Deadly Game Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un Risk Nuclear War
Part 2: The Risk of Military Escalation
The third theoretical option, that of a U.S.-led military invasion from South Korea, is essentially impractical due to the risk that North Korea would respond with nuclear or chemical weapons.
Even threatening North Korea militarily is extremely risky given the threat of a powerful reaction should the country's leadership become convinced that an attack was imminent. Pyongyang, after all, could hardly win a war with the U.S., making it all the more important that it strike quickly and unexpectedly. And in contrast to the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Kim Jong Un is prepared to accept extreme risks and a huge number of victims in his own country.
In light of that risk, Barack Obama warned his successor in November that North Korea would be the most pressing national security risk facing the Trump administration -- just as the country's nuclear program has long been one of the thorniest foreign policy issues U.S. presidents have had to deal with. In his infamous State of the Union address in 2002, George W. Bush didn't just include Iran and Iraq in his Axis of Evil, but also North Korea. One year later, the U.S. marched into Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein -- vividly illustrating the worst-case scenario for the regime in Pyongyang.
But like his predecessors, Bush chose diplomacy in his dealings with the North Koreans. In 2003, the six-party talks began in Beijing, which included China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. in addition to North and South Korea. Even as Bush's ensuing attempts to pacify Iraq were characterized by bumbling and dilettantism, his diplomats were patient and competent in their talks with North Korea. In the fifth of a total of six negotiating rounds, the idea was born to provide North Korea with generous humanitarian aid, fuel deliveries and the normalization of relations with Japan and the U.S. in exchange for putting a halt to the country's nuclear program.
Pyongyang initially approved the plan's essential elements. But a first nuclear test in 2006, the diplomatic tensions that resulted and, in 2009, the launch of a North Korean satellite, led to the abandonment of the talks. Pyongyang subsequently declared that it would "never again" take part in such negotiations.
Bush's successor Barack Obama focused primarily on sanctions and sought to apply pressure on China to play a more active role in tempering its protégé. The strategy, however, was unsuccessful, with North Korea carrying out more than 50 missile tests during Obama's presidency along with four of the five nuclear tests it has conducted to date.
In response, Obama ordered the military three years ago to prepare cyberattacks against North Korea. Since then, as the New York Times recently reported, the number of failed missile tests in the country have multiplied. Last fall, Kim Jong Un even ordered an investigation to determine the extent to which his country's archenemy might be behind the setbacks. But technical problems could also be to blame for the failed tests. Plus, in contrast to Iran, where the U.S. was able to deploy malware to sabotage the country's uranium enrichment program, North Korea is not well networked, making it difficult to infiltrate the country's infrastructure.
Which brings us to Trump, a man for whom good foreign policy apparently consists primarily of having a powerful army to order around. He has been open about his fondness for the military, even going so far as to call it "my military" on occasion.
The good news, though, is that the generals he has placed in important positions are far from interested in starting a war. Trump's national security advisor, Herbert Raymond McMaster, for example, is considered an excellent and discriminating strategist. In a book he wrote about the Vietnam War, he concluded that high-ranking military officers were also to be blamed for the escalation and ensuing disaster for lacking the courage to clearly tell politicians that their plans were not working. McMaster now finds himself the role of constantly telling the president what he thinks -- and Trump thus far appears to be listening to him.
In fact, since he began his term, Trump seems to have realized that foreign policy is more complicated than he thought. "The world is a mess," he said following the chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian regime almost three weeks ago.
He appears to have had similar such epiphanies more recently. In the transcript of an interview with the Associated Press released on Monday, Trump said that his infamous quote about NATO being "obsolete" was made at a time when he didn't know much about NATO. "Now, I know a lot about NATO."
Another realization came during his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who held a 10-minute lecture for the president on why China's influence over North Korea is limited. "I realized it's not so easy," Trump said with disarming honesty in a subsequent interview. (He also asserted that Korea "used to be a part of China," which the Koreans vehemently reject.)
Since his meeting with the Chinese leader, Trump has softened his approach to Beijing, apparently in the realization that he is going to need their help. Even his campaign accusation that China manipulates its currency is one that he no longer repeats. He explained why on Twitter: "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?"
Chinese sources say that Xi warned Trump against an escalation and told the president that Kim can only be reached through diplomacy. Trump's team, however, countered that Beijing hasn't accomplished much in North Korea with diplomacy in the past several decades. It is time, they said, for a different approach -- and more pugnacity.
Thus far, there are no indications that Kim has been cowed by Trump. In mid-April, he made a celebrated appearance before the Supreme People's Assembly, the country's token parliament which gathers every year in April to rubber-stamp the budget and other measures implemented by the country's leadership. As usual, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun used the occasion to issue a few threats to the U.S. and its allies. This time, it wrote: "Our strong, revolutionary army watches our enemy's every step and the gaze of our nuclear powers is fixed on the invasion bases of the U.S., not just in South Korea and the Pacific, but also on the American mainland."
