Jeffrey Lewis writes: No one wants to fight a nuclear war. Not in North Korea, not in South Korea and not in the United States. And yet leaders in all three countries know that such a war may yet come — if not by choice then by mistake. The world survived tense moments on the Korean Peninsula in 1969, 1994 and 2010. Each time, the parties walked to the edge of danger, peered into the abyss, then stepped back. But what if one of them stumbled, slipped over the edge and, grasping for life, dragged the others down into the darkness?
This is how that might happen, based on public statements, intelligence reports and blast-zone maps.
MARCH 2019: For years, North Korea had staged provocations — and South Korea had lived with them. The two had come close to war before: In 2010, a North Korean torpedo detonated just below a South Korean navy corvette, cutting the ship in two and sending 46 sailors to their deaths. Later that year, when North Korean artillery barraged a South Korean island and killed four more people, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reportedly ordered aircraft to deliver a counter-strike deep inside North Korea, but the U.S. military held him back.
This time was different. No one thought President Moon Jae-in, a South Korean progressive known for his attempts to engage the North, would want blood. But nobody grasped how quickly accidental violence could take on its own urgent logic. [Continue reading…]
Richard Sokolsky writes: South Korean hawks have marshalled several arguments to defend their view that the US should deploy nuclear weapons on their territory and even allow the South to become a nuclear weapons state. According to this perspective, the North Koreans are unlikely to accept denuclearization unless they face considerably more pressure, and a more robust US and South Korean nuclear presence would provide badly needed leverage to force the North to bargain away its own nuclear capabilities. In addition, US TNW in South Korea or a nuclear-armed South Korea would counterbalance North Korean nuclear weapons and thus deter the North from starting a nuclear war or trying to use its unilateral nuclear advantage to coerce political concessions from the South. Moreover, confronting China with the prospect of a nuclear South Korea (and Japan) and an increased risk of nuclear escalation might be enough to scare China into using its leverage to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Although these arguments have gained some traction among the South Korean public, there are compelling reasons for the US to refuse redeployment of TNW in South Korea and reject its development of nuclear weapons. First, the existing US nuclear umbrella, especially sea-based weapons that roam the waters of the Western Pacific, and the presence of US forces in South Korea provide ample deterrent to the use of North Korean nuclear weapons. If these capabilities do not deter the North from starting a war, basing a few more weapons on South Korean soil will not change this calculus.
A US decision to redeploy TNW would also raise the thorny issue of operational decision-making and command authority over the use of these weapons. The South Korean government, like the governments of NATO countries where nuclear weapons are based, might prefer command arrangements with shared authority (in NATO, parlance “dual key” arrangements exist that require positive actions by both the US and basing countries to order nuclear release.) However, the commander of US Forces Korea would almost certainly want sole authority to employ these weapons. And because of the compressed time for decision-making due to the short distances involved, he might be given pre-delegated launch authority in certain conditions. Under these circumstances, and especially because both US and North Korean nuclear weapons would be highly vulnerable to a pre-emptive first strike, there would be strong incentives on both sides to use these weapons first or risk losing them. Thus, the re-introduction of US TNW in South Korea, while aimed at deterring a North Korean nuclear attack, could actually increase the risk of a nuclear exchange. [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: President Donald Trump attempted to make an unannounced visit to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea on Wednesday morning, but was forced to turn back because of bad weather.
Trump was aboard Marine One en route to the DMZ but was grounded after about 18 minutes of flight.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was scheduled to join Trump at the DMZ in a show of unity, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday morning. The joint visit would have been the first for a US and South Korean President at the DMZ, Sanders said, calling it a “historic moment.” [Continue reading…]
— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) November 8, 2017
The New York Times reports: President Trump, whose long-distance threats and insults toward North Korea have stoked fears of a nuclear confrontation, brought a message of reassurance to South Korea on Tuesday, moving to bolster an anxious ally as he came within 35 miles of one of the world’s most dangerous borders.
Gone were the threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and the derisive references to its leader, Kim Jong-un, as “Little Rocket Man” as Mr. Trump said he saw progress in diplomatic efforts to counter the threat from Pyongyang, adding, “Ultimately, it will all work out.”
