The World is Sleepwalking into a Preemptive Military Strike on North Korea

The world is sleepwalking into a preemptive military strike on North Korea as strategic-diplomatic options to deal with the Kim Jong-un regime and Iran narrow.

North Korea test-fired a Hwasong-12 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) over Japan on Tuesday for a variety of reasons. First, Pyongyang launched the missile in an operational test, to perfect its long- range ballistic missile technology and we can expect more of the same. Second, Kim Jong-un clearly wanted to signal to the US and South Korea that the North was angry at their joint Ulji Freedom Guardian military exercises. Third, North Korea wanted to send a message to the Japanese that it could reach out and touch them anytime it wants to do so. Fourth, and most sinister, the Kim regime wanted to see just what the international reaction would be to test-fire a nuclear-capable, IRBM over Japan. In the past, when the North carried out a test in the skies above Japan they tried to ‘cover their tracks’ by saying that they were merely launching a satellite. This time there no such pretext, and the Kim Jong-un regime made it clear that it was but a prelude to further tests, and an attempt to contain Guam. More concerning, are new reports that the Hwasong-12 IRBM may have carried a post-boost vehicle or ‘bus’ that allows a missile to deploy multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) accurately to a target. Sadly, for everyone concerned, the international reaction has been quiet or muted in real terms, given the turn of events, and the potential grave consequences of the test.

Without question the UN Security Council, of which, the US, China, and Russia are veto holding members, condemned the flagrant violation of previous resolutions and sanctions as “outrageous,” but no new sanctions or punishment were included in the UN response. The US along with the UK, Japan and South Korea wanted further sanctions to target North Korea’s oil supply and off shore laborers, but both China and Russia signaled that further sanctions in their view were counter-productive. Without Chinese and Russian support new UN Security Council-imposed sanctions are bound to fail. China, for its part, proposed a dual-track approach for advancing denuclearization and establishing a peace mechanism in parallel to try and end the crisis. Russia and China also put forward an initiative of suspension-for-suspension, which calls on the North to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-South Korea military exercises.

Both proposals do little to reverse the current crisis, and both have a marked credibility problem. North Korea’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) test barge appears to be very much like the Russian SD-4 submersible missile test stand barge and its Hwasong-14 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle is of Chinese origin. The new North Korean ICBM and IRBM rocket engines come with highly likely links to Russia’s Soviet-era past. There is little question that both China and Russia have had some hand in North Korea’s developing long-range missile programs and so their peace proposals are suspect and in real terms only allow North Korea to play for time. The UK lined up with her traditional ally the US, and reached out to Japan. France, the only other veto-holding member of the UN Security Council, pushed China to enforce the UN-imposed sanctions to date to try and restrain the North Koreans, but offered nothing new in terms of containment of the Kim Jong-un regime.

The message to the North was loud and clear, green-light to further tests of both long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear technology even if it means launching missiles over Japan and into the waters around US territories like Guam. Not surprisingly, on Thursday, North Korea rejected the latest UN Security Council statement condemning its latest test firing of an Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) and essentially warned that there was more to follow. South Korea, Japan, and the US have been dealt a bad hand in trying to contain North Korea’s nuclear-military threat, and after twenty-five years of diplomatic failure, now we are approaching the point of no return. The Trump administration, from the President on down, has been clear where they stand in terms of deterring the North Koreans, protecting their Asian allies and the dire consequences for the Kim Jong-un regime should they miscalculate and breach the peace. The US has signaled that the US ‘nuclear umbrella’ stands ready to intervene backed up by its missile defense systems. Without question, the US has many diplomatic options in its ‘tool box’ to try and resolve peacefully the Korean nuclear crisis, but time is running out. China has not been swayed to date, preferring the current status quo, and increasingly looks either unable to help resolve the crisis, or uninterested in doing so.

Within two years at the most North Korea will field a robust nuclear deterrent that can strike the US, Europe, and its neighbors and then what do we do? Most of North America will be within Kim Jong-un’s paranoid sights. In a very short-time thereafter, Europe and most of the world will find themselves within Iran’s nuclear-tipped missile’s range. Again, China and Russia will provide aid and comfort to their new found regional ally Iran as it threatens to breach the peace. There are some observers that believe Kim Jong-un and his government are rational actors and that they can be deterred from unleashing nuclear war, instead preferring regime survival. There are other observers that have argued that North Korea is not a rational actor, cannot be deterred, and that its leadership is dangerously erratic given its increasing military capability. The Iranian regime is not bound by rationality, deterrence, and regime survival, but by a theocratic and apocalyptic view of strategic affairs. There is no deterring of Iran, and its Persian hubris is in full swing with greatly increased regional influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Qatar, and Yemen. A nuclear-armed Iran with ICBMs is unthinkable on a scale even greater than North Korea and must be prevented at all costs.

In real strategic terms, containment as a strategy to deal with North Korea and Iran is either on ‘life support’ or ‘dead.’ Deterrence with North Korea is ‘shaky’ at best, and with Iran almost certainly non-existent. The US and its allies appear to be increasingly pinning their hopes on the effectiveness of various forms of missile defense, and they are right to do so, because the only other option is a pre-emptive and preventative strike. At some point, this is going to come apart, and the US will be forced to act decisively alone, while others sleepwalk to disaster. The ‘Permanent Five’ on the UN Security Council, the US, UK, France, Russia, and China must come together in the greater interest of global order and international peace. The clock is ticking

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