At a military parade just a few days later, on April 15, the regime put on display the weapons with which it might realize the threat. For the first time, Pyongyang showed off transportation and launch canisters for two missile systems that appear to be for intercontinental missiles with the capability of perhaps even reaching the East Coast of the United States. The goal of the regime is that of building nuclear warheads that are small enough to mount on these missiles. The calculation, it appears, is that nobody will want to attack such a heavily armed country, thus making Kim Jong Un's leadership secure.
Whether Kim's engineers are already sufficiently technologically advanced to make such a warhead is unclear. Most experts believe that Pyongyang possesses up to 20 nuclear warheads and could be ready to mount them on its missiles in about two years.
But the missile systems are far from bug-free. As recently as Sunday, April 16, a missile exploded shortly after launch in an embarrassing setback for Kim Jong Un. Since then, experts have been wondering if the explosion may have been caused by U.S. sabotage.
'The Military First'
The occasion for the April 15 military parade was the 105th birthday of Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea and died in 1994. It was also Kim Il Sung who sent the first experts to the Soviet Union following the end of the Korean War in 1953 and entrusted them with the development of missile and nuclear programs.
When the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Pyongyang lost its most important ally and the regime responded with the "Songun" doctrine, which literally means "the military first." Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, pursued this course so radically that he triggered a vast famine, all in the name of strengthening his family's hold on power. Up to 3 million people are thought to have starved to death.
The Kims' weapons program quickly advanced and in 2006 the regime carried out its first successful nuclear test. The year 2011 saw the death of Kim Jong Il, a frail, eccentric man who was fond of Hollywood and basketball but who tended to avoid the public eye. As his successor, he chose his third son, Kim Jong Un, who was likely born in 1984.
As has become increasingly clear throughout his rule, however, this third Kim orients his leadership less on his diminutive father and more on his stately grandfather. His hairstyle and dress are reminiscent of Kim Il Sung, and he also wears similar eyeglasses and imitates his body language. In a March 2016 propaganda photo, which shows him in front of a group of nuclear experts, Kim is even wearing a military greatcoat and fur hat that resembled those worn by his grandfather.
In the photo, the group is standing in front of a metal sphere that the state news agency KCNA claimed was a nuclear warhead. It measured around 60 centimeters in diameter and would thus be small enough to mount on a carrier rocket.
Just how far Kim is prepared to go to secure his rule became apparent in December 2013, with the execution of his uncle, Chang Song Taek, who was the second-most powerful official in the regime. It was a gruesome killing, even for North Korean standards: The 67-year-old was pulled out of a politburo meeting on live camera, convicted as a "traitor to the party" and then, rumors hold, shot with an anti-aircraft gun.
Just over three years later, on February 13 of this year, another close relative of Kim's fell victim to a no less spectacular assassination. His older half-brother Jong Nam was attacked at the Kuala Lumpur airport by two women who pressed a towel to his face that was saturated with the nerve agent VX. He died a short time later -- and another potential rival had been sidelined.
The older Kim had originally been foreseen as Kim Jong Il's successor, but he fell out of favor with his father because of his lifestyle. Since 2003, he had been living in Beijing and in the gambling city Macau. Rumors that China's leadership had been keeping him in reserve as a potential alternative to Kim Jong Un may have been one of the reasons behind the successful plot to assassinate him.
Despite his brutality, his vulgar behavior and his martial tone, most close observers of North Korea nevertheless believe he is a rational thinker. One Chinese expert, who asked not to be quoted by name, says that Kim is primarily interested in preserving the regime's power. The expert says that progress in the nuclear program and the most recent threats emanating from North Korea must be viewed through that lens. He argues that Kim's threats of nuclear war are strategic in nature and not made out of some kind of death wish.
Cautious Steps Internally
Domestically, Kim is taking cautious steps to open the country economically. Compared to the 1990s, Pyongyang and other North Korean cities are booming. Skyscrapers have been built and leisure facilities like the riding club in Pyongyang or the ski area near Wonsan create the appearance of prosperity. There are now even traffic jams on once-empty streets.
The capital city in particularly -- as the regime's showcase -- is being dressed up on the model of modern Chinese cities. Kenji Fujimoto, the Japanese chef who used to cook for the Kim family, apparently returned to the city recently to open a sushi restaurant. Fresh fish for the elite is flown in from Japan through third states.
"Shopping centers have been built in every district of Pyongyang," reports North Korea expert Choi Jin Wook in Seoul. "They all look similar: There's a restaurant on the ground floor, on the second floor there's a sauna or spa and a shop on the third floor."
