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SPECIAL ANALYSIS: Reality Check – Time for Decisive Action on North Korea

Amid all the gloom over a possible war on the Korean Peninsula, it is important to be rational. While North Korea clearly has the capability to detonate nuclear weapons, whether they yet have the ability to deliver them against targets either in South Korea or Japan is a far more open question.

Unless North Korea has been specifically guided in the process of creating a miniaturized warhead by China or Russia – something that the international community would surely be astounded about if it were to be revealed – North Korea’s vituperative rhetoric is largely that — it is not backed up by real capabilities, unless, of course, you are an avid reader of Tom Clancy and remember the plot of  his novel, Sum of all Fears. A plot that even the author was so concerned about that he issued a disclaimer fearing he could have just written something that was going to cross the line from fiction into fact.

Given the significant investment in post-9/11 security, any Al Qaeda or ISIS attempt to smuggle a nuclear weapon into America, Clancy’s fictional scenario seems somewhat unlikely. It does, however, raise a crucial point for the President over his planned cut-backs in the US Coast Guard, which is the first in-line when it comes to protecting the homeland.

But that situation could all change. With intelligence of what is going on in the hermit North Korean kingdom difficult to come by, it’s time the administration took a serious look at what is has to do. Smoozing China’s President Xi Jinping into action using Twitter does not cut it. It avoids an issue that simply cannot be ignored.

The latest videos emerging from North Korea that show nuclear detonations across America cannot be laughed off. Any video that states “the enemy to be destroyed is in our sights” needs to be taken seriously. A window for action is open. But it is being closed as every minute ticks by.

But, as time passes, that rhetoric is likely to become ever more based on facts. It is axiomatic that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will grow. There will come a time when it needs to be destroyed. Unlike Libya, North Korea will not give up its main bargaining chip, even if it did concede to engaging in talks as it has done previously. These talks will never be conclusive. History shows North Korea does not have a track record that can be believed.

Today, North Korea is bluffing. Tomorrow, it may not be. The change in the situation could come as quickly as that. One more nuclear test and the North Koreans could move into the big time as far as a nuclear arsenal is concerned.

With some analysts estimating North Korea is on the cusp of producing up to 20 nuclear weapons a year, at what point does Western society as a whole draw a serious red line? As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said at the United Nations, “the more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.”

Talk of America’s ability to disrupt North Korea’s missile program using cyber attacks remains foolishin the extreme. Cyber warfare is the last resting place of the pacifist, desperate to avoid war at all costs.

While war is not something to be entered into lightly, and any sane person gets that, there are times when it is the only option. This is not Iraq and the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument that so tainted the Second Gulf War. North Korea clearly has a nuclear capability and seems, on the face of its wide-ranging invective, to be prepared to use it.

Those tempted to raise the spectre of the Iraq war and its cost might take a moment to reflect on what Saddam Hussein might have been able to develop if the Second Gulf War did not occur. While that is a different variation on history, it is one analysts and journalists might like to reflect upon. There is precious little analysis of that in the media.

This, it can be argued, is a completely different and much more dangerous situation. Anyone betting on China to pull something out of the bag with North Korea needs to think again. China has only one thing on its mind at the moment: the Nineteenth People’s Party Congress at the end of 2017.

For President Xi, even though there is little doubt he got on well with President Trump in their recent meeting, the important thing is the smooth transition of the party congress. For President Xi, that is the priority. For the moment, the problem of North Korea – in which President Trump is placing so much faith in the persuasive skills of President Xi – isn’t something that can be dealt with by gestures, or anything to sooth the fears in Washington.

President Xi will seek the inertia of sanctions to buy him time to allow him to successfully navigate the party congress and ensure he gets his reforms in place in China. His 10-minute analysis of the situation in North Korea which so impressed President Trump, while factually accurate, will also be carefully designed to fit in with a narrative of obfuscation and delay.

As far as North Korea is concerned, China views it as an irritant. Hence President Trump’s accusation that North Korea “disrespected the wishes of China and its highly-respected President” in a tweet after the latest ballistic missile test launched by the North Koreans. Clearly, Pyongyang is not deterred by the recent naval build up in its waters. It is prepared to continue to call what is regards as President Trumps’ bluff.

The missile flew to a reported altitude of 44 miles before it blew up. Hardly a great demonstration of military prowess. The pictures of large formations of North Korean artillery conducting live fire drills was far more impressive. In range of Seoul, this military migh could unleash carnage on the capital of South Korea.

This is the 17th time a launch has failed under the current North Korean leadership. Fifty-eight tests have been successful. This is a 77 percent success rate. It has provided a platform for the development of a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile to be developed as a fully-fledged Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that is nuclear tipped?

This is hardly significant, and does not smack of a successful cyber attack against the program. It smacks of the classic failure rates of contemporary equipment programs. For those seeking to push the idea America somehow insinuated a destructive virus into the North Korean missile program, one could also ask whether the success rate of the launches and the controversy surrounding the failure of a recent British Trident missile launch is also worthwhile. Will a so-called expert soon appear suggesting Russia implanted a virus in the Trident sysem?

But what Xi does not realize is North Korea is a malignant growth on the side of his country which he cannot treat like some boil that will be lanced one day. It is cancerous, and needs to be treated now. The only way to do that is to issue an immediate ultimatum to Pyongyang. Prevarication, the essence of diplomacy, will not do. Any further nuclear tests will be met with China stepping back. It is the final play available to Xi.

Telling North Korea it’s on its own may not sound like the kind of inscrutable politics Beijing likes to play, but the situation calls for leaders to think outside the box. In this regard, all Xi’s political attempts to break the impasse will not succeed.

Does Beijing, or, for that matter, Washington, actually believe stopping a few ships full of coal will cause more than a yawn from Kim Jung Un? He simply does not care. The war-like rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang has escalated significantly. There is almost an argument that the point of no return has already been passed. If war is to begin, then the sooner America acts to prevent what would truly be a global catastrophe – North Korea equipped with nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – will happen. And that can only lead to one thing: a pre-emptive strike against the United States in a time of crisis where Pyongyang feels it has little to lose.

According to the White House, the era of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang is over. The sooner that rhetoric is turned into action, the sooner the world can move on. To delay action against North Korea is to run the risk of a global nuclear war. No one, even those who feel this argument has merit, wants that.

Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.

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