Just like Cyprus, Korea is still officially at war.
An armistice (a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’) remains the international legal position in Korea. Just as there is still no peace treaty between Greece and Turkey for the events of 1974, there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea following the 1953 end of fighting in the Korean War.
And therein lies an almost insoluble problem. Because North Korea is now hell bent on going nuclear. And if it does, we will be confronting a serious threat to world stability and peace. Does this matter or concern us, thousands of miles away?
Yes, it does; for in the delicate balance between North and South Korea, backed respectively by China and the USA, with Japan and the South China Sea in the wings, there are now some very dangerous regional catalysts for conflict – even a major war between superpowers.
‘Fanaticism armed with power’ has always been the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Second World War. That is why the Big Five and the Security Council have strenuously tried to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. In North Korea under its homicidal and unstable leader Kim Jong-Un, it now looks very much as if fanaticism is acquiring power – nuclear weapons. We are headed for confrontation, if not a war, because not only is the Korean dictator determined to get nuclear weapons, he is now quite openly threatening to use them.
Kim claims that his country has attained the status of a nuclear power and says he is prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against American targets. The little sealed-off communist country has carried out five nuclear tests and several missile launches recently, despite stern warnings from the UN. Only last week Kim warned that his North Korean army could ‘deal deadly blows’ without any warning against the US and South Korea. US intelligence believes that Pyongyang is in the final stages of readying itself for another yet nuclear experiment – possibly within a matter of days.
The question is; does Kim really mean it, or just blustering? The answer is, no-one knows. The fat, blood thirsty little despot has a track record of mouthing off with blood-curdling threats and then backing off.
North Korea is a strange place; a closed country with insufficient arable land and few natural resources, squeezed between China and South Korea, which is still protected by tens of thousands of U.S. forces. In the north, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has accepted Chinese protection while maintaining domestic control and military power – the so called “poison-shrimp” strategy: best to ignore, because invading it would be more dangerous.
But things are changing rapidly. With Kim’s promise to go nuclear soon, North Korea now poses a grave risk to stability, not just in the region but to the rest of us. The situation is not unlike the alliance system just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when the small fry went to war in the Balkans and dragged the major nations backing them into hostilities. The problem today is that superpower China underwrites and backs Pyongyang; over the border in the South, superpower America guarantees Seoul’s security. A very nervous Japan looks on, horrified.
Whatever we think of Kim, his policy is very clear and rational: to stay in power by building a nuclear deterrent. With this he hopes to neutralise the long-standing threat of America, determined to destabilise his government and forcing the collapse of the North Korean regime. But now America is facing a genuine challenge to its leadership in the Far East. Washington has to make a big decision soon. There are some serious questions to be answered.
First, how dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear capability, really? The answer is no-one for sure.
North Korea is now thought to have some 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs, according to South Korea intelligence. Pyongyang has also made significant advancements in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, as well as its ability to enrich uranium. The big problem is where exactly are these nuclear assets? North Korea has at least ten nuclear sites, scattered around the country, many deep underground.
Although the United States is unmatched when it comes to military power projection, any attempt to cripple North Korea’s nuclear programme by force faces some serious problems. Major intelligence gaps complicate Washington’s decision-making. There is no doubt that if the US decides to carry out an air strike against North Korea, using B2 bombers with Ordnance Penetrators and 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs, it could destroy North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure and associated nuclear sites.
The problem is that although the immediate impact would be devastating for Pyongyang, it might not be fatal. Even with the United States’ advantage in intelligence and equipment, uncertainty about the exact locations and dispositions of North Korean nuclear assets means that the complete success of any conventional strike on North Korea cannot be assured. Realistically, without the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and total occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies cannot guarantee absolutely the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean counter-attack in some form or other.
The most immediate and expected method of retaliation would be with conventional artillery. North Korea has an incredible 13,000 guns positioned along the border, many of them within range of Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities, just 35 miles away.
Just a single volley could deliver more than 350 tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, with massive civilian casualties. North Korea also has an advanced chemical warfare capability, as well as large commando and sabotage forces. The latter are capable of being inserted into South Korea through tunnels or off-shore, to wreak havoc by attacking key infrastructure, logistics nodes, and US command-and-control facilities, causing mayhem behind the lines.
The conclusion is that any American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear programme will come at a heavy price. North Korea’s revenge response to any attack is something that U.S. policymakers cannot ignore. And China cannot be expected to stay neutral if America moves in. Beijing is already flexing its muscles with the US Navy over control of the South China Sea, and has warned Washington that deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defence Missiles (THAAD) to protect South Korea is ‘a hostile act.’ Things are hotting up.
Kim Wrong-Un understands that he now has very little time to field his credible nuclear deterrent. But once he has one, then the chance of American intervention becomes increasingly unlikely. A diplomatic resolution is obviously preferable to direct intervention, because attacking North Korea guarantees massive destruction in return. But that needs China’s agreement and support to rein in its erratic and increasingly dangerous neighbour. And North Korea isn’t looking for diplomacy.
Logic dictates that now would be the best time to strike, before North Korea can finalise its nuclear capability. The result is that America’s new president is now between a rock and a hard place, thanks to his predecessor’s failure to act. If Trump orders a strike, then the consequences for South Korea could be devastating, as Pyongyang would almost certainly respond. But if nothing is done, then North Korea will become a nuclear power, placing American bases in Japan, Okinawa and American carrier groups in the region at risk for the first time. Would the unthinkable then become the inevitable: would Japan go nuclear for self-protection?
There will never be a perfect time to launch an operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability. But one thing is evident: every week that goes by brings Pyongyang closer to a credible nuclear deterrent. Confrontation, even war, looms.
The omens are not good.