Along with the boom in construction, there has also been a surge in corruption, a product of investors needing the approval of state organs like the military or the secret police for each business they open. "The elite are constantly fighting for political power because power secures economic interests," says Choi.
The new prosperity has only reached a fraction of the population. Nonetheless, people living in the larger cities are now able to stock up on groceries and clothing at privately owned markets. Most North Koreans have a side job to make ends meet and payments often take place in euros or the Chinese yuan instead of the national currency, the won, even at supermarkets or in taxis.
For several years now, the country has also operated a mobile phone network built by Egyptian entrepreneur Naguib Sawaris. Three million North Koreans are now purported to own mobile phones. But the network is closed and heavily shielded from the outside world, with those living near the border often doing what they can to get their hands on smuggled Chinese SIM cards.
A Bleak Situation in the Provinces
The northeastern Chinese city Tumen is located directly on the river for which it is named, just across from North Korea. The afternoon sun beams through the cloudy skies bathing Namyang Workers' District, the North Korean town on the other side of the river, in a warm spring light. People can be seen leaving their homes, children play soccer, a bulldozer is at work on the bank and an army truck rumbles down the road.
For two hours, not a single private car can be seen. Looking through binoculars, it is possible to see that none of the roads in Namyang have been paved and most window frames are filled only with plastic sheeting. When neon ads light up on the Chinese side at dusk, North Korea remains dark. The lights only go on in three, maybe four apartments, and the light hum of a generator can be heard. In contrast to the cities, the situation remains as bleak as ever in provinces. The majority of North Koreans live in abject poverty.
The few North Koreans the regime allows to travel into China -- truck drivers, laborers and security workers -- are immediately recognizable by their simple clothing. They wave you away just as soon as you try to speak to them.
In restaurants and karaoke bars with names like "A Thousand Years of White Snow," North Korean women serve and sing. They make three appearances a night, singing the same Korean songs each time. But even with these women, it is difficult to have a conversation. They all say they are in China for three years, claim to have attended the same university in Pyongyang and complain of homesickness for North Korea, which they say is much nicer than China. But please, no names or details or "anything that could create problems for us."
There are dozens of restaurants like this in China, and the women work for a network of North Korean companies that have close ties with the regime. Their profits are funneled to Pyongyang, creating an important source of revenue for the regime.
Dents in the 'Unbreakable Friendship'?
China continues to allow their presence, but that could end. Even after just the first phone conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in February, Beijing promised to more strictly implement UN sanctions against North Korea than it has in the past. In early April, following the meeting between the two presidents in Florida, China's custom's authority got tougher and sent back several coal freighters for the first time.
Slowly, Chinese leaders are drifting from the official line of an "unbreakable friendship" with their communist neighbor and are adopting a more critical view. Some in China, like historian Shen Zhihua of East China Normal University, have begun publicly stating that China's Korea policies have failed. At a recent public event, he said that South Korea, and not North Korea, is China's natural ally on the peninsula. So far, the transcript of his presentation on the internet still hasn't been censored -- a sign that influential figures within the apparatus share his opinion.
Beijing is facing a dilemma. It doesn't want to see further missile and nuclear tests because a North Korea with a highly developed nuclear arsenal would run counter to China's own interests. But it also doesn't want to lose the communist buffer state on its eastern flank.
In private discussions and on the internet, the Chinese have long been poking fun at Kim Jong Un. Recently, the official press in China has likewise been unusually clear it its rejection of Pyongyang. If Kim disturbs the efforts at rapprochement between Beijing and the new U.S. government through a nuclear test, there will be a price to pay, the wrote the Global Times. Although China continues to oppose any kind of military intervention, there is a "chance that Beijing could also say 'yes' to a potential US imposed financial blockade against North Korea," the paper wrote.
It's a fundamentally new tone that hints at the possibility that Beijing and Washington could work more closely together on the issue of North Korea. So far, the regime in Pyongyang has profited from distrust between the two superpowers. It created the space necessary for North Korea to build up its arsenal to its current size and allowed an unimportant small country with a knack for high drama to become a serious international threat.
But is there now a possibility that the U.S. and China might join forces to find a peaceful settlement of the Korea question, through, for example, tougher sanctions?
Top Chinese official Yang Xiyu, who once participated in the six party talks, notes that in the 1990s "the leadership was never in danger, even during the famine crisis." That's why he believes that sanctions are the wrong way to go. He argues that a regime as tough as the one in Pyongyang can hardly be brought to its knees economically.
But if neither diplomatic nor economic pressure can do anything, will China, the U.S. and the rest of the world have to get used to the fact that North Korea is getting closer to becoming a nuclear power?
For proliferation reasons alone, that is hard to imagine, says U.S. expert Victor Cha, the George W. Bush official who took part in the six party talks on behalf of Washington. "North Korea doesn't just arm itself," he says, "it sells weapons to other countries. Preventing this and getting them to sign a (non-proliferation) treaty is a must."
