North Korea missiles a quandary
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?