After a day of private meetings and public bonding with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who was elected promising a shift toward dialogue with the North, Mr. Trump — who as recently as last month tweeted that direct talks were a “waste of time” — said on Tuesday that it would be in Pyongyang’s interest to “come to the table and to make a deal.”
And instead of threatening muscular pre-emptive action against the North, Mr. Trump said he prayed that using military force would not be necessary. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The United States military said on Monday that it would practice evacuating noncombatant Americans out of South Korea in the event of war and other emergencies, as the two allies began a joint naval exercise amid heightened tensions with North Korea.
The evacuation drill, known as Courageous Channel, is scheduled from next Monday through Friday and is aimed at preparing American “service members and their families to respond to a wide range of crisis management events such as noncombatant evacuation and natural or man-made disasters,” the United States military said in a statement.
It has been conducting similar noncombatant evacuation exercises for decades, along with other joint military exercises with South Korea. But when tensions escalate with North Korea, as they have recently, such drills draw outsize attention and ignite fear among South Koreans, some of whom take them as a sign that the United States might be preparing for military action against the North.
The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly warned that it opposes a military solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis because it could quickly escalate into a full-blown war in which Koreans would suffer the most. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Donald Trump could soon find himself confronting North Korean soldiers on the world’s most heavily armed border, amid reports that the president is considering a visit to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) during his forthcoming trip to South Korea.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the DMZ, which has separated the two Koreas since the end of their 1950-53 war, was among the candidate sites for Trump’s tour of Asia. He will also visit Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Two supersonic B-1B bombers flew over the Korean peninsula on Wednesday night, according to the US military. Two South Korean F-15K fighters, along with Japanese fighters, joined the drill after the bombers took off from Andersen airbase in Guam, the statement said. It was the first time Japan and South Korea had both joined US bombers on a nighttime combined exercise, it added. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: Hackers from North Korea are reported to have stolen a large cache of military documents from South Korea, including a plan to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Rhee Cheol-hee, a South Korean lawmaker, said the information was from his country’s defence ministry.
The compromised documents include wartime contingency plans drawn up by the US and South Korea.
They also include reports to the allies’ senior commanders.
The South Korean defence ministry has so far refused to comment about the allegation.
Plans for the South’s special forces were reportedly accessed, along with information on significant power plants and military facilities in the South.
Mr Rhee belongs to South Korea’s ruling party, and sits on its parliament’s defence committee. He said some 235 gigabytes of military documents had been stolen from the Defence Integrated Data Centre, and that 80% of them have yet to be identified. [Continue reading…]
Amulya Shankar reports: A few days after North Korea tested its sixth nuclear missile — and a few days before Pyongyang fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan into the northern Pacific Ocean on Friday, its longest-ever such flight — South Korea announced its plans to create a special military “decapitation unit” with the goal of assassinating Kim Jong Un, which would be established by the end of the year.
It is a difficult balancing act, pitting South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s preference for a diplomatic solution against his nation’s need to answer an existential question: How can a country without nuclear weapons deter a dictator who has them?
Killing a foreign leader is obviously a covert operation — so why would South Korea reveal its plans so publicly?
“The best deterrence we can have, next to having our own nukes, is to make Kim Jong Un fear for his life,” said Shin Won-sik, a three-star general who was the South Korean military’s top operational strategist before he retired in 2015.
It’s a form of deterrence that doesn’t involve nuclear weapons, says Isaac Stone Fish, a journalist and Asia Society fellow.
“It’s a way for South Korea to say to North Korea, ‘Hey, we really mean business here.’”
“We can now build ballistic missiles that can slam through deep underground bunkers where Kim Jong Un would be hiding,” Shin said. “The idea is how we can instill the kind of fear a nuclear weapon would — but do so without a nuke. In the medieval system like North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s life is as valuable as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives would be threatened in a nuclear attack.”