It's not only the Chinese experts who question whether Kim would react to economic pressure. In South Korea, many are now also questioning whether a tightening of economic sanctions would make any sense. They consider the hardline approach taken by former President Park Geun Hye, who was impeached in March over allegations of abuse of power and corruption, to be a failure.
On May 9, South Koreans will go to the polls to elect a new president. The two candidates with the greatest prospects for succeeding Park -- the centrist, reform-minded Ahn Cheol Soo and the left-wing liberal Moon Jae In, are both advocating increasing contacts with the North. "If we only isolate Kim, then we have no longer have any influence over him," says Lim Eul Chul of the Center for International Cooperation for North Korean Development.
Lim's name is being circulated as a possible unification minister in a Moon cabinet and he has called for a reopening of the special economic zone at Kaesong. Until it's closure in February 2016 by President Park, North Korean laborers had produced inexpensive goods for South Korean companies at the enclave, located at the 38th parallel. Even among members of the conservative government that will continue to manage the country until the election, differences are already emerging with allies in Washington over the North Korea issue.
Political Maneuvering in Japan
But the situation is altogether different in Japan, where an escalation of the Korea crisis could play into the hands of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has already visited Trump twice since the new U.S. president took office. For some time now, the prime minister has been seeking to amend the pacifist constitution that was essentially dictated to Japan by its American occupiers after World War II.
Kim's provocations have established the political maneuvering room for Abe that have enabled him to increase the budget of the Japan Self-Defense Forces to about 44 billion euros, the highest it has been since the end of the war. Recently, Japanese television has given wide coverage to North Korean missile tests, and only a short time ago, several of those missiles went down around 300 kilometers off the coast of Japan. In March, the first evacuation drill in response to an attack was conducted since the end of World War II in the Akita prefecture.
Given that Japan's air defenses would be insufficient for protecting the country from several missile strikes at the same time, some high-ranking members of Abe's party are already calling for a review of possible "counterstrikes against targets abroad" -- meaning North Korea. Such deployments are currently prohibited under the Japanese Constitution, but the country now has the military means to do so after taking delivery of 42 American-made F-35 stealth fighters.
Still, with no guarantee that Kim can be disarmed militarily in a single strike, the international community appears to have other option than returning to the negotiating table.
A military strike may have been possible over 20 years ago, when North Korea's nuclear program was still in its infancy. In 1994, during the first major nuclear crisis, the Pentagon and South Korean armed forces ran a simulation of a detailed war scenario. It predicted a devastating outcome for the first three months after the outbreak of fighting: 490,000 deaths on the South Korean side and 52,000 dead or wounded on the American side. The plan was shelved and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was sent to Pyongyang as a negotiator instead.
A Balance of Deterrence in the Far East
North Korea now has up to 20 nuclear warheads at its disposal, and the risk of a military attack has increased significantly. At the same time, the probability of defanging the country's nuclear program in the longer term has also diminished. Even if the new U.S. president isn't prepared to admit it yet, the military option is actually no longer an option. A balance of deterrence is already in place in the Far East.
As such, Trump's only realistic alternative is to conduct negotiations. He already stated once during the election campaign that, if need be, he'd meet with Kim Jong Un for a hamburger and to discuss the problems. Trump's view of successful foreign policy has always tended to resemble the real estate business: Two men meet and close a deal. After all, Trump views himself as being one of the greatest dealmakers of all time.
He could also do something unusual like sending his son-in-law Jared Kushner to North Korea -- an idea that has been suggested by Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. He argues it would send the message to Pyongyang that it is being taken seriously. Kushner is Trump's point person for difficult cases. He helped to prepare for Xi Jinping's visit to Florida and Fitzpatrick believes that Kushner could help to deescalate the North Korea conflict by pushing the dictator into talks.
Robert Litwak, the North Korea expert in Washington, also believes it is in Kim Jong Un's interest to negotiate. He proposes a freezing of the North Korean nuclear program through negotiations between China and North Korea. The result could be that Kim stays in power, with a limited number of nuclear weapons.
The greatest threat these days, in fact, may not be that one side intentionally triggers a war. Rather that both sides may stumble into a spiral of escalation that they are unable to stop.
But if a military confrontation can be prevented, if Trump and Kim don't overreact and if negotiations are the ultimate outcome, then it is possible that Trump wouldn't be in a bad spot. The fact that he is erratic, impulsive and unpredictable is certainly a worry to politicians around the world, but that could work to his advantage during negotiations. That, in fact, might be why Trump recently said: "This country has to be less predictable."
By Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Scheuermann, Wieland Wagner and Bernhard Zand
- Part 1: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un Risk Nuclear War
- Part 2: The Risk of Military Escalation