Friday, July 7, 2017

Options for dealing with a nuclear North Korea are all bad

John Cassidy writes about Trump’s credibility problem at the G20. Not one of Trump’s options regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is particularly attractive, and all present immense challenges. Snippets follow.

Appearing on CNN on Wednesday, Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the Trump Administration has three options in regard to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions: acceptance, military intervention, or negotiation. Not one of these options is particularly attractive, and they all present immense challenges.

The first option would involve the U.S. government recognizing that North Korea had joined the club of nuclear armed states, and then relying on the threat of a massive retaliation to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, South Korea, or Japan. Given the recent advances in North Korea’s missile capability, and the fact it has stockpiled enough nuclear material for dozens of warheads, some defense experts believe that this is the most realistic course of action. Partly because of Trump’s hard-line statements, however, it doesn’t seem to be under serious consideration by the Administration—at least for now.

The second option, intervention, also seems unlikely—despite some saber-rattling by the Pentagon, which responded to the North Korean missile test by launching a live-fire exercise with the South Koreans. Kim’s nuclear capabilities are dispersed, and the North Korean military has huge artillery batteries trained on Seoul, meaning that for any U.S.-led strike to be effective, it would have to be a major. Such an attack would almost certainly lead to a full-scale war, with many casualties. “This idea that there this something small and surgical needs to be dispensed with,” Haas noted.

The NY Times reported on the horrific cost of a war on the peninsula: In North Korea, ‘Surgical Strike’ Could Spin Into ‘Worst Kind of Fighting’. If North Korea fired its artillery at the South, the number of civilian casualties would be in the hundreds of thousands. And that does not take into account additional casualaties that would happen if North Korea extended its attack to Japan, a U. S. Ally that hosts American military bases.

All things considered, analysts say, it could take American and South Korean forces three to four days to overwhelm North Korea’s artillery.

How much damage North Korea inflicts in that time depends in part on South Korea’s ability to get people to safety quickly. As more of the North’s guns are destroyed and people take cover, the casualty rate would fall with each hour.

The Nautilus Institute study projects 60,000 fatalities in the first full day of a surprise artillery attack on military targets around Seoul, the majority in the first three hours. Casualty estimates for an attack on the civilian population are much higher, with some studies projecting more than 300,000 dead in the opening days.

And then if either side determines that an all-out war looms, the possibility of nuclear exchanges grow.

What makes the situation so dangerous is how easy it would be for either side to take action that leads the other to conclude an all-out war is imminent and escalate the battle. The United States and South Korea could hit targets besides artillery, including supply lines and communication facilities, for example. The North could send tanks and troops across the border and drop special forces into the South’s ports.

Especially perilous would be any hint that the United States and South Korea were preparing a “decapitation” strike against the North Korean leadership, which could lead a desperate Mr. Kim to turn to nuclear or biochemical weapons.

And that would likely trigger a massive retaliation by the U. S.

Here’s the third option from Haas.

That leaves direct negotiations with Pyongyang, which China and Russia are pressing for. Earlier this week, when President Xi Jinping met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, they proposed a halt in military operations and testing by all parties on the peninsula, including the United States, which is installing a missile-defense shield that North Korea and China both strongly oppose. Once this freeze is in place, talks between the two sides could begin.

While a negotiated settlement that denuclearized the two Koreas would appear to be the best possible outcome, … Even getting the talks started would involve both sides making big concessions. …

Given the public declarations of both Washington and Pyongyang that is not likely. What’s left?

For now, the Trump Administration doesn’t appear to be pursuing any of these three options. Instead, it is trying to ramp up the pressure on Kim by getting the United Nations to impose more punitive economic sanctions on North Korea. But this strategy depends on securing the support of China and Russia, neither of which seems willing to go along, especially if it would be seen as buckling to U.S. demands.

Consider also this statistic from the FiveThirtyEight Significant Digits email.

80 percent
For the past five years, China has accounted for over 80 percent of North Korean imports and exports, which has helped the isolated nation’s economy remain viable. In 2001, China was responsible for only 18 percent of North Korean exports and 20 percent of imports. [The Wall Street Journal]

So China has made a commitment to North Korea to avoid the chaos on its border that would likely follow an economic collapse. But that limits what China can (or wants to) do in the say of pressuring the North.

Cassidy paints a gloomy picture.

Trump is scheduled to meet with both Xi and Putin on Friday at the G–20 summit. He will take into these meetings the baggage of his domestic problems, his ill-considered tweets, and his nihilistic statements about America’s place in the world. It is to be hoped that he is finally realizing that America can’t afford to go it alone. But with Trump hopes are seldom realized.

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