While many would empathize with President Trump’s decision to make what was a highly targeted and proportionate response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Hafez Al Assad, they might question any decision to bomb North Korea. It is, after all, a nuclear state. Surely, the risk calculus is very different?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been clear. Military strikes against North Korea, with all its consequences in terms of retaliation and possible involvement of China in dealing with a highly unpredictable aftermath, are “on the table.”
For the United States, a leading diplomat to say such things as he is arriving in Beijing to meet with the Chinese leadership for the first time, the situation must be dire. President Obama’s policy of containment of North Korea is clearly under review, if not about to enter the mortuary. In his meeting with the Chinese leader, Trump no doubt re-enforced that narrative. His street credibility will be bolstered by what the unprecedented attacks he just authorized in Syria and Afghanistan.
Whereas in the past the United States would fly a couple of nuclear capable bombers over the North Korean peninsula as a “show of force” demonstration, it seems that the move of the USS Stannis into the area is designed to send an even more important message.
If necessary, the United States will conduct pre-emptive strikes against North Korea and anyone that threatens to gain or use weapons of mass destruction. The facilitation of the Obama Presidency’s dithering over so-called “red lines” is over. President Trump could not have sent a clearer message. The regime in Pyongyang is on notice. This United States President means business.
North Korea is not helping the situation. Its leader, Kim Jong Un, seems to be going out of his way to irritate the Trump administration. Aside from no doubt visiting his nuclear bunker where he has been photographed supervising simulated nuclear strikes on Dallas and San Francisco, he has also been involved in “overseeing” the test of a brand-new rocket engine. This test was hailed by the North Korean leader as a “new birth” for North Korean rockets, saying, this “world would soon witness the Hermit Kingdom’s “great victory.”
Picking up on this narrative, the North Korean KCNA state news agency stated the tests on the new engine would help the country achieve world-class “satellite” launch capability. The suggestion is clear. North Korea is on the verge of getting a capability that can both launch satellites and fulfil the nightmarish vision of delivering a nuclear attack upon the United States.
Another piece of the North Korean leader’s vision of a state beyond international intervention has fallen into place. The only question for America and its allies in the region — South Korea and Japan — is when they should do what President Obama singly ducked as a strategic matter and attack and destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability before it is no longer an “option on the table.”
The decision to review all options about how to stop North Korea is therefore timely. The country seems set on a pathway to war. Containment has not worked. Another nuclear test seems imminent. Given that every detonation has seen the North Korean’s nuclear weapons program move forward, it is highly likely that the next test will again see a yield that is larger than previous tests. Such success will only further embolden the regime in Pyongyang.
For the North Korean leader to move beyond the fantasy of being able to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, Japan and South Korea, he needs to have weaponized his nuclear capability. The signs are not good. The fifth nuclear test conducted in September 2016 clearly had the greatest yield yet achieved by North Korea’s engineers.
Pyongyang was quick to claim the detonation was a test of a hydrogen bomb. If so, this would be an extremely alarming development. For North Korea to have moved so quickly from the fabrication of asimple nuclear device to building a hydrogen bomb would be significant. It would suggest covert support from a state-based actor. That, in its own right, would provide another justification to put the policy of containment under review. If there is a state-based actor covertly assisting North Korea to develop its nuclear capabilities, the consequences for proliferation of that technology to other countries would be of profound concern.
It’s more likely that the last detonation was an advanced form of atomic bomb with additional elements built in that enabled the North Korean leader to make what is clearly an exaggerated claim — something he is inclined to do. His recent synchronized launch of four Medium Range Ballistic Missiles towards Japan, three of which fell inside the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), was designed to show the potential of his forces.
The idea that North Korea is increasingly becoming emboldened — and therefore prone to some form of military adventurism — is not fanciful nonsense. On national television, North Korea has shown pictures of an American aircraft carrier in the cross-hairs of one of its missile systems. The implications of such imagery are clear. North Korea is prepared to use its arsenal to pre-emptively strike at US military assets in the region.
North Korea’s one million man army also poses a potent threat. Their march southwards towards the capital of South Korea would be highly reminiscent of the military actions in the previous Korean wars. Whether their advance could be halted by air power alone, without resorting to some form of nuclear exchange, is debateable.
Attacks by North Korea’s arsenal of Short Range Ballistic Missiles against airfields and other major military installations in a first wave of attacks could prove highly disruptive to the American war plan. Despite the recent deployment of the THAAD missile system in South Korea, its capability would be rapidly overwhelmed. Other solutions need to be explored as a matter of urgency.
What South Korea really needs is to buy the proven Arrow anti-ballistic missile system from Israel. That would really change the dynamics of the situation. If President Trump really wants to send a signal to North Korea, then suggesting South Korea buy the Israeli system quickly would be a first step.
