BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The cacophony of headlines surrounding North Korea continues its unabated push, as news surrounding North Korea’s illicit chemical and biological warfare programs gets out; more North Korean defectors come to the South; and the South Korean government foolishly soothes itself with the fanciful notion that Kim Jong-un wants peace. While everyone is fixated on North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability (and they should be, because the Kim regime is moving swiftly in the development of those awful weapons), the truly important development is the growth in North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability (which I’ve written about extensively at The Weichert Report). Fact is, given the North’s capability to miniaturize warheads and their ongoing program to develop a reliable arsenal of ICBMs, inevitably the North Korean threat will be a direct threat to the United States and its regional allies in no more than 16 months.
Recently, a North Korean soldier led a trigger-happy band of his fellow soldiers into a running firefight across the De-Militarized Zone separating North from South Korea. The North Korean soldier was intent on defecting to the South–and he did. His former comrades in arms, however, were intent on preventing him from entering South Korea. In a stunning (and reckless) display, the North Korean soldiers ignored the standard rules of engagement for the DMZ and fired into South Korea. That was an act of war and a direct violation of the tenuous armistice agreement that exists between the United States, South Korea, and North Korea. Yet, no real response has been given to the North, other than greater silence.
And what of that North Korean defector?
Aside from whatever intelligence he might give his South Korean interlocutors (I’m still concerned that he is actually a plant of some kind), initial medical exams revealed that the defector was exposed to anthrax and given the vaccine. This revelation came on the heels of the ominous announcement that North Korea had been experimenting with placing anthrax atop its budding ICBM arsenal. South Korean intelligence confirms that the North has had a prolific, illegal chemical and biological weapons program for years (such a program, like the nuclear one, is forbidden to a Rogue State, like North Korea, but don’t tell them that). Coupled with the North’s erratic behavior and perverse political culture, it should be clear that the intent of North Korea is to make war upon the South.
Forget about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for one second. The North has been steadily building up that capability since 1994. They’ve made impressive strides in that department. But, there are still a few technical hurdles to overcome. And, given the presence of Donald Trump in the White House, as opposed to a wallflower, like Barack Obama, North Korean strategic calculations have likely fundamentally changed. Whereas the North was content to build a rudimentary capability and then challenge the West (with the knowledge that most American leaders would back down at the mere mention of nuclear warfare), Trump’s public disposition complicates such a simple calculation.
Fact is, Trump has yet to back down from the North Korean threat, despite the existence of a large–and growing–nascent North Korean nuclear capability and the North’s persistence in building a fully reliable ICBM arsenal. The Kim regime is likely looking for something to complement their budding nuclear arsenal–especially in light of the fact that most Western physicists are dubious of the technical proficiency and capabilities of North Korean scientists. Most experts disbelieve that the Kim regime has the full extent of what they claim to have (they have nukes, yes, but when they claim to have a thermonuclear device, for instance, this strains credulity of most experts).
Put another way, despite being such an old technology, nuclear weapons development is difficult. However, the creation of a reliable chemical and/or biological weapons program is comparatively easy–especially since the North has had their chemical and biological warfare programs running far longer than their nuclear program. All that Kim needs is an ICBM that can reliably threaten the mainland United States (so long as it can survive reentry) and he will have the capability to theoretically separate the United States from its South Korean (and Japanese) allies. Forcing real distance (not the sort that already exists between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan–the sort that can be overcome by a common threat) between the U.S. and its allies will create the strategic environment that allows for Kim Jong-un to fulfill his grandfather’s destiny: reuniting the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang’s control. If the United States believes that Kim could destroy or attack their cities with WMD, or so Kim’s calculation goes, they will abandon their South Korean allies, and force a fundamental strategic change that favors North Korea.
The next question that must be posited is whether Kim Jong-un would merely test an anthrax-capable ICBM publicly, or whether he would actually launch the weapon at either South Korea or the United States (or even Japan, though this seems less likely, given who Kim Jong-un’s most prevalent adversaries are today)?
North Korean military doctrine favors surprise and overwhelming force in a shock campaign to retake the South. Yet, North Korean war planners must take into account the notion that any direct strike on American territory or citizens (whether military or civilian) will eventuate in an American military response. For Kim Jong-un, then, the game must be to keep the United States just over-the-horizon allowing for him to have time to sweep South. Without American reinforcements and support, and if the North gains the all-important element of surprise, the South Korean position will not last long–especially if the North is injudiciously deploying WMDs against the South Korean forces.
