North Korea: Trump's first real test of resolve

13 Aug 2017

The current situation regarding the relationship between the US and North Korea is that of great tension. Trump is faced with a nation developing nuclear capabilities, and the motivation is widely believed to be to deter US intervention in Kim Jong-un’s regime.


The US are unlikely to try to topple the regime if North Korea could respond with a nuclear attack. Kim Jong-un sees nuclear weapons as the key to avoiding the fates which befell Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. To the US, however, the concept of a nation not within NATO, i.e. not controllable, possessing nuclear weapons, is disturbing, and they would like to keep the number of nations that fit this criterion to a minimum. What an American administration cannot have is a North Korea that is capable of striking the US mainland.


In an attempt to achieve their goal, North Korea have been conducting regular missile tests over the past few years, with 12 tests since February alone. The legality of nuclear tests is a grey area. However, whilst for most countries the testing of nuclear weapons is illegal, North Korea, not being a signatory of any of the relevant treaties, is not bound by such laws. There are other complicating legal factors, however, so the US could potentially use international law as a justification for evasive action.


Throughout the Obama administration, the attitude to the tests was condemnation, while the general attitude was that it would not be ideal were North Korea to attain the capability, but since Trump has taken office, the tests have increased in frequency, and intelligence suggests North Korea are getting uncomfortably close to having a weapon capable of striking the US - some even suggest they are there already. It should be added that Japan and South Korea, both US allies in the region, are already very vulnerable.   


Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on research carried out by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency which suggested that North Korea had successfully developed nuclear warheads for missiles within reach of the US. In a move that shocked both Washington and the world, Trump responded robustly, stating that future threats would be ‘met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.’ Whether being so provocative was wise it remains to be seen - Obama was too weak regarding North Korean missile tests, but you could argue Trump has gone too far in the opposite direction.


Since Trump’s statement, North Korea have developed a plan to launch a missile strike into the sea near to Guam, a US overseas territory. The situation therefore is on a balance. The key middle man in this therefore is China. Since taking office, the China – USA relationship seems to have improved under Trump, and China have vowed to defend the US if North Korea launched a first attack. If, however, Trump launched a preemptive strike, I suspect China would side with North Korea; it’s highly unlikely they’d remain militarily neutral.


Trump has a bit of a problem here. We know for certain that if North Korea were to strike Guam instead of testing a missile nearby, it would be an attack on US citizens and soil, and Trump would have to respond with force, lest he undermine the ‘fear factor’ in his country’s nuclear deterrent. The same would be true for the UK. If an aggressor attacked us with nuclear weapons, the only option would be to retaliate. If not, our nuclear deterrent would become obsolete and the ‘fear factor’ of our nuclear arsenal removed.


Having retaliated, Trump would therefore move to destroy the North Korean capability. Given that their missiles are land based, this would be fairly easy. It would be a case of wiping out the missile launch sites. Whether Trump deemed it fit to attack Pyongyang as well as the launch sites would probably depend on the death toll in Guam. However, it should be stressed that whichever he chooses to destroy, he could do it using non-nuclear ordinance. This would be preferable. He’d destroy the target, whether it be the launch site or Pyongyang, without making the area uninhabitable with radiation fallout, and without radiation fallout into South Korea, a US ally. There is a possibility that a strike aimed at Guam could be neutralised mid air, preventing loss of life. I suspect even if the US were able to destroy a missile headed for Guam, they would treat it as an act of war and would respond in a way similar to how they would if it had impacted Guam.


Throughout all this, the message from the Trump administration has been clear: we will try diplomacy, but if not, military options are on the table. This is exactly how one must act when faced with an aggressor. Try diplomacy, but if diplomacy fails, military options become real options. Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission, have been in contact, and media outlets have also reported that Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, has also been in touch with Pyongyang.


On Friday, 11 August, Trump tweeted: ‘Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!' The key here is ‘should North Korea act unwisely.’ The military options to which he refers will not be used unless North Korea were to launch a first strike. The statement seems to therefore rule out a preemptive strike.


The best advice throughout the days and weeks ahead are to remain calm. Nothing is going to happen suddenly. It should be remembered that North Korea have nothing to gain out of attacking Guam, and will be well aware that to do so would be suicidal on a national scale. Trump may seem mad and unpredictable, but in fact I believe he has shown in this latest episode that he is predictable, and will do what is necessary to keep America – and the world - safe.


What angers me are references to World War Three. Should this boil over, and I stress that I see this as incredibly unlikely, the outcome will be the destruction of North Korea. No country will come to their aid, thus the term ‘World War’ is completely inaccurate. The situation is likely to calm down. Whilst the media have a habit of overreacting in international relations and spreading panic, this is likely muscle flexing and nothing more. Trump’s handling of the situation doesn’t worry me, nor does his access to the nuclear launch codes.

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