Sunday Herald - - THE WORLD -

NU­CLEAR stand­offs are noth­ing new. It was dur­ing one of the most se­ri­ous, the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis in 1962 be­tween the US and Soviet Union, that the then lead­ers of those coun­tries, Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy and Pre­mier Nikita Khrushchev, had one of their fa­mous po­lit­i­cal ex­changes.

“We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, be­cause the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied,” Khrushchev warned Kennedy at the height of the cri­sis.

Tense as those days were back dur­ing the Cold War, the lan­guage be­tween the two men, though of­ten un­com­pro­mis­ing, al­most al­ways had a con­sid­ered and even­tu­ally con­cil­ia­tory tone, much to the re­lief of the world.

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev had, of course, ex­pe­ri­enced the hor­rors of con­flict first hand, serv­ing their coun­tries dur­ing the Se­cond World War.

The same can­not be said of their con­tem­po­rary coun­ter­parts, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jongun, who in the last few days have es­ca­lated the war of words be­tween them over the nu­clear cri­sis in the Korean penin­sula to alarm­ing lev­els.

While Trump threat­ens to un­leash “fire and fury” and says America is “locked and loaded”, Kim in the past has him­self talked of re­duc­ing “all bases of provo­ca­tions” to “flames and ashes”.

Such now is the bel­li­cos­ity of the rhetoric be­tween the two lead­ers that only yes­ter­day China’s pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping urged both men to avoid “words and ac­tions” that worsen ten­sions.

As cru­cial a po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic player as China is in all of this, Xi’s words may well fall on deaf ears given the char­ac­ter of the two men.

Both have been de­scribed as capri­cious and prone to child­ish out­bursts when things don’t go their way. Some­thing the world has wit­nessed for it­self in Trump’s case on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions al­ready.

One US Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, Ana Navarro, said Trump’s han­dling of the North Korean cri­sis is “like he’s play­ing Bat­tle­ship in be­tween golf games”.

Her re­marks were un­der­lined by the fact that Trump this week­end de­liv­ered his lat­est ver­bal blast to­wards Py­ongyang from his Bed­min­ster, New Jersey golf re­sort. The cri­sis, it seems, has done lit­tle to in­ter­fere with his pen­chant for re­treat­ing at week­ends to var­i­ous golf re­sorts.

Such be­hav­iour, how­ever, be­lies the se­ri­ous­ness of the stand­off with North Korea, one that has been head­ing steadily on a col­li­sion course for some time.

Given the point at which this cri­sis now sits, just how then did the sit­u­a­tion get this tense, and is nu­clear war re­ally a pos­si­bil- ity or will events un­fold dif­fer­ently? The United States and North Korea have, of course, been in con­flict for decades. The de­vel­op­ment of the North’s nu­clear weapons pro­gramme has only in­ten­si­fied the en­mity be­tween the two coun­tries.

What is no longer in doubt is that while the North has con­ducted sev­eral tests with nu­clear bombs, there re­mains some un­cer­tainty over whether it has the ca­pac­ity to make a nu­clear war­head small enough to fit on to a mis­sile.

Last year, Py­ongyang re­leased a pho­to­graph of Kim Jong-un pos­ing with what ap­peared to be a minia­turised nu­clear war­head.

Ac­cord­ing to con­clu­sions drawn by some US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials the bomb that was about two feet in di­am­e­ter, with a de­struc­tive yield equiv­a­lent to the atomic bombs that the US dropped on Ja­pan in the Se­cond World War, could be car­ried by a long-range mis­sile.

US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials now say they be­lieve North Korea is ca­pa­ble of minia­tur­i­sa­tion, even if some in­ter­na­tional experts have long cast doubt on such claims.

What has been long es­tab­lished though is that the North has been steadily build­ing and test­ing such mis­siles.

“There is lit­tle doubt that it has some cur­rent nu­clear strike ca­pa­bil­ity with air de­liv­ered weapons and may al­ready have a mar­ginal ca­pa­bil­ity to de­liver mis­siles with nu­clear war­heads against city-sized tar­gets in South Korea and Ja­pan,” says An­thony H Cordes­man, chair in Strat­egy at the Cen­tre for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CSIS).

Ac­cord­ing to Cordes­man, the North is also only per­haps months to years away from de­vel­op­ing a “rea­son­able prob­a­bil­ity of de­liv­er­ing a mod­er­ate fis­sion-sized weapon against an Amer­i­can city with a high chance of suc­cess”.