I believe that Kim Jong-un is planning to take the South–or die trying. This is at loggerheads with the bulk of analysis coming out of the West (especially coming out of South Korea). The South Korean government believes that the North Koreans would acquire a fully functional ICBM capability very soon, but would then quickly sue for peace. Such an assessment represents painfully wishful thinking on the part of South Korean strategists. My only hope is that this is a feint on their part to try and signal to the North that they are more than willing to make a deal–but are fully prepared to fight to defend their homeland. But, rarely do liberal democracies make such cold calculations. Far too often, as history has proven, liberal democracies prefer to rest their security on hopes, and will gladly abandon sound strategy in favor of wishful thinking: in this case, the South hopes that once the North gets their coveted nuclear weapons program fully operational (especially those ICBMs), the North will be placated. Why do the South Koreans think this? Because they know that the reality is so bleak that they simply cannot countenance it: the North intends to strike them in a big way–and the South has almost no real defense against the North.
Oh, sure, the South Koreans have a well-trained, well-armed, and fully-funded modern military. But, the real game is about defending South Korea’s economy. A key factor in that economy is the prosperity of the capital city of Seoul, which is located just across the DMZ with North Korea. Even without WMD, the North has the capability to destroy Seoul within 45 minutes, thanks to their well-placed artillery batteries along their side of the South Korean border. There is virtually no real defense that can be offered for Seoul. Once Seoul falls, whether South Korea can maintain its independence or not (likely not, considering that South Korea also lacks its own WMD arsenal), the economic and political damage–to say nothing of the loss of life–will be so great that any victory would be a pyrrhic one.
If Kim Jong-un were a rational leader, the South Korean dream of peace might come true. But, the history, culture, and proclivities that are particular to the Kim dynasty disfavor such a reasonable outcome. A simple threat assessment (using the old equation: “CAPABILITIES + INTENTIONS = THREAT”) would inform even the most passive observer that, as a country’s capabilities increase, their intentions change. So, while the North may have fantasized about acquiring nuclear and other WMD capabilities as a means of keeping the United States and its allies at bay, given how pathetic the Western response has been–and the fact that the North Korean regime was created to unify the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule–the North’s strategic intentions have fundamentally changed. Kim Jong-un is going to go for broke and try to reunite the Korean peninsula under his rule. Plus, as I’ve noted before, a cursory psychological observation of Kim Jong-un indicates that he has deep-seated “daddy” and “granddaddy” issues on a Shakespearean level. I’d not expect North Korea to become less dangerous once it achieves full ICBM capabilities.
On the contrary, the North is only getting more dangerous. And, while their nuclear arsenal might not be as impressive as the United States’, Russia’s, or China’s, the fact that they will have a fully functional arsenal will give the West considerable pause when engaging in brinkmanship with the North. Further, the North’s nuclear weapons capability is actually not the most dangerous threat to the United States and its allies. Biological and/or chemical weapons, such as anthrax, are the real threat. South Korean analysts predict that, if the North conducted an anthrax attack on the South before 2019, it would be “devastating” to South Korea. Right now, despite the fact that an anthrax vaccine exists, there are not enough quantities of that vaccine available to inoculate a country as large as South Korea until 2019.
Japan and the United States are in similar dire straits when it comes to a defense against anthrax. Remember, after 9/11, the former George W. Bush Administration became obsessed with “the next shoe dropping” and they worried that a terrorist might employ anthrax in a populated area of the United States. At the time (and, shockingly, not much has changed since 2001), it was assumed that an anthrax attack would wipe out millions of Americans before the vaccine could be mass-produced and fully deployed (and that was if al Qaeda or a similar low-tech adversary attacked us with anthrax). While the North Koreans are generally less technologically advanced than the United States and its allies, their WMD programs are moving ahead at breakneck paces, and the kind of anthrax attack that a state–whether a rogue state or a rival state–can potentially deliver will be far more potent than the kind that a terrorist could conduct.
The North Koreans know this also.
Besides, employing an anthrax attack rather than a nuclear attack would have the added psychological effect of mass suffering followed on by mass death. A fully effective nuclear attack, while those suffering from severe radiation poisoning would exhibit mass suffering followed on by death (think of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the idea of an invisible killer hiding within the air we breathe would be far more panic-inducing and create far more suffering than any nuclear weapon could.
