MARCH 16, 2017 — If you like Cold War-style thrillers and don’t mind getting the bejeebers scared out of you, we recommend an article by arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis titled “North Korea is Practicing for Nuclear War.” On the edge of your seat already, right?
North Korea is America’s strangest adversary: isolated, paranoid, belligerent and — here’s the worst part — armed to the teeth. Earlier this month the regime of Kim Jong Un simultaneously test-fired four missiles in the direction of Japan on an arc leading directly toward the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, Japan. Removing any doubt, North Korea announced that it was testing its capacity “to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.”
Lewis said that calling this provocation a “missile test” underplays the threat. North Korea has a proven ability to fire missiles that could reach Japan and South Korea. It also has nuclear weapons and is developing the ability to put them on warheads. “These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises,” Lewis wrote in Foreign Policy. “North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.”
His thesis is that North Korea, the U.S. and its South Korean ally are embarked on a dangerous course of gaming out first-strike capacities. Currently the U.S. and South Korea are conducting annual joint military exercises that appear to be dress rehearsals for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, which would come in response to a threat. The practice efforts include taking out Kim and assaulting his nuclear and missile facilities, according to Lewis.
North Korea hates these exercises and responded with its multiple-missile test. The significance of firing four rockets is that firing a quartet would increase the chances of eluding a sophisticated U.S. anti-missile defense system known as THAAD. This system, Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, can shoot down an incoming short- or medium-range missile while it’s still high in the atmosphere. With Kim acting tough, the U.S. Army says it’s moving “as quickly as possible” to deploy THAAD in South Korea.
What disturbs Lewis is the idea that in the event of a crisis, Kim might decide to use his nukes before the U.S. and South Korea can find and destroy his missile units. “He has to go first, if he is to go at all,” Lewis wrote. Gulp.
His point is that too much attention is paid to North Korea’s obsession with developing ICBMs capable of striking the United States. That threat is likely years away, but the North soon may be able to launch a nuclear attack on U.S. installations in Japan or South Korea that gets past THAAD “before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.”
Instead of counting on THAAD (or Trump’s tweets) to save humanity, we have another idea for the president: Game out scenarios in which the U.S, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia acknowledge the North Korean threat and cooperate to exert pressure on Kim to come to the table to discuss security guarantees in exchange for economic benefits. This group of countries has worked together previously to negotiate with North Korea, so there is precedent.
The obvious counterargument is that previous talks have produced no resolution. But this time the stakes are higher as Kim’s weapons programs move forward. Everyone at the table would be more nervous than ever. Consider the Chinese position: They fear THAAD because the system’s powerful radar can peer beyond North Korea into China, theoretically identifying Chinese missiles and scoping out troop movements. Thus it could upset the balance of power with the U.S., setting off an increased arms race. So the Chinese would enter talks knowing that if they don’t want THAAD in the neighborhood, they have to help restrain North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Beijing over the weekend, ahead of an expected meeting in the U.S. next month between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korea was on the agenda, but don’t expect immediate breakthroughs: China is North Korea’s only powerful friend and has interests other than shooing away THAAD. For one, China doesn’t root for a North Korean collapse because it would send millions of refugees over the border into China. For another, there is China’s audacious moves to control the South China Sea.
But China mistrusts Kim. Remember last month’s strange assassination of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia? He had been living under Chinese protection in Macau. In apparent reaction, the Chinese made a show of shutting down coal deliveries from North Korea.
Here’s what’s also true: China has no more interest than anyone else in waiting for North Korea to set off World War III in Asia. So amid the scary stories of North Korean brinkmanship, there is an opportunity for the Trump administration to work with whoever is willing to find a better ending to this chilling prospect.