Deadly Game Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un Risk Nuclear War

With prospects growing that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could soon have long-range nuclear missiles at his disposal, Donald Trump is threatening a military response. Suddenly nuclear war seems possible, but how great is the threat of escalation?

REUTERS/KCNA

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Rehearsals for the apocalypse have long been underway. Every two months, always in the early afternoon, the sirens begin wailing in Seoul. Cars and buses come to a halt, civil defense officials take up their positions at busy intersections and volunteers wearing yellow armbands guide pedestrians into the nearest shelter, of which there are hundreds in the South Korean capital.

The army, too, is prepared. Highways between Seoul and the border at the 38th parallel are lined with watchtowers and every few kilometers, heavy, concrete barriers hang above the road. Should war break out, explosive charges would drop the barriers onto the roadway, blocking the way to attackers. Beaches on the coast are likewise outfitted with tank traps and barbed wire -- all in an effort to protect the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from the poor yet heavily armed north.

The facilities are defensive in nature, but the South Korean military also has an attack plan, abbreviated as KMPR, which stands for Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation. The details are secret, but the first scenes of a new Korean war would look more or less as follows: Before North Korea could attack, the South would seek to eliminate its opponent's missile launch sites with cruise missiles of its own while anti-aircraft defenses would shoot down those rockets that evaded the initial strikes. Before North Korea could set its infantry in march, the plan calls for South Korean special forces to infiltrate Pyongyang and liquidate dictator Kim Jong Un.

When South Korea's defense minister spoke publicly for the first time about these plans last September, it was primarily of interest to Asian military experts. Now, though, the scenarios described seem disturbingly realistic. The Korean Peninsula hasn't been this close to military conflict since 2006, the pro-Chinese government newspaper Global Times recently wrote in Beijing.

From a global perspective, the situation could hardly be more sensitive. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un is a dictator who appears prepared to wage war to ensure his regime's survival, one which could result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of casualties. On the other side of the world, in Washington, D.C., sits Donald Trump, a democratically elected president who knows little about the world but who, in addition to the nuclear codes, also possesses a Twitter account that he tends to use imprudently. He has also shown, in both Syria and Afghanistan, that he isn't shy about deploying cruise missiles and massive bombs.

Fraying Nerves

As such, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un isn't the only destabilizing factor in this conflict. And the other is sitting in the White House. Combined, the two are fraying nerves across the globe.

On New Year's Day, three weeks before Trump's inauguration, Kim announced that his country would soon be testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Such a rocket would have sufficient range to reach the North American continent and Kim's disclosure was the most concrete and credible threat of a direct attack on the U.S. that his regime had yet issued.

"It won't happen," Trump answered in a tweet, essentially laying down a red line that his predecessor Barack Obama never drew with respect to North Korea.

Trump sees Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal as the greatest danger facing U.S. national security, but he isn't just inexperienced when it comes to foreign policy -- he often veers into downright clumsiness. A recent example came two weeks ago, when he announced that he had directed a U.S. aircraft carrier to head toward North Korea as a warning -- even though the vessel was actually heading in the opposite direction to take part in a maneuver near Australia. Whether it was a bluff or whether Trump had misunderstood something remains unclear -- even as the vessel, the USS Carl Vinson, is now steaming toward Korean waters -- but it does show the degree to which things can go wrong under this commander-in-chief.

Following the numerous failures and defeats he has suffered early on in his presidency, Trump badly needs successes to present to his supporters as he passes the symbolically important 100-day threshold. An aggressive stance toward North Korea at least gives him the appearance of resolve and Trump hopes to demonstrate that he is able to stand up to the Pyongyang dictator. When he launched 59 missiles at Syria earlier this month, he received praise even from commentators who don't normally have a kind word to say about this president. Because of Trump's apparent addiction to public acclaim, it isn't difficult to imagine the conclusions he drew.

The Trump presidency combined with the recent headway made by North Korea's missile and nuclear program under Kim's leadership mean that the confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang has entered a new and unpredictable phase. Rarely in the past has an escalation of this conflict been so imminent. Worse yet, a war on the Korean Peninsula might quickly turn into a nuclear conflict and, beyond that, could also involve several major regional powers and ultimately produce more refuges than the war in Syria.

Grave Concern

More indications of the rising tensions have cropped up this week. On Tuesday, the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine armed with over 150 Tomahawk missiles, docked in South Korea. Officials say it is just a routine deployment, but coming as it does on April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military, it seems likely that Pyongyang will have a different interpretation. Consistent with that anniversary, North Korea also held an immense live-fire artillery drill on Tuesday. In an unusual move, Trump has invited the entire Senate to the White House on Wednesday for an update on the situation with North Korea.

