Gaming out the North Korea crisis: How the conflict might escalate

The Washington Post reports: A military confrontation with North Korea may now be “inevitable,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The United States is “done talking” about North Korea, tweets U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. President Trump threatens “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then says maybe his language “wasn’t tough enough.”

The North Koreans return verbal fire, talking of using “absolute force” to hit the U.S. territory of Guam and even “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

In this moment of heated, belligerent rhetoric, planners in and out of government are diving into decades of plans and projections, playing out war games, engaging in the macabre semi-science of estimating death tolls and predicting how an adversary might behave. Inside Washington’s “what if?” industry, people at think tanks, universities, consultancies and defense businesses have spent four decades playing out scenarios that the Trump administration now faces anew.

The pathways that have been examined fall into four main categories: doing nothing, hitting Kim Jong Un’s regime with tougher sanctions, pushing for talks, and military confrontation. An armed conflict could take place in disparate spots thousands of miles apart, involving any number of nations and a wide variety of weapons, conventional or nuclear.

In hundreds of books, policy papers and roundtable discussions, experts have couched various shades of armageddon in the dry, emotion-stripped language of throw-weights and missile ranges. But the nightmare scenarios are simple enough: In a launch from North Korea, a nuclear-tipped missile could reach San Francisco in half an hour. A nuclear attack on Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million people, could start and finish in three minutes. [Continue reading…]

It seems to me that the greatest danger of miscalculation by North Korea derives from Kim Jong Un’s assessment of Donald Trump’s capacity to trigger military action.

While North Koreans are acutely aware of the mismatch between the Hermit kingdom and the U.S. in terms of military strength, on a personal level Kim probably views Trump as a contemptible figure who is weak and lacking authority.

On one side is a leader who has zero tolerance for even a hint of dissent and who is presented to his people as a god-like figure whose ruling power is absolute, and on the other side is a man viewed by much of his own population as an unstable dunce — a man whose every utterance requires qualification from close aides whose most frequent message is that Trump should not be taken at his word.

Trump’s lack of credibility now poses a real threat to global security, because it risks triggering a sequence of actions resulting in nuclear war.

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