The potential for a real showdown between the United States and North Korea seems to be manifesting itself via grand displays of force on and around the Korean Peninsula. The US is very publicly loading additional firepower into the region, and North Korea doesn't seem ready to tamp down on their own form of high-profile militarism—nor on their rhetoric towards the US and its allies in the region.
After what seemed to be an embarrassing false start, the White House is in the process of laying the groundwork for something big regarding America's dealings with Pyongyang. This could amount to anything from garnering support for a large shift in policy towards the reclusive military state, to a preemptive strike aimed at taking out the Kim regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But whatever it is, it is supposedly going to be presented in what will be an unprecedented style of briefing for the entire US Senate at the White House on Wednesday.
When it comes to showing the sword, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is finally arriving in the region. Along with Japanese Navy and likely South Korean Navy vessels, it will be drilling in the waters off of the Korean Peninsula—a move that has resulted in grandiose threats from Pyongyang. In addition, large scale war games are underway between the US and South Korea near Poncheon, which is located close to South Korea's northeast border. North Korea has responded with massive exercises of its own, putting to use hundreds of long-range artillery systems during drills near Wonson in what was supposedly one of the largest ever coordinated live-fires by its military.
But among all this brandishing of weapons, maybe the most glaring show of force came in the form of the arrival of one of the Pentagon's most potent conventional weapons—an Ohio class nuclear ballistic missile submarine that has been converted into a guided missile arsenal ship and special operations platform—at Busan, South Korea. Suffice it to say that the USS Michigan (SSGN-727), nor her three sister ships (read all about them here), don't generally make highly publicized port visits abroad. Seeing her arrival at Busan splashed all over the news today is no accident. It was a carefully orchestrated information warfare play aimed directly at the Kim regime. A massive but near silent nuclear submarine packed with 154 RGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles and a platoon of Navy SEALs isn't much of a threat unless the bad guys know it is sitting off their coast. Thrusting the submarine into port in Busan and splashing it all over the news makes its presence a guaranteed reality for the Kim regime.
The Michigan packs a massive amount of standoff weaponry that theoretically could reach anywhere into North Korea with a high chance of survival. It is in many ways a reminder of just how little the US would need to commit in terms of risking its own warfighters during the opening strikes of a conflict. All of this sounds impressive—and it is to some degree—but to the Kim regime it likely means very little.
Although North Korea may have their garish military parades, the US has now shown off every single known piece of conventional military hardware to Pyongyang, and it has had zero effect on the Kim regime's behavior. The USS Michigan's presence nearby will be no different. Not just that, but its cruise missiles only represent a tiny fraction of the targets that would be needed to be attacked during an open conflict with North Korea. But most importantly, they are nearly useless against the regime itself, which has deeply buried and highly fortified bunkers spread throughout the North Korean countryside—some buried under entire mountains.
The only weapon (short of a nuclear barrage) that threatens these bunkers is the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP)—but you have to know where all these bunkers are—and where the regime may be hiding—before you can put these exotic and limited weapons to use. Still, don't be surprised if we get to see the MOP in action in the near term, because the Pentagon has run out of conventional weapons with which to intimidate the North Koreans. With bomber flights over South Korea becoming little more than a lame exercise in routine saber rattling, a highly publicized practice bombing run by a MOP-lugging B-2 Spirit on a range in South Korea could be in our near future.
There are no doubts that North Korea will lose any conflict with the US and its allies, but the loss of life in the process will be extreme. Maybe the worst part of a post-totalitarian North Korea is the psychologically damaged population of 25 million that will become refugees overnight. Not just that, but the North Korean population has already suffered the physical effects of living in a failed state, making them especially vulnerable to the chaotic aftermath that would follow the end of a Kim regime.
The possibility of needing to contain a leadership-less North Korea is likely the reasoning behind the widespread reports that both China and Russia have fortified their borders with North Korea in recent days. Regardless of whether or not these reports are true, they are an accurate representation of what would likely occur if the Kim regime were to fall—either through external military action or an internal power struggle. And the former is a real possibility, as the pressure continues to increase on the North Korean regime.
Although Kim Jong Un has "removed" a large portion of the established power structure he inherited (roughly half, by some accounts), with many of the more pragmatic individuals with close ties to Beijing ending up in front of firing squads, there is still the chance that Kim can be removed from inside. This is not necessarily a positive development: It could throw the country into chaos—at least temporarily.
