Fire and Fury…Yikes
Quibbl goes full Tom Clancy to look closely at what’s going on and look ahead to what’s next in the conflict with North Korea
By Jonathan Silverman with Ben Purcell
What’s The Latest
On July 30th, days after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska, the United States tested a missile defense system capable of intercepting and destroying incoming projectiles. The US’s missile defense test came just a day after American B-1 bombers flew a 10-hour round trip over the Korean Peninsula with Japanese and South Korean fighter jets in a display of cohesion between the U.S. and its allies in the region. As the coalition flew, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned that “The time for talk is over.” How did we get to the brink of a major war?
Well, beyond more frequent missile testing, North Korea’s technical progress toward nuclear capability has outpaced the expectations of the international intelligence communities. The isolated country, with its erratic, real-life supervillain ruler Kim Jong Un, is now slated to have a weapon capable of hitting a North American city as early as next year. Having apparently become recently capable of fitting nuclear warheads on top of ballistic missiles, North Korea is now only a few technical steps away from being a threat to the U.S. mainland. The next step of testing a missile that passes through the upper atmosphere and reenters without damaging the warhead could take place as early as next week. Will such a major missile test happen? Quibbl here.
It may be next year before a credible threat against a major U.S. city, but in the meantime, North Korea hasn’t wasted any time in threatening the American outpost that’s already in range: Guam. The U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean, home of a strategically important military outpost, found itself caught in the rhetorical crossfire when state-run media in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang announced plans to fire four missiles at the tiny island. Will Kim Jong Un actually fire such an opening salvo? Quibbl here.
After years of hyperbolic sabre-rattling – this week’s military parade threat to “blow the US from this planet” being the most recent example – North Korean political and military leaders finally have a worthy rhetorical adversary in President Trump, who doubled down on his frightening threat to unleash “fire and fury” by reflecting only that it “wasn’t tough enough.” The President again underscored American preparedness for a conflict in his latest tweet, announcing that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded.”
The President’s recent media bellicosity may be the art of the deal after all. As it turns out, recent reports indicate that the U.S. and North Korea have been involved in back channel diplomatic talks for several months. U.S. citizens still detained in North Korea would certainly be a major factor in such a negotiation process. Will North Korea release these prisoners? Quibbl about it here.
What Could Happen From Here
Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly given the nation’s state of reactionary isolation, the missile test dates seem to correlate with geopolitical events. Pyongyang tested a missile a week in the weeks following this past May’s election of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in. More geopolitical events associated with North Korean missile tests: a Beijing summit and Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the White House. Another ICBM test came on the 4th of July. Are North Korea’s geopolitical-, holiday-themed missile tests the strategic moves of a mastermind or just the desperate sabre-rattling of a regime struggling to stay relevant? Or is it some combination of both?
At first glance, the North Korean leadership seems to be courting certain disaster in provoking the world’s most powerful military. Many analysts warn, though, that a forceful response to North Korean belligerence would also be a disastrous outcome for the US, and especially for its allies in the region. Speaking to The Atlantic, retired US Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, a twenty-five year veteran of Korean conflict war games, describes how a military intervention could spiral out of control: “Let’s say there are 10,000 Americans killed in just a conventional strike [by North Korea]. The pressure from the American people would be. ‘It’s time to eliminate this guy’. The casualties force you to lose control of the situation.”
And there are other factors to consider. Foreign Policy Magazine reported in March on the claims by North Korean defectors that the rogue nation’s leadership hopes that by inflicting maximum mayhem and havoc at the beginning it will be able to shake the resolve of a U.S.-South Korea invasion. Neither simulations nor provocations from Kim Jong Un have deterred President Trump from matching North Korea’s rhetoric thus far; in fact, he’s escalated the back-and-forth in promising that future threats would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Though experts suggest that the U.S. isn’t yet in position to make a first strike, the Commander-in-Chief’s conflict management style has to this point been unlike anything we’ve seen from his recent predecessors. Is he just negotiating intensely – as he prophesied as far back as 1999 that would do before a preemptive strike – or do you think President Trump will authorize a U.S. military strike? Quibbl about it here.
While there may be posturing going on in more than one direction, the conflict is certainly a volatile situation with millions of lives on the line. According to Louis Beres, a scholar of nuclear strategies, “Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea could include: mistaken or flawed interpretations of computer-generated attack warnings, an asymmetrical willingness to risk catastrophic war, an overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities of one’s own side, whether expressed on one or both sides, any more-or-less sudden adversarial regime change, including outright revolution or coup d’état in Pyongyang, poorly-conceived or narrowly precipitous pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority.”
That doesn’t sound good. Hopefully there will be a more predictable outcome.