“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
— Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 3, 1914
US President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19 may well come to be viewed as “historic,” but not in a good way. This article will leave for others the impact of Donald Trump’s and Kim Jong Un’s reality TV show rhetoric. But the substance of Trump’s speech—including threats to both North Korea and the Iran deal—may have closed any remaining doors to a diplomatic resolution to this crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, Trump’s speech and the North Korean reaction seem to have set us on a path that could very well end in a major war in Asia. The escalating threats and the closing off of diplomatic options by both sides makes it now more likely than ever that President Trump will have to make good on his threat to “utterly destroy” a nation of 25 million people. The strategic consequences of carrying out this threat, even if successful, will be felt for the remainder of this century, largely to the detriment of the United States and the Western World.
Echoes of the Past
Major wars are not created with a single action. They flow from a series of decisions that drive participants towards a sense that no other action but war can extricate them from their predicament. For example, many historians now credit Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s July 2, 1914 telegram to the Austrian government, which gave his ally a so-called blank check to do whatever it wished in the crisis with Serbia, as the fatal step that set the machinery inexorably in motion for the catastrophe of World War I. Trump shares one common and dangerous trait with the Kaiser: both were amateur militarists given to public bluster and adopting an ultra-nationalist bully-boy style of diplomacy, in part to cover up vast weaknesses in their own characters and their lack of understanding of their countries’ true strengths. But neither of these individuals intended to unleash catastrophe. Certainly, the Kaiser would never have sent his blank check if he had known it would result in the fall of his own dynasty, the disappearance of centuries-old empires, the death of millions, and the emergence of Nazism in his country. No doubt, Trump sees himself as a heroic figure standing up to a mad tyrant using rhetoric, economic pressure and, if necessary, military force to break him. He does not see because he does not understand the vast risks he is running for his own citizens, or millions of residents of East Asia.
Why the Alarm?
What could prompt the author to make such apocalyptic historical parallels from what, in the context of the never-ending stream of ill-considered words from this President, was a fairly average speech? First, it was uttered in an unstable, nuclear-armed strategic environment. Second, it confirmed in front of the entire global community that should conflict come, it would be total in nature with the survival of both the North Korean regime and its entire population at stake. Third, the US and North Korea are blind to alternative end states to the one they fear/desire. This is how leaders come to see war as the only choice. Finally, the speech undercut any possibility that North Korea would consider making any concession on its nuclear deterrent by underlining that the US will not keep its word even when it has negotiated an agreement with a hostile government.
Trump’s over-the-top attack on the Iran nuclear agreement in the UN—a body that had fully endorsed that agreement with a unanimous UN Security Council Resolution—undermines his credibility as a negotiating partner for any nuclear agreement with North Korea. If the Iran agreement is trashed, Kim Jong Un would be a fool of the first order to negotiate any reduction in his deterrent with the United States. In other words, in a nuclearized environment in which both North Korea and the US have sound military reasons to want to attack first, Trump informed the North Koreans that he will not be bound by a diplomatic agreement and his military intent is the extinction of the DPRK. He has cornered a vicious animal and told it he intends to kill it and its young. His announcement last week of far-reaching secondary economic sanctions designed to unilaterally impose a complete trade and financial embargo on North Korea is likely to pour gasoline on the fire he set in New York.
The Environment and the Stakes
The strategic environment on the Korean peninsula has been for decades one of tense, but stable, mutual deterrence. The ROK and the US have sufficient forces to halt any attack by the DPRK and have all the long-term political, military and economic advantages that would permit them to mobilize a devastating conventional military counter-strike that would defeat the North’s forces and eliminate the Kim dynasty. Such a conflict might well be a bloody affair, but its outcome would be certain. For at least the last 25 years, no North Korean general could believe that victory would be achieved in an attack on South Korea and each of the heads of the Kim dynasty have known that the US had the capability and intention to make the end of a second Korean War a decisive and final victory for the US and ROK.
Despite the never-ending assertions in Washington that the North Korean regime cannot be deterred, the last 64 years of Korean history demonstrate the contrary. For its part, the DPRK had its own deterrent advantage: the civilian population and economic infrastructure of the greater Seoul metropolitan area. North Korean artillery, tactical rockets, and its SCUD missile force armed with high explosives, chemical and probably biological weapons held the 25 million civilians of the Seoul region hostage as well as the bulk of the economic infrastructure of a major player in the global economy.
Due to a fatal error in North Korean strategic calculation, this environment has been destabilized. Pyongyang has chosen to: 1) add millions of US hostages to its strategy by pressing forward with development of a thermonuclear-tipped ICBM; and 2) craft and test a nuclear war fighting strategy that targets nuclear weapons on key US military assets and facilities which are critical to US and ROK defense planning. Leaving aside whether having American civilians in North Korean nuclear cross-hairs would undercut the faith of our ROK and Japanese allies in US resolve, the US and ROK militaries simply cannot afford to have key air, sea or logistics bases and debarkation points for US ground reinforcements neutralized by a DPRK nuclear first strike—not to mention the military and civilian casualties that would result from absorbing the North’s first strike. However effective US and Japanese theater missile defense might be, it is vulnerable to a barrage of missiles and the DPRK has hundreds available for attacks on Japan and South Korea. Any prudent US commander would have strong incentives to preemptively attack North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities at the outset of a conflict in order to limit the damage to vital US military assets.
