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All North Korea options are bad, but pick one

The issue

The latest news from North Korea is not to be dismissed as just another report about another missile test. Nor should US warnings against North Korea firing missiles across Japan into waters around Guam be disparaged as an over-reaction. The issue is the same one that gave rise to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Euro-missile crisis two decades later: the deliberately provocative development of a nuclear strike capability which changes the status quo and poses an explicit threat to the peace and security of the world. In neither case could aggressive conduct be “allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged” (Kennedy).

The North Koreans have now successfully test-fired two intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. In both cases, the ICBMs were launched on a very steep trajectory which limited the distance they travelled. If fired in an attacking trajectory, it is believed the second missile could have flown 10,400 kilometers making it capable of reaching most of North America — including all of Canada which it would have to traverse to strike any US target. According to a leaked US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, the North Koreans are now expected to have a reliable nuclear-capable ICBM sometime in 2018 — next year.

Here’s what this means: A ferociously despotic family regime, in control of a destitute half-state, with an animus towards the world which cannot be reasoned with, is on the threshold of acquiring the capability to wreak nuclear havoc on humanity. The only greater danger today is a cabal of Islamist anarchists detonating a biological or radiological device in a major Western city.

Appeasers assert the North Koreans have no intention of precipitating a nuclear war; their sole aim is to deter others from waging war against them.  The fact is we do not know what the North Koreans’ intentions are or will be. What we do know is that the regime in Pyongyang is run by a young lunatic, it is about to acquire a formidable capability to hurt us, and it has been showcasing that capability. In the adult world, you don’t plan against intentions but capabilities.

The Cuban missile crisis wasn’t about whether the USSR intended to launch a nuclear attack on the United States; it was about removing its surreptitiously developed capability to do so from Cuba. The INF crisis wasn’t about whether the USSR was planning to strike Western Europe; it was about getting Moscow to remove newly installed intermediate-range nuclear forces in Eastern Europe or be held at risk by a corresponding INF capability in Western Europe. In both cases, the West’s aims were the same. In 1962, it was “to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western hemisphere” (Kennedy). In 1981, it was the Zero Option (Reagan).

No effort has been spared to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions through political or economic suasion, and none has succeeded. Not decades of great power diplomacy, or mediation by special envoys, or six-party talks, or billion dollar food-for-disarmament deals, or economic and financial sanctions. Nor a prodigious campaign of multilateralism: 18 UN Security Council resolutions, 79 Sanctions Committee reports, 14 General Assembly resolutions, 19 Human Rights Council resolutions and reports, and a chronology of IAEA engagement since 1977 which is 16 pages long.

Clearly, “strategic patience” isn’t working. So what other options are there? These can be grouped into three kinds: neuter Kim, get rid of Kim, or get rid of his weapons.

Neutering Kim

The UN Security Council, i.e. the United States, China and Russia, has just approved what have been described as the most draconian economic sanctions ever imposed on North Korea. Maybe, but a great deal more could easily have been done. UNSC 2371 bans all trade in North Korean coal, but China and (it is believed) Russia found a way to evade last year’s partial ban. The new strictures do not touch China’s sales of oil to North Korea, and they allow foreign countries to continue their joint ventures with North Korea. They cap rather than ban the employment of North Korean labourers in other countries and the remittances Pyongyang harvests from their indentured labour. So these aren’t killer sanctions that will change much.

Still, it’s a little surprising China and Russia went along. Both profit from the current situation. To date, Beijing has preferred an obstreperous North Korea to the political upheaval which would follow the end of the Kims and their possible replacement by a Western-oriented, economically powerful, and united Korea on China’s border. (Some have pointed out China’s national interest could actually be served by a peaceful, prosperous and united Korea.) Moscow has been gaining influence in North Korea, politically and economically, and it would dramatically improve its strategic situation in Northeast Asia if it could turn North Korea into a client-state. Russia has a short but important 17-kilometer border with North Korea which is only about two hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, and Russia has invested heavily in infrastructure improvements on both sides of the border.

In supporting the most recent Security Council action, China and Russia have both likely concluded that North Korea’s behaviour is now itself so destabilizing that to allow it to continue would reverse the geopolitical gains each has made. For China in particular, the situation is becoming perilous. All it would take to ruin everything would be for Japan and South Korea to respond by posing the kind of existential threat to China that North Korea is building vis-à-vis the United States — through acquiring nuclear weapons.

For the Chinese, this is a nightmare scenario now taking shape. Japan has already deployed an anti-ballistic missile system and South Korea is contemplating an offer of one from the United States. China worries, rightly, that these systems would degrade its nuclear deterrent and its geopolitical sway in the region. Next, Japan is reportedly considering buying ICBMs from the United States while South Korea is in discussion with the US about relaxing limits on its existing ICBM program that prevent it from building more powerful missiles (which could reach China). Finally, Japanese opinion has softened sufficiently on Japan becoming again a major military power that its acquisition of a nuclear deterrent of its own is no longer unthinkable. The South Koreans were never so averse. If public opinion is not ready to contemplate South Korea having its own nuclear arsenal, it’s quite conceivable Seoul would agree to the reintroduction of US tactical land- and sea-based nuclear weapons which the United States withdrew in the 1990s — in the hope of inducing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. US air-based systems remain in place.

For the Chinese — and the Russians, the Americans, and the rest of us — the most desirable immediate resolution of the crisis would be a neutered regime in Pyongyang which left Kim in place but without nuclear weapons or missiles to deliver them. Not with another “freeze” on weapons development but with no weapons. Desirable because it would mean Kim had settled for staying in office, even at a very heavy price, without the world running the risks arising from the only other alternatives to eliminating the threat he poses: regime change (what kind?) or military action (at what cost?).

