North Korea is Running Out of Time

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Contrary to the dispassionate tone of the media coverage it receives, the North Korean nuclear crisis remains firmly in escalation mode. If there was any doubt about that, Monday’s missile test should be enough to put it to rest once and for all. North Korea’s leadership is either unwilling to accept that the rules of its chess match with the United States have changed, or is unable to recognize it. Kim Jong Un continues to play the game as if Barack Obama is still his opponent. North Korea’s strategic moves and actions in 2017 appear to be geared towards Obama instead of Donald Trump. Because President Trump is not behaving, or reacting in the manner that his predecessor had, it’s left Kim stymied. Rather than explore a new approach, he’s opted instead to double down on senselessness and instigate a new round of brinkmanship.

North Korea’s latest missile test is especially provocative. The missile’s flight path took it directly over northern Japan, not very far from Misawa Air Base, a USAF installation. The missile broke into three pieces during flight and then impacted roughly 700 miles east of Japan in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo has responded by labeling the test as reckless and unprecedented. North Korea’s action will undoubtedly strengthen Japan’s resolve and determination to stand firmly with the United States. If Kim Jong Un was hoping this missile test would result in a softening of the US, Japan, and South Korea’s position, he has misjudged the situation.

Kim’s miscalculations, and fallacies are the propellant that is escalating this crisis into dangerous territory. He is running short on opportunities to reverse the course he has put North Korea on. Heavy economic sanctions are being piled on the frail North Korean economy as Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Russia and China are reluctant to throw Pyongyang a lifeline as long as it continues to flaunt its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the face of the United States and her allies in the region.

Sunday 20 August, 2017 Update: US/South Korean Military Exercises Begin Tomorrow

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The annual joint US-Republic of Korea military exercises antagonize North Korea to no end. For as long as they’ve been held, the exercises have been a thorn in North’s side. Every year, events follow a similar pattern. In the weeks leading up to the start of the exercises, Pyongyang voices complaints. Gradually, the complaints become threats, and eventually stern warnings to the US and South Korea. The North Koreans have long held the position that the exercises serve as a mask for invasion preparations, despite the fact that there has not been a military incursion into its territory since the Korean War.

Given the current state of tensions on the Korean peninsula, it comes as no surprise that North Korea is rattling its saber mightily as the exercises prepare to begin tomorrow. The official state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun warns that the US-ROK exercises will ‘worsen the state’ of the region, and lead to an ‘uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.’ Pyongyang also warned that it has Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland in the crosshairs of its nuclear weapons and promised the US would be unable to dodge a ‘merciless strike.’

The US is closely watching North Korea for signs that a missile test could be in the works. In the past, these joint exercises have provoked responses from Pyongyang such as missile firings. In the current environment this would be the worst possible move Kim Jong Un could make. Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Following Kim’s threats against Guam, even a single ballistic missile test runs the risk of enflaming a situation that is already a potential powder keg.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump have spoken frequently in recent weeks regarding the crisis. Moon was recently quoted as saying his nation’s North Korea policy is in line with America’s own. There has been some speculation about whether or not Trump would seek Moon’s blessing prior to possible US military action against North Korea. The answer depends on a number of political and operational variables. In short, it would be beneficial and wise for Trump to have the support of the South Korean and Japanese leaders, but it is not a necessity should the time come when the US has to take action against the North.

 

 

The Case For Military Action Against North Korea Part One

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Two days after the 2016 US Presidential Election, then-President-elect Donald Trump traveled to Washington DC for a meeting with then-President Barack Obama. During their discussion Obama warned Trump that North Korea could wind up being the most urgent foreign policy/national security issue facing his administration early on. Obama’s assessment was on target, and in line with Trump’s own position. The incoming president firmly grasped the reality that North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and ballistic missile programs are the greatest threat facing the United States in contemporary times. The current-president has also recognized, correctly, that 23 years of inconsistent US policy on North Korea’s WMD programs has failed miserably. He was determined to create an effective, and decisive doctrine to succeed the widely maligned era of strategic patience.

