasong-12 flew 2,700kilometers, approaching the roughly 3,300kilometer distance to Guam. The road-mobile, liquid-fueled, nuclear-capable, single-stage Hwasong-12 IRBM is said to have the range to strike Guam and the Aleutian Islands with an estimated range of 3700-6000 kilometers carrying a 650-kilogram nuclear warhead. As well, North Korea’s latest missile launches are clear meant to send a message of defiance to the US and South Korea as they conduct the Ulchi Freedom Guardian annual joint military exercises due to end Thursday.
China and Russia supported the UN Security Council resolution which stopped short of imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang and assigned some blame to the US, Japan, and South Korea. They criticized the US for secondary sanctions issued recently against companies the US has accused of violating existing sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom. China also called on the US and South Korea to dismantle the missile defense system they have deployed in South Korea. But it was reported that Russia had moved civilians on their side of the border with North Korea to less vulnerable areas. China for its part has been taking steps to fortify its side of the border with bunkers and fallout shelters in the event of military action against the Kim Jong-un regime. The Chinese, and Russia to a lesser extent, have either decided that they have no influence with North Korea or have chosen to do the ‘minimum’ to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula.
The ‘minimum’ while they watch South Korea, Japan and the US ‘squirm’ could lead to war as an emboldened North Korea over-plays its ‘game of chicken’ with the Americans and their allies. The US could push the Chinese with further punitive sanctions on large Chinese financial institutions and companies that deal with Pyongyang, but that would result in a worsening of Chinese-US relations, a likely trade war, and that would be extremely damaging to the Chinese, and to a lesser extent the US economy. US sanctions on China seem to be a front to push the Chinese to regime change in North Korea, but so far have failed to do so. Chinese allies like Kim Jong-un’s brother, uncle and other senior members of the regime have been purged and killed by Kim to prevent an alternate ‘Great Leader’ from emerging.
The US and Japan called for an international embargo on oil exports to North Korea in response to Tuesday's launch of a ballistic missile over Japan but it appears to have fallen off the radar at the UN Security Council. South Korea's air force staged live-fire drill simulating the destruction of North Korea's leadership, just hours after the Hwasong-12 launch and US President, Donald Trump, said “all options were on the table” to deal with the North. The USS John Paul Jones, a guided-missile destroyer based in Hawaii, conducted a missile defense intercept test with the new Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) against a Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) over the Pacific. The MRBM was destroyed in the successful defensive intercept over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. North Korea’s most recent IRBM launch over Hokkaido is likely to give impetus to Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe’s government to bolster the Japan’s defenses. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force conducted anti-missile drills at two US bases in Japan, Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. This represents the first time ASDF Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile systems were deployed and tested in Japan.
While all three countries the US, Japan, and South Korea have pushed diplomacy, containment with sanctions and defensive measures there are limits to their potential for success in the face of an emboldened and unrestrained North Korea. There is now a growing debate in Japan and South Korea about what types of weapons both states need to deter, or deal with North Korea on their own terms, including arming with nuclear weapons. Today, for its part, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, called for more ballistic missile launches over Japan into the Pacific Ocean to advance his country’s ability to contain Guam. The country is expected to conduct a nuclear test or thermonuclear very soon and can do so now with little warning. It seems clear now that US efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) programs have failed even with China and Russia’s lukewarm assistance. North Korea is now on a course where it will have to carry-out repeated tests to demonstrate their weapons deterrent capabilities to themselves and other nations. A Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) and ICBM tests can be expected in the coming days to go along with a nuclear test. North Korea is vulnerable to pre-emption and preventative military action and knows that it must perfect its strategic nuclear and missile capabilities rapidly to avoid the success of such strategic recourse by the US, Japan, and South Korea.
At the end of the day, North Korea will have to redouble its efforts and there will be more provocations. For the US, this scenario means increased strategic vulnerability. Once the North succeeds in its strategic nuclear force development, it will sell the nuclear and missile technologies to countries like Iran, as they have in the past, for hard currency, and the nuclear threat posed by Iran will be realized virtually overnight. With the failure of containment, US strategic options as it creeps toward pre-emption or preventive strikes are narrowing. US strategic options on the table include: status quo containment; muscular containment or status quo plus with even tougher sanctions on China that would result in a trade war and damage to China’s economy; deterrence; defense against a North Korean attack and; lastly military action. Diplomatic solutions are still on the table and Chinese initiated or orchestrated regime change in North Korea would be largely welcomed to end the crisis. Sadly, it is important to note that diplomacy and containment have failed to date and are unlikely strategies to succeed in the future. It is not clear given events that Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership is rational and can be deterred. North Korea has moved from threatening Guam, to launching a nuclear-capable IRBM over Japan, are back to threatening more of the same, and strikes on Guam. Defense is a terrible strategic option that allows the North the initiative, and the ability to choose the time and place for war on its terms. The only real option left is a pre-emptive or preventive strike on North Korea before it becomes even more powerful and dangerous to itself and its neighbors.
The Trump administration has been saddled with more than two decades of strategic failure to address the North Korean problem, and while it is still talking diplomacy, it is now entering the unthinkable strategic ‘Pandora’s Box‘ end-game against the Hermit Kingdom and Kim Jong-un.