2017-11-01 / Opinions

War with N. Korea looms


I have looked at the issues between North Korea and the United states for several years now and I believe there is at least an 80 percent chance we will be at war with North Korea within two years. Why do I say this?

At a recent congressional hearing with General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, it was disclosed that the State Department budget will be reduced. Mattis’s reply was succinct and very telling for he responded, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” He continued, “So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully, the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”

The Trump administration has decided that their emphasis will not be on diplomacy with either our allies or our enemies, especially North Korea, but has, rather, decided to withdraw diplomatically from international relations, and in doing so, they are dismantling the international structures that were created just after World War II by gutting the State Department and withdrawing American leadership from the international stage and leaving this leadership vacuum to the Russians and Chinese.

The State Department budget is projected to be reduced by 30 percent in 2018 while the Defense budget will be increased by $50 billion. In addition, the Trump administration simply does not intend to adequately staff the State Department. Currently there are 48 ambassadorships that are vacant, while 21 out of 23 assistant secretary positions are vacant or occupied by provisional employees.

At a recent DOD briefing, Trump was shown a slide that indicated the United States had 6,800 nuclear weapons and Trump commented that he wanted a 10- fold increase in nuclear weapons. That would bring the US total to 68,000 nuclear weapons, clearly indicating Trump’s total lack of understanding of the nuances associated with nuclear weapons. Tillerson, the current Secretary of State, later allegedly called Trump a “f***ing moron” for that statement.

Trump has constantly ridiculed and undercut Tillerson’s attempt at diplomacy. After hearing about Tillerson’s statement, Trump subsequently challenged him to an IQ test. From my perspective, Tillerson is a steady hand and has been trying very hard in places like North Korea to avert war. Trump is anything but steady, and I suspect Tillerson is simply frustrated by his lack of support and feels like he can’t do his job because of that.

Tillerson is in an untenable situation and even though he may want to serve this country, I fully expect that he will be asked to leave sometime in the November timeframe if not earlier. I also expect that Nicki Haley, the current UN Ambassador, will take his place. I suspect she will have no better luck as Secretary of State because Trump is simply not interested in diplomacy or foreign policy. It has been rumored that there is a so-called suicide pact between Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, if one of them is let loose, then all leave. There may be something to this because Tillerson and Mattis talk a lot, have a close working relationship, and have a tremendous respect for one another. However, this is such a chaotic administration, who knows what will happen.

Trump’s tweets shape American foreign policy and right now his administration has decided that the prospect of North Korea getting a workable ICBM with a nuclear warhead is worse than the prospect of war. In essence, the Trump administration has decided that it will not allow North Korea to have a working nucleartipped ICBM and if we need to go to war to prevent that, then there will be war. The only way to prevent this war is if North Korea decides to compromise and not develop a nuclear ICBM. American analysts feel that if North Korea does develop a nuclear-capable ICBM, it might use it or, at the very least, threaten the United States, South Korea, and Japan with annihilation or possibly sell the nuclear technology to others. Also if Japan is threatened, it may feel it has to go nuclear to assure its safety. In essence, the entire region is going to be destabilized.

Tillerson has been working very hard to prevent this war by having China squeeze the North Koreans. The Chinese, however, have been reluctant to do that because they are terrified of having a collapsed North Korean state on their border. By the same token, I suspect they are also just as terrified as the Americans of North Korea acquiring a nuclear-tipped ICBM missile.

Tillerson has basically told China if China and the U.S. don’t solve this problem, that Kim Jong Un and President Trump mean to fight and that will be a disaster for all concerned. Unfortunately, at the same time Tillerson is attempting to prevent war, Trump is tweeting that it is useless to negotiate with North Korea and that he is going to annihilate the “rocket man.”

On the other hand, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, knows that if he compromises and does not develop a nuclear deterrent, his regime is finished. Because of his actions, it is easy to think that Kim Jong Un is a madman and on a suicide mission, especially when he ruthlessly executes his own senior officers with an antiaircraft gun, threatens others with nuclear annihilation, and defiantly continues his missile tests. From my perspective, despite these actions, he is not a madman or on a suicidal mission. He is rather an extremely rational individual who has looked at the fate of other authoritarian states which did not have a nuclear deterrent and simply does not want to be killed and tossed on history’s dust pile. He has a clear, long-term goal that will ensure the survival of his regime, and he is pursuing that goal with single-minded resolve. That is not the mark of a madman.

Kim Jong Un looks at leaders in such states as Iraq and Libya who were toppled and killed after the United States intervened in their countries, and believes that only by being able to threaten the U.S. mainland with a nuclear strike can he stop American military intervention.

The Trump administration, on the one hand, feels that to allow Kim Jong Un to develop and deploy a nuclear-tipped ICBM system is worse than war itself, for that development will represent an existential threat to the U.S. while simultaneously destabilizing all of Asia. On the other hand, Kim Jong Un believes the survival of his regime depends upon the development of a nuclear ICBM system.