The inner workings of the Kim regime remain somewhat opaque, even to South Korean and the world's intelligence agencies, and we aren't talking about gossip related to petty palace intrigue. Predicting what the regime will do when venturing into uncharted territory—and it's already there to a large degree—is unreliable. Kim's lust for a credible nuclear deterrent, even at the risk of a conventional preemptive strike, could result in factions within the military elite to turn on him. For many of these old North Korean generals, the only business they know is all about keeping the standoff in place, and business has been very good for many years. For some, ending that status quo so that Kim can chase his dream of a credible nuclear deterrent is likely a risk they have little self interest in taking.
The road to that credible nuclear deterrent may have been greatly accelerated in recent months and years as we continue to report on in great detail, but its end is still years away. The North Koreans don't have an intercontinental ballistic missile, much less a proven and reliable miniaturized nuclear device fitted into a deployable warhead. In fact, they don't even have a intermediate-range ballistic missile that can reliably threaten the region. And although they are making great strides in mastering solid-fuel rocket technology, it's very much a work in progress.
That doesn't mean North Korea is not a threat to the region today, because they are. But to the US mainland and Hawaii? Not so much—at least when it comes to using their nuclear weapons and missile technologies in a traditional manner.
This doesn't mean the North Korean issue is not a major concern that Washington needs to begin actively dealing with on an unprecedented level immediately, but it still doesn't mean striking the North Korean military—at least targets within its own territory—is warranted at this time. The White House still has at least a couple of years to use every other option first. This includes demanding China dramatically change its policy towards Pyongyang, something it appears to be in the process of doing. If need be, trade with the US must be put on the table to spur Beijing to act to push North Korea to work out some agreement that will avert a horrific conflict. And no, North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, suddenly adhering to international human rights standards, and thrusting itself out onto the world stage in a grandiose fashion is not going to happen.
A much more realistic deal would include Kim freezing his nuclear weapons and delivery systems programs, as well as limiting the number and types of operational ballistic missiles in his arsenal. At the same time, North Korea would garner certain assurances and benefits from the US, South Korea, and the world community as a whole. This could include a non-aggression pact and a deal to deliver tightly prescribed food stuffs and energy supplies in return for cooperation. The removal of some US military capabilities in South Korea would also likely be part of such a deal. Most importantly, this could include axing the deployment of America's THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to the Peninsula—a move that would make China very happy as well. Other moves to scale back the alert posture on both sides along the DMZ may be also possible, but the main thing is to create a jumping off point from the current march to war, and then work on that progress to further the situation in a positive manner.
Yes, this means North Korea would be able to keep their pocket arsenal of nuclear weapons, but they could not test them, expand their arsenal, nor could they continue development of a reliable delivery system to work in conjunction with it. This keeps the US mainland outside of North Korea's reach. This may seem less than optimal, but such a framework would be a reflection of reality of where we are at today with the situation.
And better this than a reality where Kim has achieved a reliable long-range missile capability that threatens the US mainland, not to mention throngs of shorter-range missiles that have South Korea, Japan, and other US allies in their crosshairs. The deal would also keep his arsenal from becoming one stocked with hundreds of nuclear warheads, rather than a couple dozen, and would keep North Korea's nuclear designs and components from being exported for hard currency to other rogue actors around the globe. Above all else, it is also better than a war where many thousands die, the world economy shatters and unpredictable geopolitical consequences plague American foreign policy in the region for decades to come.
So yes, Trump has some options to move through before a preemptive strike in North Korean territory would be warranted. And as we discussed before, swatting Kim's test missiles out of the sky once they enter international airspace is one of them, but it comes with its own risks. Not only is North Korea's reaction an unknown—and could result in a quick "tit-for-tat" escalation that runs out of control—but it could also show off embarrassing vulnerabilities in American, Japanese, and soon to be Korean naval-based anti-ballistic missile capabilities. We simply don't appear to be even there yet, and electronic warfare and cyber intrusion may be able to keep key telemetry and missile performance data from North Korean scientists without the need for a kinetic attack.
So as the Senate convenes in the White House tomorrow for its high-profile brief, hopefully cooler heads have already prevailed and the levers of diplomacy can take their time to have an affect. As we have discussed time and time again, there is no good military solution when it comes to the North Korean issue, and the stakes are far higher attacking a North Korean target than a derelict airfield in western Syria. We will have to see what Senators' reactions are after the brief, but if it sounded anything like the case for invading Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, we should all be very, very concerned. And as far as military posturing goes, sure it may be an abstract tool to put pressure on the Kim regime in an attempt to have it change its ways, but it invites substantial risk in itself, and it is an unsustainable tactic at that.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com