How China would react is also a difficult question. To date, their attempts to control North Korea have been inept. Threatening to reduce the levels of coal they import from North Korea is not a narrative that Kim Jong Un understands. He sees that as a bluff. He knows what China really fears, and that’s 20 million North Korean refugees pouring across the Yalu River. China’s tolerance of the actions of Pyongyang sends the wrong signals to the North Korean leader. Kim Jong Un no doubt sees that as a weakness to be exploited.
It is clear that Tillerson moderated his language in public when he met his Chinese counterpart for discussions. But, his concerns over the actions of the North Koreans remain valid. Just how far the new administration is prepared to go to ensure North Korea moderates its behaviour is unclear. But the risk the North Korean leader feels he can exploit which he sees as a position of strength remains high. Perhaps in private, the Secretary of State’s language was more pointed and direct.
For Pyongyang, the issue has always been a race against time. Establishing North Korea as a fully functioning nuclear power with an operational mix of SRBM, ICBM and SLBM systems is the priority. To achieve that, North Korea has to complete one last step – and that’s weaponizing it’s nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang believes once that is done, it can act with impunity, believing no American President would dare risk a nuclear exchange. With President Obama at the helm that was clear. He would never have undertaken a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.
As a lawyer, his options for action would have been constrained by the complex legalities of the arguments in the United Nations over pre-emption as a legal basis for action. President Trump, however, appears to have no such concerns. His arguments and approach are based on the defence of the US homeland. If that requires “upstream” action against North Korea, then the administration’s view appears to be “Que Sera Sera.”
Some in the administration no doubt believe war with North Korea is inevitable. For them, the sooner America strikes the better. Such arguments replay those voiced by Israel during the long-stand-off with Iran over its nuclear program and Israel’s actions in destroying the Syrian nuclear plant in September 2007. This was not the first-time Israel resorted to attacking a nuclear power plant in the early stage of its construction. Operation Opera saw the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq destroyed in 1981 by an attack by eight F-16 aircraft.
In weighing his options, Trump may likely call upon the history of these two events. In both cases, it can be argued that pre-emption works. Operation Orchard denied the so-called Islamic State a functioning nuclear plant. Today, that would be unthinkable. With some Islamic clerics arguing that the death of 10 million Westerners is permissible on the basis of an “eye-for-an-eye,” any move by ISIS to gain access to a functioning nuclear reactor would require a similar response by Western nations.
It is worth remembering that when the Islamic State initially overran Mosul in 2014, it seized roughly 40 kilogrammes of low-grade uranium. While this is not weapons-grade fissile material, the so-called Islamic State was quick to claim they were able to use this to form the basis of some form of dirty bomb.
Whoever issued that statement clearly did not understand the issues associated with creating a dirty bomb from such material. While any explosive use of nuclear material would be bound to have a psychological impact upon local people, the threat to health created would be very minimal.
The Islamic State is not the only insurgent group to aspire to get possession of nuclear weapons. The Pakistani Taliban briefly threatened to overrun some of the nuclear sites close to Islamabad. This sent more than a few shivers down the spines of national security authorities in the Obama administration.
The thought of the Islamic State manufacturing their own plutonium would be chilling verging on ice-cold. The palpitations in Washington would verge on an earthquake. Imagine how that plays out if the North Korean regime starts to establish its own equivalent of the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network created by the Pakistani nuclear scientist that provided the initial impetus to the Iranian nuclear program?
So, the time has come for the American administration to face very hard questions. War with North Korea is obvious. That is clear. Why wait until North Korea has weaponised its nuclear arsenal? Could THAAD actually prevent at least one nuclear weapon detonating on an American base? The resulting death-toll would eclipse that of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Quite simply, it would re-write history.
Yet, history provides one simple lesson. It is axiomatic that pre-emption is better than cure. A window to act is open, but as North Korea assembles the pieces of its nuclear arsenal, reliance solely on ballistic missile defence to contain the situation is no longer an option. China’s approach has failed. Diplomacy will not work when you are dealing with the leadership in Pyongyang.
Despite some academics’ arguing the worst privations of Kim Jong Un — finding novel ways to kill anyone he deems threatening his position — do not show him to be irrational; his actions suggest otherwise.
It is time to consider the Israeli approach. Limited strikes designed to disable the North Korean nuclear program and to destroy its arsenal of short and medium range ballistic missiles is necessary. This simply has to be done. Someonehas to appreciate the gravity of the situation if pre-emption does not occur.
To put-off such a decision is to present future generations with a no-win situation. Carnage will be the result. History will not judge well those who duck the really important decisions. Limited strikes against those nuclear sites would also send a powerful message to China. In Beijing, that might just be received with a great degree of clarity.
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.