Panic gripped Hawaii for a period of forty-five minutes early this morning when an emergency alert warning residents of a ballistic missile attack was accidentally sent to cellphones, transmitted on Twitter, and television stations across the Hawaiian Islands. The message stated: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. As it turned out, there was no ballistic missile attack. The message was sent because a of human error according to state officials. There was no indication of a ballistic missile track inbound to the Hawaiian Islands at any time, US defense officials later explained. At the time this was unknown to Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents. Between the time the alert was sent, and the all-clear was issued, Hawaiians faced the prospect of a nuclear-tipped missile bearing down on their paradise. Some people panicked, and understandably so, while others reacted calmly and headed to shelters. CBS and CNN ran interviews with a twenty-something vacationer who chose to stand on the beach looking for answers on her cellphone instead of seeking shelter. I can’t fault her for not grasping the severity of the alert right away. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
Hawaii has been on edge for a while. Air raid and ballistic missile drills have been run periodically ever since President Trump and Kim Jong Un started trading nuclear threats. The residents there understand that they’re in the North Korean crosshairs. Pearl Harbor, and Hickam Air Force Base are critical bases to US defense efforts in the Pacific. If the North ever does decide to take the gloves off, an early strike against Hawaii is definitely within the realm of possibility.
Today’s false alert inadvertently keeps North Korea in the US public’s psyche when Pyongyang is attempting to play nice and score diplomatic points. The 2018 Winter Olympics begin next month and North Korea will be sending a small delegation of athletes. Talks between the two Koreas will be taking place Monday to iron out the details. The fact that North Korea is talking to its neighbor provides hope that a peaceful resolution to the US-North Korean nuclear crisis can eventually be reached. However, what happened in Hawaii today reminds us all that North Korea remains a threat to the United States and should be regarded as such.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is beginning 2018 with a round of diplomatic maneuvering intended to relieve at least some of the pressure his government is facing. The target of Pyongyang’s effort is South Korea. In his New Year speech, Un proposed the idea of sending athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics which are being held in South Korea. With the games fast approaching, both nations appear to be willing to work towards reaching an agreement that will allow the North to send a delegation to Pyeongchang. There is much work to be done in order for that to happen, but the two nations are moving forward cautiously in the hope that North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics can become a reality. Pyongyang has reopened a communications line with the South ostensibly to aid discussions on the Olympic subject.
From a more cynical realpolitik vantage point, the North Korean overtures are the right play at the right moment. Pyongyang needs a victory of some type and the most expeditious route to achieving one runs directly through Seoul. South Korea’s liberal government is sincerely enthusiastic about the possibility of both Koreas participating in the Olympics. There is hope that a showing of goodwill now might blossom into meaningful dialogue and warmer relations down the line.
Strangely enough, Kim Jong Un is probably hoping for the same thing, but for completely different reasons. The North Korean leader is rolling the dice on the chance that his effort to improve relations with the South might help to drive a wedge in the US-South Korea relationship and buy the North some much needed relief at a critical moment. Despite his immaturity, Kim is probably aware that time is running out for him and for North Korea. Every day that goes by brings the US closer to choosing the military option for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There are many pundits and self-declared experts who predict a US military effort against North Korea will result in heavy civilian casualties and unparalleled destruction across the region. For what it’s worth, I disagree with their views on military action wholeheartedly. However, the one area where I agree with my counterparts is the future of Kim Jong Un in the event of war.
In short, there would be no future for him or his regime. Regardless of what happens to his nuclear program, his country, and the entire region, if the United States goes kinetic, Kim Jong Un will not survive the conflict.
Vigilant Ace 18 is underway in South Korea, and the large US-ROK exercise has not gone unnoticed by North Korea. Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise held to increase interoperability between the US Air Force, and RoK Air Force, though aircraft from the US Navy and USMC will also participate. As is the case with every major military exercise that takes place in or around Korea, this one has drawn the ire of North Korea’s leadership. Pyongyang labeled the exercise as a ‘grave provocation’ that could escalate tensions to ‘the brink of nuclear war.’ In a statement released by state-controlled media, it was noted this exercise is happening at a time ‘when insane President Trump is running wild.’ This sort of commentary is standard fare when US and ROK forces stage military exercises. The current crisis in the region adds a dramatic flair to the Pyongyang’s recent statements, of course.
