“The only practical solution we have got is to make a first strike.”

Mitchell Blatt and Daniel Kim chat about North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and how this changes things.

Daniel Kim has served as an artillery man and an interpreter in the Republic of Korea Army and is currently enrolled at Eastern Washington University where he is majoring in interdisciplinary studies. He will be joining B+D on a regular basis to discuss Korea issues. Mitchell Blatt is a founder and editor of Bombs + Dollars and is pursuing a degree in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University.

Mitchell Blatt: So let’s start with the biggest news of the year: North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. This time it was a hydrogen bomb over 100 kilotons. That’s over 10 times as large as the last bomb it tested. Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write in War on the Rocks that North Korea is now a nuclear power. Are they right?

Daniel Kim: Apparently yes. However, no country is gonna accept them as an official nuclear power.

MB: Have they proven they have an ICBM capable of hitting the mainland United States? Do they have the reentry vehicle?
DK: It is still questionable, though, I’m sure they can hit US soil. They have successfully completed hydrogen bomb. I don’t think that they won’t be able to develop a capable ICBM, if they haven’t already. (Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon says they might launch one at full range on Saturday.)

This reckless action wont help North Korea at all. Although almost every major American media outlet, even the Wall Street Journal, a conservative newspaper, is bugging Trump a lot, there is one thing they don’t really argue with him on. It is North Korea.

Trump may end up being the worst president in history, but I guarantee that he won’t let America get hit by external forces.

MB: Everyone agrees that North Korea is a problem and that they are acting provocatively. No disagreement there. But some have questioned Trump’s response, his bellicose tweeting, and question whether he has a clear strategy.

MB: Now, you said this “won’t help North Korea,” but some Realists argue that North Korea “learned the lesson of Gaddafi and Saddam”–that without WMDs, they will likely be overthrown. Could nukes help Kim persuade the U.S. or Korea against regime change?

DK: Not at all. To be honest, the only practical solution we have got is to make a first strike.

Kim can persuade President Moon [against regime change] but he can’t do anything about Trump. Moon is now being tested and doubted for him sympathizing with North Korea. Even plenty of people who voted for him now turned against him. I mentioned that his biggest weakness is national security. (Moon’s approval rating dropped below 70 percent for the first time the first week of September.)

Moon Jae-in approval rating in blue. Disapproval in red. Image from Realmeter polling.

MB: I don’t think there was any serious thought about regime change happening in the next 4 years when either Trump or Moon got elected, but unification has always been a long term Korean goal (and a moral one). Nuclear weapons might protect Kim 10, 15, 20, or 30 years down the road?
DK: Actually there was. The last president, Park Geun-hye, was considering assassinating Kim Jong-un. And in 2010 when North Korea shelled the island of Yeonpyeong and killed two civilians, then-president Lee Myung-bak wanted to pay them back by marching to the north. But Obama stopped it. (Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his memoir that Lee was planning airstrikes, which viewed by the American administration as “disproportionately aggressive.”)

Obama was the worst when it comes to dealing with North Korea. His “strategical patience” gave them more time and resources to complete the plan to jeopardize the United States. And the concern about “Korea passing” is now entirely true. Trump hasn’t really discussed the matter with Moon at all. He’s talked with Japanese Prime Minister Abe instead.

MB: But there’s a reason no Korean president has ever actually tried to unify Korea: the calculation was that it would be too risky, not worth the loss of life that would clearly happen. The U.S. may have also opposed it a few times, but the only reason South Korea needs to take America’s opinion into account is that it wouldn’t be as strong to take on North Korea, and potentially China, by itself.
DK: If we conquer the North, then we can talk about Bannon’s big deal theory with China. The reason why China has helped North Korea is too damn simple: Mao Zedong said that once the lips are gone, the teeth will get cold.

MB: That is to say they don’t want an American ally on their border. North Korea is the lips protecting their teeth.

Nor would they want a unified Korea with 80 million people in a few decades.

DK: But if North Korea gets dominated by South Korea, then U.S. forces in Korea may leave. Or no US forces are allowed to be deployed at the Chinese border.

MB: You have mentioned Moon’s weakness on national security–his liberal positions–and I have sympathy for your point of view. If I’m being honest I thought Ahn would have made the best choice in the past election for just that reason. But we also have to try to be objective aside from our personal views. It is reported in the Korea Times that, “Moon [is] turning hawkish toward North Korea.” He did push for being allowed to have heavier missile defense missiles, that could strike harder, and Trump agreed with him, didn’t he? He changed his position on THAAD, too. Isn’t any Korean president facing such provocations by North Korea going to start to act tougher given the circumstances?
DK: The weight of missile defense payloads is actually a controversial issue. After the American press revealed that Trump has allowed for deregulating missile developments of Korea and increasing missile sales, the Blue House disputed that deal was made about missile sales.

Moon is a worse populist than Trump. His only concern about Park was to use the issue to get him the throne.

MB: So what do you make of Moon saying it wasn’t made? Is he just trying to hide it from the people, because he fears it will make him less popular with his liberal base? Or do you buy his public claims that it didn’t happen?
DK: It is a possible scenario. Anyway, the man was elected by leftists. It is certain that Trump don’t get along with Moon. The New York Times quoted an analyst described Moon as Roh Moo-hyun 2.0 [Roh, whose administration Moon served, was known for being an America-skeptical leftist].

MB: Yes, Trump and Moon might not like each other. W. Bush and Roh weren’t best friends. But they maintained the Korean-American allie-ship through thick and thin. That is the important thing. No matter what they think of each other as people, we, as two countries, have a deep history and shared interests. Leaders can put their personalities and their ideologies aside to defend their countries.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis meets his Korean counterpart Song Young-moo at the Pentagon on August 30.

MB: Final question—one I was thinking about deeply: You are advocating a first strike. You have served in the military, and you are also a resident of Seoul and resident of Korea. We know North Korea has its artillery aimed at Seoul, and any first strike would almost certainly lead to war, and any war would result in deaths, probably a very large number of deaths. My question is, What sacrifice on a national scale do you think is worth stopping North Korea’s nuclear program? And what sacrifice is worth unifying Korea?

Moreover, is it the same question: Is it possible there is a war that only hits the nuclear program and doesn’t go all the way to the end, unification?
DK: Our firepower and military power will absolutely overpower North Korea’s. Most of their weapons are 70’s relics and therefore they would not be working well. The reason why North Korea is obsessed with getting nukes is that they do know that they can never win a war with the U.S. and Korea.

The estimated casualties if they nuke Seoul vastly overwhelm the casualties that might happen due to their artillery attacks. If the first strike on their nuclear sites and armed garrisons gets done successfully, their applicable firepower will be enormously weakened. World War II left the largest death toll in the history of men. Then all the countries should have surrendered to the Axis powers in order to maintain an unjust peace?

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