Neither Trump nor Kim Jong Un will compromise his position, so war is on the horizon.

If and when our intelligence analysts indicate that North Korea has or is dangerously near a workable nuclear-tipped ICBM system, I believe Trump will feel he has no choice but to launch a nuclear strike to decapitate the command structure of North Korea.

That of course should be the final option for there are a number of other options the U.S. is considering.

The first option is to establish diplomatic contact with North Korea. Individuals who have visited North Korea are struck by the siege mentality of the leadership which could easily create a dangerous gulf of misperception. Many senior individuals feel this can be prevented by establishing an interest section in Pyongyang. It may not prevent war, but any action that has the potential for reducing the possibility of a conflict is worth pursuing.

The second option many strategists call ‘Strategic Strangulation’ which involves applying continual pressure tactics to include cyber hacking and flooding North Korea with flash drives filled with information about the West. This option would also include an attempt to close off North Korea’s illicit trade networks, interdicting ships, expanding sanctions against Chinese companies, and freezing the assets of individual leaders. This option, however, fails to consider the ability of the North Korean regime to absorb punishment and has been tried unsuccessfully by previous administrations.

Third, there are some who prefer a minimal confrontational approach known as a “Freeze for Freeze.” For example, North Korea would stop weapons development in exchange for a halt or a reduction in U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The Trump administration has no interest in this option, indicating it amounts to nothing more than lowering our guard

The above three options assume we will have to live with an ICBM nuclear-capable North Korea, which many find simply too dangerous, even though they consider it better than war. I personally find the first option reasonable, and it should be implemented. However, the last two options are simply unmanageable, too dangerous, and would ultimately lead to war.

A fourth option is to launch a pinpoint tactical strike against the nuclear capability of North Korea similar to what the Israelis did against the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981 (Operation Opera). I don’t think this is doable for the North Koreans have between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons scattered at unknown locations throughout the country in deep underground bunkers. Even destroying their missiles on the launch pad is almost impossible because of their mobile launchers. This option, I believe, would simply up the casualty figures of South Korea by precipitating an attack on Seoul.

A fifth option is to launch a conventional strike with conventional weapons. Unfortunately, a conventional strike will simply not do the job and has the same problems as the pinpoint tactical strike. If any leadership of North Korea is still alive or if any piece of its army is still functioning after the initial U.S. strike, then North Korea will fire everything it has at Seoul to include nerve gas and biological toxins. Currently, it has over 30,000 artillery pieces and rockets positioned about 30 miles north of Seoul prepared to strike at a moment’s notice. If this happens the destruction to a city of 10 million inhabitants would be incalculable.

Don’t think for a moment that the North Koreans will not do it. There is an old Korean saying “Nuh jukgo, nah jukja!” It means “You die, I die!” It’s the expression you hear when two people are fighting at the top of 500-foot precipice while tied together. If one goes over, the other will follow.

In my opinion, the above options are simply untenable because Kim Jong Un is hell bent on developing a nuclear ICBM capability and will not compromise until he achieves that goal. Since the Trump administration feels that cannot be allowed to happen, a nuclear first strike is the only viable option capable of fully decapitating the North Korean command structure. Since the North Korean command structures are located in high population areas, I would fully expect the casualties to be in the hundreds of thousands if not in the millions. A nuclear strike, however, is fraught with risks, would rally the population around the regime, and cause any surviving commander to respond with all available weapons, to include a nuclear weapon, at Seoul.

A recent study of the risks of a North Korean attack on Seoul estimated that 65,000 civilians would die on the first day, and tens of thousands more in the days that follow. I suspect that is a conservative estimate considering Seoul is a population of 10 million crowded into a relative small area. If Kim or any surviving command element used his stockpiles of sarin gas, biological, and nuclear weapons on Seoul, which he would do, the death toll would reach the millions.

U.S. and South Korean forces could eventually overwhelm the North Korean military, but, by any measure, the conflict would yield one of the worst mass killings in the modern age.

What about China? I suspect China will sit on the sidelines unless there is an attempt to invade North Korea with ground forces, in which case we will once again see a land battle with China on the Korean peninsula.

Anyone who has seen war realizes it is a gut loosening experience so all military men with war experience plan for the worse but would choose diplomacy first with war as the last option. It is only those with no war experience, such as Trump, that seem eager to draw the sword of war. I have seen the face of war close up and am terrified by one employing nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, based upon my analysis of the irresolvable difference in objectives between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, I think we are in for a war within the next two years that will make all previous ones pale in comparison.


J.T. Oney spent over 40 years with DOD in various military, intelligence, and security organizations. He lives in Mayking, and is an Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

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