President Trump’s predecessors had achieved little success with their own respective North Korean policies. Bill Clinton’s administration was the first to contend with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in 1994 as it became apparent that the North was actively working producing a nuclear device. Fear of a regional war breaking out as a result of US military action against North Korea motivated Clinton to adopt a policy of accommodation over confrontation. The Agreed Framework that came about in October 1994 was intended to replace the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade material, with light water reactor powerplants which could not be used to produce that type of material. Implementing the agreement faced problems from the start, however, facets of the agreement functioned well until 2002 when the US obtained evidence of a North Korean uranium enrichment program underway. Agreed Framework collapsed the following year. Practically speaking, Clinton’s diplomatic approach did freeze plutonium production in North Korea from 1994 to 2002. Yet it did not prevent the North Koreans from starting a uranium enrichment program. Essentially, Bill Clinton kicked the North Korea can down the road for his successors to deal with.  He was out of office by the time of the Framework’s collapse, and from that point forward it was the problem of President George W. Bush.

To his credit, Bush recognized the North Korean regime’s evil nature, and its intentions early on in his presidency. He branded North Korea as a founding member of the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union address, grouping Kim Jong Il’s nation in with the likes of Iran, and Iraq. Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed the lion’s share of the Bush administration’s foreign policy focus. A cohesive North Korean non-proliferation diplomatic effort supported by the credible threat of military action to ensure Pyongyang’s compliance never came to light. Instead, the six-party talks came about, and while there was some progress made, it was all negated by events taking place in the real world. In October, 2006 North Korea successfully detonated its first nuclear device. Twelve years of diplomatic efforts to ensure that the North did not obtain nuclear weapons had evaporated in the blink of an eye. Other pressing issues soon appeared on the Bush administration’s plate from 2006 until January 2009 and no major progress was made with regard to North Korea. As Barack Obama was sworn into office it became clear that Bush had followed his predecessor’s example and kicked the can to the incoming chief executive.

Under Obama’s watch North Korea grew bolder and more conspicuous with its rhetoric and weapons testing. In spite of this, it was clear from the beginning of his tenure that Obama was committed to preventing a regional war from erupting at all costs. He relied on sanctions and diplomacy as the primary instruments to combat North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The shaky ground which the Pyongyang regime seemed to be on gave Obama added incentive to pursue a policy of strategic patience. Six party talks went nowhere, North Korea’s tone and actions became more bellicose, and nothing substantial changed from 2009 through to December 2011. The death of Kim Jong Il that month and his son Kim Jong Un’s succession added fuel to an already combustible relationship between the North and the US.

Jong Un brought a new realm to the decades long game between Washington and Pyongyang. As a young, relatively unproven leader of a regime contending with internal and external enemies, he used the deteriorating situation with the United States to his advantage internally and abroad. Missile firings and nuclear tests became a regular occurrence. Brinkmanship became a regular instrument of Jong Un’s foreign policy. He took the West’s terminal fear of a major war in Asia breaking out and used it to keep the US and its allies at bay while still flexing his muscles obnoxiously in their faces.

In retrospect, it should have been discernible that Jong Un’s threats and boasting were nothing less than a diversion. He was banking everything on holding the United States at bay until his weapons designers could produce an ICBM capable of reaching US cities. With a handful of these missiles, the playing field would be evened out and Washington would have to regard North Korea as an equal. After the results of its latest missile test, the Pyongyang regime is now closer to achieving its goal than anyone previously thought possible.

The Trump administration’s options for dealing with North Korea are little different from those that had been available to its predecessors. It can choose to accept North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile strength as the new status quo in east Asia, start a renewed diplomatic offensive to curb or eliminate North Korea’s WMD programs, advocate and actively work towards a regime change, or use military force to neutralize the threat now posed by Pyongyang. Each course of action contains its own exclusive pros and cons but in the case of military action they are even more pronounced.

