The last time when North Korean nuclear weapons might have been headed off by diplomacy was 15-20 years ago, when there was a deal freezing North Korean work on nuclear weapons, and then one stopping the country’s work on long-range ballistic missiles.
If they had been negotiated with the same attention to detail that was given to the recent deal that has frozen Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years, maybe North Korea’s quest for nuclear-tipped ICBMs could have been stopped for good – or maybe not, because North Korea has always wanted an effective deterrent to the permanent US nuclear threat.
At any rate, both the nuclear and the missile deals with North Korea failed after a couple of years. Pyongyang and Washington were equally to blame for the break-downs, resorting to tit-for-tat retaliation for various perceived breaches of the deal by the other side.
But it was the United States that had more to lose, since it faced no nuclear threat from North Korea unless the deals were abandoned and North Korea’s weapons research went ahead. What we have seen recently – two ICBM tests in July, another one last month, and now what was almost certainly North Korea’s first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) – is the inevitable result of the failure then.
It took a lot of time and effort to get Pyongyang’s bomb and missile programmes to this point, and it seems clear that Kim Jong-un’s regime decided the safest way to test the new weapons and vehicles was all at once. He’s right.
Stringing the tests out over a couple of years might have given the country’s enemies time to organise a complete trade embargo against North Korea, or maybe even some form of attack. The safer course was to bunch the tests up, get the outraged reactions over fast, and then hope the whole issue will fade into the background.
That’s what both India and Pakistan did in 1998, and it worked for them. Everybody eventually got used to the idea that they were more or less legitimate nuclear weapons powers.
India and Pakistan didn’t bother doing all their missile tests at once, because they had enough space to carry them out over their own land and maritime territory. North Korea is much smaller and entirely surrounded by Chinese, Russian and Japanese territory, so any long-range tests are bound to pass over one of those countries. Pyongyang chose Japan, because it is a US ally.
But even its ICBM test on August 30, when the Japanese government ordered its citizens in parts of Hokkaido into the shelters, did not enter Japanese airspace. The missile crossed Japan at a sub-orbital altitude, and the Japanese authorities knew that it would as soon as the boost phase ended. The pictures of allegedly panic-stricken Japanese civilians in shelters were propaganda meant to serve Prime Minister Abe’s project for remilitarising Japan.
There is no good ‘military option’ available to the United States and its allies in the current crisis, even though President Trump says “We’ll see.”
A direct US attack on North Korea using only conventional weapons would not get all of North Korea’s nukes, which are hidden in hardened underground sites or moved around by night on mobile launchers. It would also call down “fire and fury” on Seoul from ten thousand North Korean artillery pieces and short-range rockets.
A US nuclear attack would probably still not get all of Kim Jong-un’s nukes: North Korea is the hardest intelligence target in the world. Pyongyang may already be able to reach the United States with one or two ICBMs carrying thermonuclear warheads, and it can certainly reach all of South Korea and Japan.
The political options for the United States and its Asian allies are equally constrained. Trump’s talk of stopping US trade with any country that trades with North Korea is really aimed at China (which already operates selective embargoes on various North Korean exports). But cutting US trade with China would cause immense disruption to the American economy, and it’s unlikely that Trump would actually do it.
Normally, when human beings encounter a problem that they cannot eliminate, they find ways of living with it. It often takes a while for them to get there, however, and we are currently in the dangerous phase where people (or at least some people) are convinced that there must be something they can do to make the problem go away.
The only excuse for radical action now would be a conviction that Kim Jong-un is a crazy man who will use his nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, even though it would certainly lead to his own death and that of his entire regime. If you truly believe that, then the right course of action is an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea right now.
Otherwise, start dialling back your rhetoric, because you are eventually going to have to accept that North Korea now has a usable nuclear deterrent. You can live with that, because it’s better than fighting a nuclear war.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries