Ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tion

North Korea mis­siles a quandary

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - JOE O’BRIEN Joe O’Brien of Lit­tle Rock is an in­ter­na­tional man­age­ment con­sul­tant. Email him at obis­co­inc@gmail.com.

On our In­de­pen­dence Day, North Korea launched its 88th mis­sile into the Sea of Ja­pan. This one went higher than any pre­vi­ous. It re­ceived heavy Amer­i­can at­ten­tion since it con­ceiv­ably could have reached Alaska if shot lat­er­ally in­stead of ver­ti­cally.

North Korea is a weird, iso­lated dic­ta­tor­ship. Leader Kim Jong Un ac­tu­ally crowed that it was a present to the “Amer­i­can bas­tards” on their hol­i­day.

Mean­while, Sen. Cory Gard­ner, R-Colo., la­beled Kim “a whack job.”

“A crazy fat kid,” Sen. John Mc­Cain called the 33-year-old Kim.

“Does this guy have any­thing better to do with his life?” asked a clue­less Don­ald Trump af­ter the July 4 North Korean launch.

The opin­ion of the two sen­a­tors is pitiably su­per­fi­cial. Trump’s com­ment is fright­en­ing be­cause it speaks to his con­sis­tent dis­re­gard for com­plex­ity.

It is plau­si­ble that Kim, de­spite his baby face and un­ortho­dox an­tics, is ac­tu­ally quite shrewd.

Upon tak­ing over on the death of his fa­ther in December 2011, the 27-year-old Kim was guided by his fa­ther’s top ad­viser. Para­noid about a coup, he had the ad­viser ex­e­cuted in 2013. The wife of the ad­viser—Kim’s aunt. He thus showed early on that his top pri­or­ity, as with his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, was ruth­less fam­ily regime sur­vival.

To carve his niche with the mil­i­tary, the young Kim made an ex­pan­sion of mis­sile and nu­clear tech­nolo­gies a pri­or­ity. His 88 mis­siles are more than those launched by his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther com­bined.

Let’s look at the world from Kim’s point of view.

Per capita in­come in North Korea is about $1,000 an­nu­ally. That’s 1/28 of its demo­cratic, eco­nom­i­cally suc­cess­ful neigh­bor South Korea. To shield its mis­ery from his 25 mil­lion people, In­ter­net ac­cess is not al­lowed; if caught boot­leg­ging a sig­nal, the per­son can be im­me­di­ately ex­e­cuted.

The only TV is state-run pro­pa­ganda. North Korea’s hu­man-rights record is the worst in the world. Food and medicine from China keep it afloat. To main­tain his iron­clad grip, Kim keeps the nation on con­stant alert for an im­mi­nent U.S. at­tack. That seems plau­si­ble be­cause the U.S. has 25,000 troops in South Korea. Kim’s David-ver­sus-Go­liath nar­ra­tive is re­in­forced ev­ery time the U.S. re­sponds to a North Korean mis­sile provo­ca­tion with troop and war­plane ex­er­cises in South Korea.

Kim learned inse­cu­rity from his fa­ther. Dur­ing a famine in the mid-1990s (2 mil­lion starved to death), the el­der Kim re­fused to let United Na­tions hu­man­i­tar­ian food in. He said the people might lose faith in his govern­ment. And at a re­cent UN con­fer­ence, Kim’s en­voys cited Moam­mar Gad­hafi in Libya and Sad­dam Hus­sein in Iraq as ex­am­ples of what hap­pens to an anti-U.S. regime when it is talked into giv­ing up its bal­lis­tic weapons.

So here it stands now: An iso­lated her­mit king­dom the size of Penn­syl­va­nia has stood down the mighty U.S. Ev­ery U.S. sanc­tion fol­lowed by mil­i­tary threat fol­lowed by hu­man­i­tar­ian aid has been an an im­po­tent 24-year cy­cle—be­gin­ning with Bill Clin­ton through Bush 43 and Obama.

All the while, North Korea has sneer­ingly ad­vanced its mis­sile tech­nol­ogy and nu­clear de­vel­op­ment. The new­est mem­ber of a small nu­clear fra­ter­nity, North Korea sees nu­clear as sur­vival black­mail. It has learned that if it threat­ens the U.S. with mis­siles—but never ini­ti­ates first strike—the U.S. will not pull the trig­ger.

De­spite our over­whelm­ing mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, the U.S. has been afraid to strike for two rea­sons: our staunch al­lies South Korea and Ja­pan. Seoul, South Korea, is only 35 miles from the North Korean bor­der. North Korea has 15,000 rocket launch­ers hid­den in gran­ite moun­tains aimed at Seoul. A U.S. first strike would not get all those rock­ets; Seoul and its mil­lions of res­i­dents would take a dev­as­tat­ing hit, mil­i­tary sources say.

Ja­pan is also within easy strike range. How many North Korean mis­siles would hit our 50,000 troops in Ja­pan be­fore our mis­siles de­stroyed North Korea?

Trump, new to all this, has put his North Korean eggs into the China bas­ket. It has been a pre­dictable fail­ure. That strat­egy failed to rec­og­nize that China’s self-in­ter­est is to­tally dif­fer­ent from the U.S. Above all, China wants to avoid the 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea be­ing on its 800-mile bor­der with North Korea. Ex­treme pres­sure by China on frag­ile North Korea would lead to its col­lapse and be­ing over­run from the south.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the U.S. fo­cus on North Korea ben­e­fits China in keep­ing U.S. at­ten­tion away from China’s strate­gic ex­pan­sion into the South China Sea.

Trump on Jan. 2 flatly stated that North Korea would not be al­lowed to have an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the U.S. On July 5, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son tried to walk that back by adding the word “nu­clear.”

Mil­i­tary ex­perts es­ti­mate North Korea could have a minia­tur­ized nu­clear war­head and a per­fected guid­ance sys­tem able to reach Seat­tle or San Francisco within two to three years.

So, bar­ring North Korea’s 89th mis­sile hav­ing a guid­ance-con­trol mal­func­tion that lands it on South Korea or Ja­pan (with the thou­sands of U.S. troops), the more apt ques­tion is not what comes next from the wily, not-socrazy “fat boy.” Rather, the ques­tion is: What will an un­pre­dictable, frus­trated, al­ways “gotta win” Trump do with no good op­tions fac­ing him?

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