Some 75 million people live on the Korean Peninsula, with 25 million of them in North Korea and roughly the same number in Seoul and its immediate surroundings. Furthermore, the three largest economies in the world -- the U.S., China and Japan -- are involved in the conflict, meaning that a war wouldn't just have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, but also significant economic repercussions. Even the Russian Foreign Ministry recently expressed grave concern over the situation.

Is the concern justified? Is the world now on the brink of atomic war for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis? Is military conflict now unavoidable after many years of unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

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Robert Litwak, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., says that North Korea is on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough. The regime, he says, is feverishly seeking to develop up to 100 nuclear warheads in the next two to three years that can be delivered via intercontinental ballistic missiles. "If they are successful, the playing field will fundamentally change," Litwak says. He too speaks of a "slow-motion Cuba crisis" and is reminded of the fateful year 1962 -- with the difference being that North Korea is a nuclear-armed "failed state" that is ruled by a family clan.

In this year alone, Kim Jong Un has carried out four missile tests, each of them accompanied by shrill rhetoric. If the United States continues threatening world peace and insisting on its "gangster logic," which holds that it is justified to invade sovereign states, then "a nuclear war could break out at any moment," the deputy North Korean ambassador to the United Nations threatened a week ago Monday in New York. They are grotesque words, but do they need to be taken seriously?

A Security Risk

North Korea has often issued aggressive threats in the past. But Kim, with his eagerness to arm his country, his paranoia and his proclivity for taking risks, is at least predictable. Trump, however, is not. The decisive question is how he will react. Each sentence he utters can have relevance when it comes to war and peace, each unguarded word. And that is the greatest risk posed by Trump, with his lack of experience, his narcissism and his fondness for instant provocation on Twitter. A president who cannot control himself is a security risk.

During the campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly insisted he would put America first and that he had no interest in disseminating American values in the world. But Trump is far from an isolationist. He has frequently spoken of reestablishing American strength in the world, and the strength he refers to is military in nature. "We have to start winning wars again," he said in a late-February speech. Consistent with that message, Trump has also announced a $54 billion increase to the defense budget and has also given the military a freer hand in the fight against militant Islamism -- which has since resulted in an uptick in civilian deaths in U.S. airstrikes.

Regarding North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a trip to Asia five weeks ago that the U.S. policy of "strategic patience" was over. Last Monday, Vice President Mike Pence likewise traveled to South Korea, making an appearance in a bomber jacket at a look-out in the demilitarized zone. He spoke of Trump's readiness to respond to provocations with strength. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve," Pence intoned.

"It is easy to determine what Kim Jong Un wants," says South Korean parliamentarian Kim Jong Dae, one of the country's most experienced security policy officials. "But Trump is unpredictable." On the one hand, he says, the U.S. announces it is sending an aircraft carrier and speaks openly of military plans while on the other, it is sending signals that it is prepared to negotiate. Mike Pence also spoke of the possibility of talks.

Seoul is particularly worried about American plans for a commando operation targeting the North Korean dictator, says Kim Jong Dae. He says that the Navy Seals team that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was involved in the Foal Eagle joint military exercise with South Korea in March. "We are most concerned that the U.S. will attack North Korea without asking South Korea for approval," the lawmaker says.

Uneven Distribution

Trump's predecessors in recent decades have all shied away from using military force against North Korea, but it isn't difficult to imagine Kim Jong Un provoking him into an impetuous act. Victor Cha, the director of Asian affairs on George W. Bush's National Security Council and now Senior Advisor and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., expects that such a provocation will come in the coming days, ahead of the South Korean presidential election on May 9.

"We analyzed data from several decades and found that North Korea has regularly provoked militarily before or after elections in South Korea," Cha said in an interview conducted prior to Tuesday's North Korean artillery exercise. "I expect them to continue to provoke this time as well -- at least through the presidential elections, plus/minus two weeks. The critical period could start around April 25, Military Foundation Day."

The risk, says Cha, is that the strength of the north's military is unevenly distributed. "North Korea has a large, partly outdated artillery, and it has weapons of mass destruction. Unlike other militaries it doesn't have much in between. This could shorten the ladder of escalation."

Were Trump to seriously consider a military option, he would, broadly speaking, have three options at his disposal. First, the U.S. could carry out a preventative strike in an effort to prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear-armed missile. To do so, however, it would have to identify the launch site, though it is likely that many are capable of being launched from mobile platforms. Destroying all of them would be almost impossible.

Second, Trump could launch a preventative strike on all of North Korea's nuclear facilities, including research centers and production sites. That, though, would be challenging inasmuch as they would have to be struck at roughly the exact same time. Should that not be successful, there would be significant risk of a nuclear counterstrike from North Korea. Furthermore, Pyongyang could respond to such an attack with a conventional military offensive against South Korea.

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