Moon was elected in May on a platform of diplomacy and engaging with the North. This shift in policy could be a sign that South Korea believes that President Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive “fire-and-fury” rhetoric isn’t deterring North Korea from its weapons testing. [Continue reading…]
Michael McFaul writes: Unfortunately, like many national security debates these days, our national discussion about how to address the growing North Korean threat has quickly become polarized between two extreme positions. In one corner, President Trump has threatened a preemptive military strike in response (I’m paraphrasing his remarks into more analytic terms) to new threats from the North Korean regime. In reaction, Trump opponents have advocated the exact opposite — talks with Kim Jong-un. Both of these options are insufficient. In fact, threatening nuclear war or proposing talks are only partial strategies at best, slogans at worst, for dealing with one of our most pressing national security challenges. What we need instead is first a clearly defined objective, then second a smart mix of both diplomacy and pressure — coercive diplomacy — to achieve that national security goal.
Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.
All effective national security policies must start with defining the objectives before pivoting to discussions about how to achieve them. Right now, our objectives regarding North Korea are ill-defined and many. Some, including Trump administration officials, argue for denuclearization. Others seek regime change and reunification. Diminishing the North Korean nuclear program through limited military strikes is a third objective proffered. A fourth camp advocates the removal of Kim Jong-un, or decapitation of the regime. A fifth group advocates a more modest goal — the resumption of talks with the North Korean government. The Trump administration itself sends conflicting messages about its objectives.
All of these must be set aside for now. While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal. The North Korean leader rationally believes that possession of nuclear weapons helps to deter threats to his regime, including first and foremost from the United States. No amount of coercion or diplomacy will ever convince him otherwise. Foreign induced regime change or leader decapitation also is not a realistic goal. Tragically, the North Korean dictatorship has demonstrated real resilience in the face of famine, sanctions and international isolation. American efforts to strengthen internal opposition have not produced pressure on the regime. Assassination or decapitation, even if it could be done (and I am skeptical) would not compel the next North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the effect would be the exact opposite. And nothing more will rally North Koreans to defend their government than such an action. Nor should resumption of talks be the goal of our efforts. Talks are the means to achieve other objectives, not the objective in and of itself.
Instead, our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Early arms control during the Cold War (SALT) slowed the acceleration of nuclear weapons acquisition, creating the predicate for eventual weapons reduction in later negotiations (START). The same sequence must be embraced now with North Korea. The objective of freezing North Korean nuclear and missile programs would enhance American national security as well as the security of allies. This objective is also obtainable. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: South Korea’s defense minister on Monday said it was worth reviewing the redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula to guard against the North, a step that analysts warn would sharply increase the risk of an accidental conflict.
But in New York, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “begging for war.”
And even as concern over Korea deepened following North Korea’s huge nuclear test Sunday, South Korea’s defense ministry said Monday that Pyongyang might be preparing to launch another missile into the Pacific Ocean, perhaps an intercontinental ballistic missile theoretically capable of reaching the mainland United States.
President Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, spoke on the phone for 40 minutes Monday night, Korean time — some 34 hours after the nuclear test and more than 24 hours after Trump took to Twitter to criticize Moon’s “talk of appeasement.”
The two agreed to remove the limit on allowed payloads for South Korean missiles — something Seoul had been pushing for — as a way to increase deterrence against North Korea, according to a read-out of the phone call from South Korea’s Blue House.
They also agreed to work together to punish North Korea for Sunday’s nuclear test, including by pushing for tougher sanctions through the United Nations.
In a later phone call, Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to the same conclusion, Reuters reported. [Continue reading…]
Time reports: Following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sunday morning, which triggered a 5.7 magnitude tremor that shook buildings as far away as northeastern China, the world rounded on the pariah state with unified opprobrium.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the test “absolutely unacceptable,” while China’s Foreign Ministry “strongly condemned” it. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced Kim Jong Un’s “cruel and evil dictatorship.” Russia urged “all interested parties to immediately return to dialogue and negotiations as the only possible way for an overall settlement of the problems of the Korean peninsula.”
Donald Trump also joined the chorus, tweeting that North Korea’s “words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.” But then the U.S. President immediately turned on Washington’s closest regional ally, not to mention the frontline state in any possible conflict: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” he tweeted.