Kim wouldn’t go along willingly, of course. Given his pedigree and young age (he’s believed to be 34 or 35), it’s difficult to believe he would abandon the family dream of controlling the entire Korean peninsula without someone putting a gun to his head. That would have to be the Chinese and the choices they offered him would have to be stark: get rid of the weapons or lose everything. It’s a course of action Beijing would not have considered a year ago, but they are getting the measure of the new US president and take his “fire and fury” words seriously, far more so than they did the empty warnings of previous administrations. Trump and Xi do not agree, but they understand each other. They had two days to talk things through in April at President Trump’s home in Florida, they met again at the G-20 in July, and they have spoken on the phone several times.

Regime change

The second option is to remove Kim from office. Get rid of him, so the theory goes, and his weapons will soon follow. That’s true only if the next regime is under the thumb of China or in transition to a merger with the South — both of which would require entrepreneurial diplomacy of the kind the world has shown little aptitude for. But it could be done.

Dictators ruthless enough to have murdered their way to the top don’t give up easily. They are prone to hang on for as long as possible, sometimes in the face of extraordinary adversity, either because the pressures on them aren’t sufficient (Assad of Syria) or because they don’t realize what peril they are in (Mussolini of Italy, Ceausescu of Romania, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Gaddafi of Libya). Some who don’t give up are lucky enough to be captured rather than killed, like Noriega of Nicaragua. Others get out in the nick of time and find refuge with a friendly regime or in a state which will accommodate them for a greater purpose. The list includes the likes of the Shah of Iran, Marcos of the Philippines, “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti, Pinochet of Chile, Ben Ali of Tunisia (where the Arab Spring was touched off), and no end of African and Latin American dictators.  But going into exile happens much less now that despots have to contemplate prosecution from the ill-conceived International Criminal Court wherever they fetch up. What they don’t do much is commit suicide, like Adolf Hitler or Salvador Allende. The states most ready to offer asylum have been the United States, Britain, France, Argentina and Russia.

If Kim would be hard to convince to give up his weapons, there is only a remote possibility he could be brought to the point of leaving voluntarily. Not only would someone have to put a gun to his head, but someone would have to be willing to take him in and offer him convincing assurances that he would survive the displacement. Only the Chinese and Russians would qualify.

More likely is that Kim would prefer to fight it out, but he would have to be dispatched with dispatch to head off a gotterdammerung effort to bring down the world around him. This would require penetrating his entourage and breaching his personal defences in North Korea itself, as Kim doesn’t travel abroad. Beijing could rely on what’s left of a pro-China faction in Pyongyang to stage the coup and install a new regime that would do its bidding. But it would not likely be a tidy process. There are tens of thousands who owe their livelihoods to Kim, would have no future without him, and are so fanatically tied to him that some kind of civil war could ensue.

Destroying Kim’s nuclear force

Notwithstanding the opinion of the smart set, destroying Kim’s nuclear force is neither unthinkable nor impossible. When the threat takes the form of the potential murder of millions of people in a nuclear missile attack, whether Americans or others, eliminating the capability to deliver on such a threat is not only thinkable but imperative. North Korean nuclear-armed ICBMs are arguably a greater menace than were Soviet SS-4s in Cuba or SS-20s in Eastern Europe — because decision-makers in Moscow could ultimately be counted on to be rational.

Destroying Kim’s nuclear force is also entirely feasible. The United States can project force anywhere in the world. In East Asia, it has large concentrations of forces in South Korea (28,500) and Japan (39,000) including Marine expeditionary forces, the US 7th fleet centered on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan deployed in Japan, and air force bases in South Korea, Japan, Guam, and Hawaii. Guam, south of Japan and east of the Philippines, has been described as a “permanent aircraft carrier”. With the cruise missiles, bombers and strike aircraft it has in the region, the United States could destroy not only all of North Korea’s military capabilities but North Korea itself.

At issue are the breadth of the destruction sought and whether North Korea could or would retaliate.

The United States, in league with South Korea and to some extent with Japan, could undertake two kinds of strikes. The first would be directed mainly against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. This would focus on the priority of eliminating the threat while signalling to Pyongyang that US objectives were limited and that retaliation would prompt far wider destruction. For all that, even a strike with limited objectives would be a formidable one. It would have to hit North Korea’s nuclear production infrastructure (uranium mines, reactors, enrichment facilities, research and development complexes), its nuclear arsenal, and its missile launchers (fixed and mobile).

In the event North Korea does try to respond, it’s not a foregone conclusion that “millions would die” — though no war is so antiseptic as to guarantee the costs would not be great.  As a precaution against any pre-programmed doomsday artillery barrage from across the DMZ, initial airstrikes and counter-battery fire would likely target the reportedly small portion of North Korea’s large artillery force actually capable of reaching Seoul. In addition, the US and its allies have several lines of defence against missiles.  The first line is Patriot and THAAD interceptor rockets in South Korea and Japan. The second is Aegis ballistic missile interceptors on warships in the Pacific. The third is ABM batteries in Alaska and California.

The second kind of strike would aim to take out not only North Korea’s nuclear weapons infrastructure and retaliatory capability, but also the leadership.


Reflecting on the years of appeasement which led to World War II, Winston Churchill wrote that history had frequently required government ministers to face a “tormenting dilemma”. They have a duty to avoid war, but they have a higher duty to safeguard the lives and freedom of the citizens to whom they owe their positions. If, as a last resort, that requires the use of force, ministers should do so when conditions are most favourable. “There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war and one much harder to win.”

The tormenting dilemma ministers face today is North Korea. For the time being at least, it appears North Korea is still a year away from acquiring a nuclear-capable missile. So better to take action against it this year rather than next.  All the options are bad, but the great powers and their allies need to pick one.