That prob­a­bil­ity was made all the more likely with the test fir­ing early last month of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) of­fi­cials said was ca­pa­ble of hit­ting Alaska and Hawaii.

A few weeks later the North tested an­other mis­sile which experts said was ca­pa­ble of hit­ting Cal­i­for­nia. In re­sponse, the US de­cided the time had come to toughen its mil­i­tary stance.

As ten­sions spiked last Tues­day with Trump threat­en­ing to meet any ag­gres­sion from Py­ongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, Kim re­sponded in

equally apoc­a­lyp­tic tones. In­sist­ing it would cre­ate “an en­velop­ing fire” around Guam, a tiny Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory in the West­ern Pa­cific that is home to a US Air Force base, the North then an­nounced in was pre­par­ing plans to fire four bal­lis­tic mis­siles near to Guam.

Ac­cord­ing to com­ments at­trib­uted to Gen­eral Kim Rak Gyom, com­man­der of the Strate­gic Force of the Korean Peo­ple’s Army, the mil­i­tary is draw­ing up plans for a four-mis­sile salvo of Hwa­song-12 in­ter­me­di­ate bal­lis­tic mis­siles to fly over Ja­pan and land about 18-25 miles from Guam.

Once pre­pared the plan will be pre­sented to Kim Jong-un by the mid­dle of this month, after which Py­ongyang will “keep closely watch­ing the speech and be­hav­iour of the US”.

There are a num­ber of cru­cial fac­tors that need to be borne in mind with re­gard to these com­ments from the North.

The first is that they come just ahead of the an­nual large-scale Ulchi Free­dom Guardian mil­i­tary ex­er­cises be­tween South Korea and the US, which be­gin at the end of Au­gust.

The se­cond is that such com­ments by the North of draw­ing up op­er­a­tional plans dur­ing times of height­ened ten­sion is not un­usual in it­self.

The com­ments are, ac­cord­ing to as­sess­ments by the US open in­tel­li­gence mon­i­tor­ing group Strat­for, clearly con­di­tional threats.

This is em­pha­sised by Py­ongyang’s as­ser­tion that the US “should im­me­di­ately stop its reck­less mil­i­tary provo­ca­tion against (North Korea) so that the lat­ter would not be forced to make an un­avoid­able mil­i­tary choice”.

Dur­ing the cur­rent round of heated lan­guage it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise the real word­ing be­ing played out away from the more lurid apoc­a­lyp­tic head­lines.

It could very well be that the North is sim­ply look­ing to bring pres­sure on the US and South Korea to halt their an­nual mil­i­tary ex­er­cises.

THE prac­ti­cal­i­ties to the Guam op­er­a­tion it boasts of launch­ing are also worth con­sid­er­ing in more re­al­is­tic de­tail too. While it talks of the Hwa­song-12 mis­siles hit­ting the wa­ters18-25 miles from Guam, the re­al­ity is that the mis­sile it­self has only ever had a sin­gle suc­cess­ful launch after a series of back-to-back tests ear­lier this year.

In other words, it’s not clear if the mis­sile is re­li­able enough for the North to make its point even if it thought it was nec­es­sary to do so.

That said, it would be very wrong to as­sume that the North is all about blus­ter or that the al­ready tense stand­off might not still de­te­ri­o­rate to the worst pos­si­ble sce­nario of all-out con­fronta­tion or nu­clear war.

Not only is North Korea the most mil­i­tarised na­tion in the world, no-one can count on its dic­ta­tor show­ing re­straint.

Should war break out in con­ven­tional terms the North, though pos­sess­ing large air and mis­sile forces, lags way be­hind the ca­pac­ity of South Korea and the US.

As Cordes­man of CSIS points out, North Korea has no stealth ca­pa­bil­ity, and most of its mis­siles have lim­ited ac­cu­racy and lethal­ity against crit­i­cal mil­i­tary and in­fra­struc­ture tar­gets if they are used with con­ven­tional war­heads.

By com­par­i­son, South Korea now has pre­ci­sion guided mis­siles of its own, and the US can also de­ploy large num­bers of cruise mis­siles and air-launched pre­ci­sion-guided sys­tems.

“North Korea has enough ground power to pose a se­ri­ous threat and the ini­tial phase of any se­ri­ous war would cost South Korea a great deal,” says Cordes­man.

“Un­less China came to its aid, [the North] could not come close to the ini­tial ad­vances it made in the Korean War.