Trump’s outburst is hard to read given that South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday agreed to ramp up hosting of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile batteries following North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches. After Sunday’s estimated 120 kiloton nuclear test, which the regime claimed was a missile-ready hydrogen bomb, that deployment is poised to be ratified domestically. Although Moon was indeed elected in May upon promises to put THAAD under review, and urging dialogue with the North, Trump’s charge of appeasement is hard to justify. As such, the tweet was another of Trump’s capricious utterances on social media that put allies as well as enemies on edge.
“You’ve got this massive crisis and the President of the United States is basically undermining the alliance,” says Prof. Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. “It’s appalling. Rather that standing in solidarity with Moon Jae-in he’s badmouthing him.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: South Korea’s president tried late Sunday to dismiss talk of a dispute between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with North Korea following its sixth nuclear test, after President Trump criticized the South Korean approach as “appeasement.”
Moon Jae-in’s office said that his government would continue to work towards peaceful denuclearization after tweets and actions from Trump that have left South Koreans scratching their heads at why the American president is attacking an ally at such a sensitive time.
As if to underline Seoul’s willingness to be tough, the South Korean military conducted bombing drills at dawn Monday, practicing ballistic missile strikes on the North Korean nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
The South Korean military calculated the distance to the site and practiced having F-15 jet fighters accurately hit the target, the joint chiefs of staff said Monday morning.
“This drill was conducted to send a strong warning to North Korea for its sixth nuclear test,” it said.
After North Korea conducted its nuclear test Sunday, Trump tweeted: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
Trump did not talk to Moon on the phone Sunday — in stark contrast to the two calls he had with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan and a leader who has proven much more willing to agree with his American counterpart. This will worsen anxieties in Seoul that Tokyo is seen as “the favorite ally,” analysts said. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: North Korea’s detonation of a sixth nuclear bomb on Sunday prompted the Trump administration to warn that even the threat to use such a weapon against the United States and its allies “will be met with a massive military response.’’
The test — and President Trump’s response — immediately raised new questions about the president’s North Korea strategy and opened a new rift with a major American ally, South Korea, which Mr. Trump criticized for its “talk of appeasement” with the North.
The underground blast was by far North Korea’s most powerful ever. Though it was far from clear that the North had set off a hydrogen bomb, as it claimed, the explosion caused tremors that were felt in South Korea and China. Experts estimated that the blast was four to sixteen times more powerful than any the North had set off before, with far more destructive power than the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Yet after a day of meetings in the Situation Room involving Mr. Trump and his advisers, two phone calls between the president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and even demands from some liberal Democrats to cut off North Korea’s energy supplies, Mr. Trump’s aides conceded that they faced a familiar conundrum.
While the Pentagon has worked up a series of military options for targeted strikes at North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, Mr. Trump was told that there is no assurance that the United States could destroy them all in a lightning strike, according to officials with knowledge of the exchange. Cyberstrikes, which President Barack Obama ordered against the North’s missile program, have also been judged ineffective.
Mr. Trump hinted at one extreme option: In a Twitter post just before he met his generals, he said that “the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.’’
Taken literally, such a policy would be tantamount to demanding a stoppage of any Chinese oil to North Korea, essentially an attempt to freeze out the country this winter and bring whatever industry it has to a halt.
The Chinese would almost certainly balk; they have never been willing to take steps that might lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, no matter how dangerous its behavior, for fear that South Korean and American troops would occupy the country and move directly to the Chinese border.
Beyond that, the economic disruption of ending all trade with China would be so huge inside the United States that Mr. Trump’s aides declined on Sunday to discuss the implications. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: While the world agonized over the huge nuclear test in North Korea this weekend, President Trump aimed his most pointed rhetorical fire not at the renegade regime in Pyongyang, but at America’s closest partner in confronting the crisis: South Korea.
In taking to Twitter to accuse Seoul of “appeasement,” Mr. Trump was venting his frustration at a new liberal South Korean government he sees as both soft on North Korea’s atomic program and resistant to his demand for an overhaul of trade practices that he views as cheating American workers and companies.