With the rising tensions caused by North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test, the inclusion of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II aircraft in Vigilant Ace is quite possibly causing sleepless nights for many North Korean generals. Despite their propaganda boasts that suggest otherwise, North Korea deeply fears US airpower. A future US military action against the North will be heavily reliant on airpower, and include large numbers of the latest generation US fighters. The fact that a respectable number of these aircraft are now in theater gives Pyongyang food for thought.
In Washington over the weekend, remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seem to suggest the White House is resigning itself to the grim reality that the North Korean crisis will probably not be resolved favorably through peaceful means alone. The Trump administration has certainly allotted a respectable amount of time to pursue more stringent economic sanctions, and potential diplomatic resolutions. Sadly, there has been minimal progress on either front. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue ahead at full speed. Depending on how close Pyongyang is to reaching their goal of obtaining an operational ICBM, the United States could be forced to move militarily sooner rather than later.
The prospect of military action in the near future gives Vigilant Ace 18 added priority and deepens the sense of urgency which seems to be gathering around the crisis at the moment.
Given today’s events in northeast Asia it is safe to assume the shell game that has been going on between the United States and North Korea for years now will become a standoff or worse in the near future. The North Koreans broke its two month moratorium on ballistic missile tests in bold fashion today by test firing an ICBM. The missile was launched from a site in South Pyongan province and flew in an eastward direction for roughly 50 minutes, covering 620 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan.
North Korea had been quiet for some time and hope was building that Pyongyang might be signaling that it is open to dialogue. Experts have pointed to similar lulls in North Korean missile testing in the past, leaving open the possibility that the slowdown in tests is part of the routine. This could very well be the case, however, with the direction events are moving in now it’s rather meaningless to speculate on what brought on the lull. What’s more important now for the United States is to determine the intent behind today’s test and planning an appropriate military response. A US military response at this point should not ruled out or considered implausible. The risks attached to military action are considerable, but economic and political measures have failed to deter Pyongyang from continuing to pursue a workable ICBM. Furthermore, there are few non-violent tools left in the box for the US to use against North Korea.
*Author’s Note: Short update for the evening. Apologies, time is very limited. I’ll follow up tomorrow with a more thorough update.*
Not surprisingly, the media has been reluctant to grasp the message embedded between the lines of President Trump’s speeches, and remarks concerning North Korea on his Far East tour. It is apparent US patience is wearing thin when it comes to the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. However, Washington’s diminished willingness to endure is not the result of a personal restlessness on the part of Trump. It exists in view of the fact that the North Koreans are fervently working to produce a functioning ballistic missile that can reach US shores, along with a hydrogen weapon that can be attached to it. In the early days of the Trump administration it was made clear to him that North Korea has been moving rapidly in that direction, emboldened by US reluctance to effectively address his nation’s WMD programs over the past twenty years. Trump is not handling North Korea in the same manner as his predecessors did. Kim Jong Un has taken some time to digest the new reality and figure out a way to contend with the increased American pressure. His new strategy is to engineer a workable missile and weapon before the United States can stop him. In essence, Kim has turned the twenty-three year old marathon between the US and North Korea into a sprint to the finish line. President Trump, his foreign policy, and military advisers recognize this even though the media refuses to.
Trump is now in China for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean tensions will undoubtedly dominate their discussions. The two presidents have been working to handle the North Korean situation together, however, it appears as if that approach has earned a limited return. Trump will likely inform Xi that time is running out and if China is resolved to decisively influence the situation now is the time. Xi’s position is understandable. He does not want to see a war erupt between North Korea and the US and her allies in such close proximity to China’s borders. Nor does he want North Korea to collapse beneath its own weight and be replaced by unified Korea that is pro-US.
To avoid either one of these possibilities from becoming reality, any Chinese move needs to be centered around changing the North Korean regime internally. Despite the image of Kim Jong Un controlling every facet of the North Korean government, factions do exist in Pyongyang. There is a pro-China faction that, if cultured and funded properly, could serve as the instrument to remove Kim from power and replace him with one that is more moderate in tone, and does not pose such a flagrant threat to the US. A Beijing-backed coup attempt carries a host of potential dangers as well as rewards. Yet at this point in the game, if the choices for Xi are to do nothing or do something akin to playing with fire, the Chinese President’s best option may be to choose the fire option and accept the risks of being burned.