“It would take mas­sive losses in any in­tense fight­ing, and it would lose over time,” adds Cordes­man.

“While the ten­sion con­tin­ues, be­hind the scenes, how­ever, it’s not clear that a ma­jor mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion is in­deed im­mi­nent.

Many an­a­lysts point to the fact that Trump’s sharp rhetoric is be­lied by the busi­ness-as-usual rou­tines of the US De­fence Depart­ment.

For decades the US mil­i­tary has been on stand-by for a bel­liger­ent act from North Korea, a readi­ness summed up by the motto of US Army’s Se­cond In­fantry Di­vi­sion, based in South Korea: “Ready to fight tonight.”

“There’s al­ways some de­gree of readi­ness, but in the face of these in­di­ca­tions and warn­ings that North Korea is com­mu­ni­cat­ing de­lib­er­ately, we’re going to no doubt have an even higher con­di­tion of readi­ness,” says Thomas Karako, a se­nior fel­low at CSIS in Wash­ing­ton.

So what should we be watch­ing for to help un­der­stand the di­rec­tion in which this cri­sis might be head­ing?

At a purely ground level, an­a­lysts point to some telling signs that would in­di­cate con­flict was on the hori­zon.

One of these would be the draw­down of non-es­sen­tial US per­son­nel in South Korea.

Most cer­tainly we would see on a vol­un­tary or manda­tory ba­sis the de­par­ture of fam­ily mem­bers of US mil­i­tary and diplo­matic per­son­nel.

Such a move would be a clear in­di­ca­tor of im­pend­ing con­flict par­tic­u­larly be­cause Seoul, the South Korean cap­i­tal and most pop­u­lous city, sits just 35 miles south of the bor­der sep­a­rat­ing it from the North.

Air­craft de­ploy­ments too might send out a warn­ing of war.

When Trump tweeted out a series of pho­tos of long-range B-1B bombers at An­der­sen Air Force base in Guam a few days ago his in­ten­tion was ob­vi­ous.

These bombers have long been a key tool in the US ar­se­nal for any re­newed con­flict in Korea, re­plac­ing the B-52 bombers used in ear­lier decades.

“More air­craft de­ploy­ments, par­tic­u­larly bombers to An­der­sen in Guam and per­haps Hickam in Hawaii, would be sign con­flict is com­ing,” says Rob Levin­son, a se­nior de­fence an­a­lyst.

Like­wise, naval and ship de­ploy­ments would sug­gest the same. The move­ment of ships to­wards Korea, es­pe­cially the six US Navy ves­sels ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing against bal­lis­tic mis­siles that are nor­mally based at Yoko­suka, on the east­ern side of Ja­pan, would sig­nal that po­ten­tial ac­tion to stop a mis­sile launch is more im­mi­nent. It would also likely be seen by Py­ongyang as an ur­gent threat.

In any cri­sis such as that cur­rently un­fold­ing in the Korean penin­sula, na­tions so of­ten have a hard time read­ing one an­other’s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics, so they tend to rely heav­ily on read­ing one an­other’s ac­tions for clues as to their in­ten­tions.

As Max Fisher, writ­ing in the New York Times a few days ago rightly pointed out, “cur­rent Amer­i­can ac­tion, or lack thereof, sends a mes­sage of calm and cau­tion, rather than “fire and fury”.

If US troops re­main in bar­racks in nearby Ja­pan and Guam, and war­ships keep their dis­tance, these are the sorts of sig­nals – rather than a leader’s off­hand com­ments or tweets – that mat­ter most in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

The lack of in­cen­tive to es­ca­late, and a mu­tual un­der­stand­ing that no-one stands to gain from all-out con­fronta­tion, are also key re­strain­ing fac­tors right now.

Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong-un would do well to look back on the po­lit­i­cal ex­change that oc­curred be­tween John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of 1962. They should also re­flect on the im­pli­ca­tions of pulling on both ends of that rope in which the knot of war is tied.

As Khrushchev summed it up: “A mo­ment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to un­tie it, and then it will be nec­es­sary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to ex­plain to you, be­cause you your­self un­der­stand per­fectly of what ter­ri­ble forces our coun­tries dis­pose.”

A war of words has es­ca­lated be­tween Trump and Kim Jong-un Pho­to­graph: AP

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has talked of re­duc­ing “all bases of provo­ca­tions” to “flames and ashes”

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