For Mr. Trump, the crisis lays bare how his trade agenda — the bedrock of his economic populist campaign in 2016 — is increasingly at odds with the security agenda he has pursued as president. It is largely a problem of Mr. Trump’s own making. Unlike several of his predecessors, who were able to press countries on trade issues while cooperating with them on security, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two, painting himself into a corner. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: US and South Korean militaries will go ahead with massive sea, land and air exercises later this month, despite a spiralling situation in which North Korea has threatened to fire missiles towards a US Pacific territory.
The annual joint exercises, named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have long been planned for 21-31 August, but now come at a time when both Washington and Pyongyang are on heightened alert, raising the spectre of a mishap or overreaction.
The timing is doubly concerning as it is within a timeframe in which Pyongyang says it will be ready to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the US-run island of Guam, an unusually specific threat against the US.
Washington and Seoul say the exercises, involving tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, are a deterrent against North Korean aggression.
In the past, the practices are believed to have included “decapitation strikes” – trial operations for an attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals, further antagonising a paranoid leadership. [Continue reading…]
On August 31, 2013, Donald Trump tweeted:
Be prepared, there is a small chance that our horrendous leadership could unknowingly lead us into World War III.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2013
The New York Times reports: President Trump threatened on Tuesday to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangers the United States as tensions with the isolated nuclear-armed state grow into perhaps the most serious foreign policy challenge yet in his young administration.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The president’s comments came as North Korea earlier in the day escalated its criticism of the United States, as well as its neighboring allies, by warning that it will mobilize all its resources to take “physical action” in retaliation against the latest round of United Nations sanctions.
The statement, carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, was the strongest indication yet that the country could conduct another nuclear or missile test, as it had often done in response to past United Nations sanctions. Until now, the North’s response to the latest sanctions had been limited to strident yet vague warnings, such as threatening retaliation “thousands of times over.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: A large majority of Americans consider North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a critical threat toward the United States, according to a new poll.
However, they remain divided on which policy would best contain that threat — and, for the first time in almost 30 years, a majority of Americans were found to support military action if North Korea attacked South Korea.
The poll, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, offers a glimpse of how Americans are responding to the rapidly evolving tensions with Pyongyang. Just two years ago, 55 percent of Americans listed North Korea as a critical threat facing the United States. Now 75 percent do, making it among the greatest perceived threats in the poll. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: North Korea has vowed to retaliate and make “the US pay a price” for drafting fresh UN sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons programme.
The sanctions, which were unanimously passed by the UN on Saturday, were a “violent violation of our sovereignty,” the official KCNA news agency said.
Separately, South Korea says the North has rejected an offer to restart talks, dismissing it as insincere. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The U.N. Security Council’s move to block countries from buying North Korean coal plugs a large loophole that allowed Chinese companies to import more North Korean coal after the first U.N. ban in 2016.
Previous bans have allowed Pyongyang to sell coal for “humanitarian” trade, but Saturday’s vote banned all coal sales in an effort to choke off funding for Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs, where much of the money was funneled, according to recent U.S. court filings.
The coal trade cited in the court documents accounted for as much as one-third of North Korean exports and helps explain how North Korea continued to develop its weapons programs despite being impoverished and under trade sanctions. The connections to the military also undermine Chinese claims that their imports were benefiting North Korean civilians. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A Southeast Asian diplomatic meeting quietly turned into the first real multiparty bargaining session in eight years to tackle North Korea’s nuclear program, as the country’s top diplomat held a rare round of talks with his counterparts from China, South Korea and Russia.
The United States and Japan were the only members of the so-called six-party talks on the North’s nuclear ambitions, which ended in failure in 2009, whose diplomats did not meet this week with Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho of North Korea. But Rex W. Tillerson, the American secretary of state, kept the door open for talks, saying at a news conference on Monday that he had no specific preconditions for negotiating with Pyongyang.
“Well, the best signal that North Korea could give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Mr. Tillerson said.
But when asked how long such a pause would have to last before talks could go forward, Mr. Tillerson demurred. [Continue reading…]