Acceptance of the transformed alignment fundamentally translates to ‘do nothing.’ Accept it as the new status quo in east Asia and move forward secure in the assumption that US missile defense, and its nuclear arsenal’s overwhelming superiority will guarantee deterrence. It places the US in the same box Japan and South Korea are currently in, facing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Unlike Japan or South Korea, however, the US has the capability to respond massively to any North Korean attack. Diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea can continue, and on the surface nothing substantial would change. However, Pyongyang will certainly view the situation in a different light and brand reluctance by the United States to challenge its new capabilities as a colossal victory. North Korea would be emboldened on other fronts, from the expansion of its nuclear capabilities, to other regional security matters. Internationally, US acceptance of a nuclear and ICBM armed North Korea could invigorate the ambitions and plans of other nation-states seeking a similar status. Iran immediately comes to mind, but there are certainly others.

Extensive diplomacy is the preferred method of many statesmen around the world for dealing with the North Korean matter The trouble is that over twenty years of diplomatic efforts, interim deals, and negotiations have not prevented Pyongyang from obtaining nuclear weapons, or long range ballistic missiles. Doubling down on a failed approach is pointless. The menacing prospects of escalation and potentially full-blown war hung over every negotiating session and the North used it to its advantage whenever possible. There was never a sincere effort on North Korea’s part to resolve the concerns of the international community. Feigning a desire to negotiate sincerely with the US, Japan, and South Korea served to buy the time necessary for the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs to grow.

A regime change in Pyongyang, brought about by internal collapse has long been a pie-in-the-sky scenario for a peaceful end to the North’s WMD programs. Many analysts and observers concluded the regime was living on borrowed time after Kim Jong Il’s death and the transition of power would only hasten the regime’s demise. It did not happen this way, unfortunately. Kim Jong Un managed to consolidate his grip on power. Despite the continued economic woes and other issues facing his government, that will likely not change at any point soon. There will be no North Korean collapse and subsequent regime change anytime soon. This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. A collapse could be chaotic and the presence of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles practically guarantees a response from the outside, making a bad situation even worse.

The final option available is military action. This course of action is wrought with peril, but strangely enough, it is the most effective one available. Since this post as turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, I’m going to divide it into two parts. Part Two will cover the military option, and the argument as to why unilateral military action on the part of the US is the best available course of action for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

 

 

Sunday 30 April, 2017 Update: Carl Vinson Arrives in the Sea of Japan

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After a nearly three-week long saga which included miscommunication on the part of the White House and the Pentagon, unfulfilled assurances by a US president, and an admiral in the hot seat, the USS Carl Vinson and her escorts have arrived in the Sea of Japan. Better late than never, I suppose. The carrier group’s appearance coincided with North Korea’s latest test-firing of a ballistic missile. The missile malfunctioned shortly after launch, marking the fourth consecutive test failure for North Korea. Despite the failure, the test was still a defiant act by Pyongyang given that North Korean ballistic missile test firings are banned by the UN.

Vinson and her escorts teamed up with South Korean naval units for a series of workups before the strike group heads farther north today or tomorrow morning following an underway replenishment. There is some speculation and concern that another North Korean test will come on Monday, 1 May as it is May Day. The holiday is officially observed by North Korea and its symbolic significance would provide the perfect backdrop for a ballistic missile test launch, or perhaps a nuclear test. Threats and bluster from Kim Jong Un have followed the Carl Vinson on her circuitous journey to the Sea of Japan. Now, having a US aircraft carrier operating in close proximity to its shores holds the potential of being an irresistible temptation for Un.

On the surface, the US show of force in the waters off of Korea is provocative and suggests the arrival of an offensive military option for Washington. Realistically, however, the Carl Vinson strike group is not indispensable to any offensive military action the US might contemplate. Airstrikes against North Korean missiles and nuclear facilities can be launched from US airbases in Japan and on Guam using mainly USAF assets. Having a carrier present in the Sea of Japan certainly provides more avenues for US planners, but it is not essential.

Geopolitically speaking, on the other hand, having Vinson in the Sea of Japan is invaluable for the United States. The ship is a forthright representation of American firepower, as well as a highly visible signature of US resolve and commitment to its allies in the Western Pacific. Kim Jong Un cannot simply ignore it. The hope is that the Carl Vinson’s appearance will force him to rethink his strategy and deter him from taking ill-considered action that could worsen the crisis.

Judging by how Kim Jong Un has behaved over the last two months though, hoping for that could be pointless at this stage of the game.