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Delay will Increase Casualties


Just as every year that passed after Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 steeply increased the potential casualties in the event of a conflict with Germany, the delay in taking military action against Pyongyang that has been palpable since the period in office of President W.J. Clinton, is making certain that the number of those killed, wounded and rendered sick in the event of war with North Korea will rise to levels that are already almost unbearable so far as South Korea and Japan are concerned, and will, before the close of 2018, be for the US. Each of the three US Presidents placed most of their hope on the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership ensuring that the DPRK finally surrender its nuclear stockpiles, and in order to incentivise Beijing, ensured a steady flow of concessions to the People’s Republic of China. The second stage was to work through the UN to ensure that sanctions got imposed on North Korea that would (it was expected) force the Kim regime to reverse course. Interestingly, in practice, such is the same policy being pursued by President Trump, in case his tweets are disregarded. In reality, given China’s essentiality as a base area for the North Korean economy, it is under no threat even from a fully weaponised North Korea. Nor is Russia, the “steadfast historical friend” of the Kim family. At the same time, a DPRK made immune from retaliation through its nuclear arsenal would be able to ceaselessly harass the US and Japan the way nuclear-armed Pakistan (another ally of Beijing) does India, thereby weakening both and diverting their attention away from Beijing and towards defence against North Korean asymmetric warfare. Indeed, the greater the DPRK menace, the more important it would be (in the traditional Washington calculus) to placate Beijing in order to incentivise it to prod Pyongyang into “better behaviour” with the US and Japan. Such has been the theory and practice since Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House.


Sanctions Backfiring


The behaviour of the “International Community” (i.e. the US-led alliance) towards North Korea meets the classic definition of insanity, which is to repeat an activity over and over again in the expectation that it would generate a different result. The reality is that since 2001 and the US attack on Afghanistan, Pyongyang has diversified its sources of cash and vital components, not for civilian, but for military use. Through various means such as counterfeiting, smuggling, cyber scamming, cybercurrency, hacking and sale of services to criminal and rogue players, the Kim regime has ensured that there is a sufficient flow of funds for the WMD program and its delivery systems. The more the sanctions lever gets used, the greater the resort of the Kim regime to such underground activities. Paradoxically, such a shift has decreased, rather than enhanced global security, especially because the sanctions causing them have not been able to appreciably affect the North Korean WMD program, including its nuclear component. The DPRK regime leadership core believes that “Koreans are not Arabs”, by which is meant that Kim Jong Un will not wait in a catatonic state the way Saddam Hussein or to a considerable extent Muammar Gaddafi did before their forces were attacked in 1990, 2003 and 2011 by a US-led and a French-led coalition, respectively. The DPRK leadership intends to build up military, especially WMD capabilities, and if necessary, “to strike first before an imminent” US-led attack. This willingness to go to war if an attack by the other side is calculated to be imminent, introduces yet another strand of risk and uncertainty into the Korean peninsula calculus, making even the most casual public remarks by US or Japanese leaders capable of triggering an armed response that from then onwards will follow a pre-determined escalatory logic that early on escalates into the WMD stage.


Mass Slaughter is Kim’s Target


The sending back of Otto Warmbier in a severely damaged condition may have been as a human “technology demonstrator” of what the North Korean regime is capable of, should it unleash its chemical or biological arsenal. According to elements north of the 38th parallel, the life support systems of Warmbier were removed soon after he reached the US, “because of the realisation that the damage to him was too extensive and permanent to permit anything in the way of (what may be called) a human life”. In both South Korea and Japan, the DPRK is known to have embedded human vectors, who can get activated to spray biological agents in populated areas once a conflict begins. Since 2015, Supreme Leader Kim has “given priority to setting up such networks in Canada as well”, so that these may enter the US easily, if needed. While efforts are ongoing to create agent networks in the US that are similar to those already operational in Japan and South Korea, these seem to be some years from achieving criticality. Once Pyongyang develops enough nuclear and missile capability to render a US attack merely a theoretical possibility, the forecast is that North Korea will facilitate “asymmetric warfare” vectors within the US and Japan, the way Pakistan is active in India. Just as nuclear-armed Islamabad regards itself as safe from significant retaliation from Delhi, so will Pyongyang over Washington and Tokyo, once the capability to ensure mass slaughter within the continental US gets perfected and demonstrated by the DPRK, a stage that technical personnel in Pyongyang expect will take place “well before the middle of 2019”, no matter the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea. Stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have been added to since 2013 under instructions from Supreme Leader Kim.


Either the US will have to learn to render minimally toxic its co-existence with North Korea (an option that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un does not extend to Japan) through ensuring what may be termed a “Midday Sunshine” policy towards the Kim regime, or it will have to learn to live with a succession of taunts, jabs and pinpricks the way India has had to ensure with Pakistan, once Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 declined the offer of the Soviet Union to jointly attack that country and destroy its military capabilities. The other option is war, well before mid-2019 (after which stage it will be too late, without horrendous loss of life, including on the west coast of the US).


Bluffing or Not?


It is now up to President Trump and his national security establishment to demonstrate in practice that they are not bluffing when they warn Pyongyang to disarm or face war. And if they are, to reach out to Supreme Leader Kim, rather than continue with a failed policy of sanctions that only drives North Korea into yet more toxic behaviour, often clandestinely. Kim Jong Un will not disarm, and day by day he is increasing preparedness for a war that he will fight without mercy. This is a war that he is seeking to prevent, not through surrender of WMD, but by crossing the threshold into nuclear and missile capability to hit cities within much of the continental US. Whether Donald Trump is serious or not when he talks of war is, as yet, unclear. What is beyond doubt is that Kim Jong Un is wholly serious when he says that he will continue to develop WMD capability, no matter what the cost in sanctions. And that if a war comes, he will unleash on the US and Japan (and South Korea, if Seoul joins forces with Tokyo and Washington) the full range of nuclear, conventional and asymmetric assets that he has built up at an accelerating pace since 2013, the year when he reached the definitive finding that compromise on the nuclear issue was no longer an option.


The unthinking rush to vengeance against a miscellany of Arab despots by George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande has created a crisis in the Korean peninsula that may lead to the world’s first nuclear war since 1945.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.


The article was originally published in the Sunday Guardian and is reproduced with permission.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.