And, we know Kim Jong-un’s personal fondness for poisons: he murdered his half-brother earlier in 2017 using such a weapon. I would estimate that an anthrax attack from North Korea against either South Korea or the United States is VERY HIGH. Far higher than a nuclear one, in fact. It isn’t just anthrax, either. A report from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warned that, “North Korea could hit Seoul with a ‘sea of sarin [nerve gas]’ should conflict break out, potentially killing or severely injuring millions of people.” In a report by CNN, the Nuclear Threat Initiative is quoted as warning that, “gram-for-gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced.”
Now, the Trump Administration has found itself backed into a corner. In the ultimate case of “tag, you’re it!” when President Trump took office, he was warned by the outgoing Obama Administration that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy challenge. This is proving to be more true than anyone would like (this is not unlike when Sandy Berger warned the incoming George W. Bush national security team that al Qaeda was going to be their most serious problem–it was only so because the Clinton team spent eight years ignoring al Qaeda’s threat!). I remain convinced that the Trump Administration will make some kind of a deal with the North on their nuclear weapons program.
But, I fear that what few in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. understand is that the only real thing standing between North Korea and a mass-devastation strike against either the South Koreans and/or the United States, is the fact that Kim Jong-un does not yet have a reliable ICBM capability. Once he gets it, given North Korea’s juche ideology; their history; and the Kim regime’s consistent claims that the South belongs to Pyongyang, I believe that the North will strike with a vengeance, likely with chemical or biological weapons, but potentially also with nuclear arms. And, I also suspect that the North’s attack will not merely be directed at the South. With a fully reliable ICBM capability, the United States will be firmly in young Kim’s cross hairs.
Thus, the Trump Administration will be in a position that the George W. Bush and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations previously found themselves in when strategic surprise struck. While the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes coupled with regime change remains a highly dangerous supposition–especially in light of the categorical failure of the Iraq War–the Trump Administration must determine whether it seeks to stand firm against the North or whether it seeks accommodation. And, in the words of Winston Churchill, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.” Accommodation with the North might not dissuade Kim Jong-un from launching a devastating WMD attack against the United States, South Korea, or even Japan. In fact, it might encourage him to do so, believing that America had lost its proverbial backbone.
The big difference between Kim Jong-un and Saddam Hussein is that we know for a fact that Kim has the weapons he’s been threatening to use. The Trump Administration’s continued prodding of the North has led us to this place. Still, if the Trump Administration really does try to create a deal with Kim, it will likely lead to war as much as brinkmanship will. The Kim regime was founded upon the promise of reuniting the Korean peninsula under its exclusive rule. This dream has been passed down for three generations. The entire North Korean society is based upon the warlike concept of the juche ideology coupled with the extreme cult of personality surrounding the Kim family.
The Trump Administration must understand this. Thus, some variation of preemptive strikes must be seriously considered. But, once that ball starts rolling, there will be no way to stop it. And, given the level of support from both China and Russia that North Korea enjoys, I worry that the United States may suffer a larger war–or at the very least, an attack on North Korea might spark a greater entente between Russia and China, which is a geopolitical nightmare scenario for the United States and its allies. Yet, if we continue on the trajectory we’re currently on, I suspect that the American position will naturally erode in the Asia-Pacific; that if North Korea can effectively separate the South Koreans from the Americans, they will take South Korea back. And, once they take South Korea back, I could foresee China at that point stepping up, removing Kim Jong-un, and replacing him with a more stable Chinese puppet in Pyongyang.
The Trump Administration–and the United States–is in a terrible spot. Action in defense of our country from WMD attack will likely precipitate a larger war and harm American strategic interests. Yet, ignoring the problem and hoping for the best might very well lead to American or South Korean cities being vaporized or exposed to biological or chemical warfare agents, and it would still either precipitate a larger regional war or force an American retreat from the region.
The president’s options on North Korea are bad. However, the president must make a choice. This is the sad world we currently live in today. It’s a simple lose-lose calculation: do we lose little by dictating the course of conflict with preemptive strikes before North Korea gets fully functional ICBMs, or do we lose big by suffering a mass casualty attack and, potentially, being forced out of the Asia-Pacific entirely?