The situation is even worse from the North Korean side. North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities—and even more so its early warning and command and control capabilities for nuclear war—are hopelessly inferior to the US high technology conventional weapons or to its nuclear capabilities. It is unlikely a US conventional strike could totally eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and it almost certainly could not eliminate the threat to the “hostages” in Seoul. But a thorough and well-planned nuclear strike drawing on US strategic forces might well successfully disarm the DPRK and paralyze its command and control. A prudent North Korean commander cannot exclude such a possibility and has to understand his vast numerical and technological disadvantage. His only hope for pursuing his nuclear war fighting strategy is to attack first while he has the assets and command and control capabilities to act. This is publicly stated North Korean nuclear doctrine.
What all this means is that if a mistake, miscalculation or incident sparks war, it is likely to go nuclear very fast.
Mutual Blindness on End States
Both sides seem to have maneuvered themselves psychologically into the belief that war is inevitable unless the other side capitulates to its desired end state. For the DPRK this means that safety can only be achieved if it can target US cities. For the US it means war is inevitable if the DPRK achieves that goal. Senior US Administration officials have already made numerous comments about preventive war. They have begun the usual US psychological preparation for conflict by labeling the prospective opponent evil and mad. And they have given indications that they have agreed on military options that will be brought into play under certain publicly ill-defined circumstances. It is likely the inner councils of the Administration have already agreed on a set of military actions that will be put into play if Pyongyang is about to field a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the continental United States before sanctions bring Pyongyang to its knees. This unspoken decision stems from the belief that the United States cannot live for a day under the threat of a single North Korean nuclear weapon capable of reaching major US cities.
It is unlikely that the Trump administration is so blind that it has let itself fall into a completely deterministic logic for the end of this crisis. Certainly they must hope their unilateral trade embargo could increase and speed up economic damage on North Korea to the point that it faces collapse before it can achieve its ICBM goal. Perhaps the Trump Administration believes that behind the scenes Pyongyang is bluffing and is prepared to walk back from the precipice. It would not be the first time Pyongyang changed course when it felt war was getting close. But all of these possibilities are more hopes than a coherent strategy to achieve an acceptable outcome.
The North Koreans seem to see things in just the opposite light. They believe the US plans to use its superior conventional military technology to achieve regime change. In their view, had Saddam Hussein or Col. Gaddafi possessed a viable nuclear deterrent, both dictators and their regimes would still be standing. It believes, mistakenly, that the survival of the Kim dynasty depends on North Korea’s ability to hold US cities at risk with nuclear weapons. They probably also believe once they have a viable ability to strike the continental US, they will be able to negotiate their way out of sanctions. Paradoxically, it is thus racing towards the one condition that would cause the US to shake off its six-decades old acceptance of mutual deterrence on the Korean peninsula. President Trump was not wrong in saying Kim Jong Un was on a suicide mission.
Thus, both sides have cast away the idea that they had already achieved the ability to deter the other and blinded themselves to many possible stopping points on this descent into war. History is replete with nuclear weapons states that have found means to stabilize peace and security even in the face of challenges from new entrants to the nuclear club. One need only look at the example of China. When it entered the nuclear club in 1964, Mao was at least as volatile and bloodthirsty a tyrant as Kim is today and China was a much greater threat to US interests than the DPRK is today. Both the US and USSR considered preventive war but other roads were chosen that have benefited all of us breathing non-radioactive air today.
Denuclearizing North Korea is a worthy goal. But it is not worthy of a nuclear war in East Asia—even one the US would win. There are less appealing but acceptable alternatives that would leave US alliances intact and allow the natural advantages of the US and its allies to erode North Korea’s hostility over time. The same logic should apply to Pyongyang. It has been remarkably successful at playing off its many neighbors and the United States. It has survived the worst of its economic maladies. The greatest threat to its survival is forcing the US into a war in which it believes its own people’s survival is at stake. The DPRK could easily return to its earlier deterrent strategy and survive for decades.
The Kim regime does not give a fig about the fate of other countries. But it does draw (false) lessons about US actions towards them. How can it not doubt at this point that the Trump administration can be trusted to keep any agreement if that agreement merely annoys the current President? If there is one thing that is consistent about the Trump administration’s diplomacy, it is its absolute passion for reneging on agreements. In less than a year the President has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Accord and he has practically had to be wrestled to the ground to keep him from doing the same on NAFTA and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Trump’s blasting of the Iran nuclear agreement in his UNGA speech is one of many indicators that the President wishes to abrogate that agreement by hook or crook. True, Pyongyang made clear soon after the Iran agreement was announced that it had no interest in a Korean counterpart agreement. But it will certainly notice if the US abrogates an agreement with another member of President Bush’s famous “axis of evil” after that country downgraded its nuclear capabilities and despite the fact that all objective observers agree that it is complying with the agreement. It is hard to find a better way to convince your adversary not to reach an agreement with you than to say “We will break agreements at will. Oh, by the way, we also have plans to utterly destroy your country.”
The lamps are going out…
The broad sweep of US and North Korean policy make any non-military outcome to this crisis less and less likely. It is possible but not probable the Kim Dynasty will capitulate to US nuclear demands in the face of economic privation. It is possible the new sanctions will be so effective the North Korean state will collapse under the strain. But this is unlikely in the short term and the long term will not matter given the pace of North Korea’s ICBM development efforts. The roads to a negotiated settlement are being blocked by North Korean intransigence and American diplomatic unreliability. Alternatives to war—such as UN sanctions—are being replaced by a unilateral American economic war. Both sides are focused exclusively on their optimal outcome and view alternatives as mortal threats. Any error or misstep in this highly unstable strategic environment could ignite a nuclear first strike. We are not yet at the point of war, but the gears of war are beginning to grind inexorably towards it. The lamps are going out in Asia.