On November 28th, amidst a relative calm, North Korea tested its intercontinental ballistic missile. It was a matter of time, before North Korea managed to develop a system which is capable to reach mainland US. Regardless of whatever Washington might say, North Korea did what it intended to do. They have now successfully demonstrated that their weapons system is capable, and has achieved what we call the minimum credible deterrence, vis a vis an adversary.
There has been a misconception about what North Korea wanted to do. What, for all practical purposes, is the aim of North Korea. The reality has always been, that North Korea wants to survive. The Westphalian state system which ran from the 19th century to 1991, was upended with unipolarity. North Korea internalized the lessons of Saddam, Kosovo, and most importantly Gaddafi. The toppling of these regimes, and the resultant chaos, and the inability of these states to deter any foreign invasion, often at the cost of destruction and personal deaths of the leaders are a stark reminder that there’s no such thing as international order, but simply great power whims. And the recent experience of unipolarity was not uniform.
North Korea’s missile flew around 1000 KM, but went to an altitude of 4500 KM, and stayed up for over 50 mins. The missile trajectory, straight up to the sky instead of angled path shows that it is capable of withstanding enormous atmospheric pressure on reentry. In a normal ballistic missile trajectory, it would cover the continental United States.
The reality has not dawned in Washington, perhaps. Beijing and Moscow understand the fait accompli, but DC is still on with the basest of talking points. That North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear power (it is), or the fact that North Korean nuclear weapons provide a ready deterrence (it does). The latest salvo comes from Nikki Haley in the United Nations. While she started with long-standing US position of no war with North Korea, she also mentioned that the “North Korean regime would be utterly destroyed” if there were a war between it and the US.
This is not going to happen.
One needs to understand that there’s consensus among North Korean analysts not just in the US, but in UK, EU, Russia and even in China that North Korea is not irrational to seek war with the United States. There is no question about the severe incompatibility of the forces between two countries. There is also consensus among scholars that North Korea has created new fait accompli in the region. Strategically this new missile is not a game changer, as North Korea had a crude bomb to threaten US allies in the region since 2006. Even without the bomb, North Korean artillery is capable of flattening Seoul in a matter of days. While the war would certainly end in the defeat of North Korea, and millions of refugees flooding to China, and complete chaos and even nuclear fallout, the risk is not something any US president would take. That is precisely why North Korean situation is different than Libya or Iraq. The backlash is real and tangible.
However, that reflection is not observable in any policy suggestions from the US side. The threats of unilateral preemptive war, the three carrier groups in the Pacific, the deployment of THAAD, and the incompetent suggestions of raining fire and fury has only resulted in the solidification of the siege mentality, which has resulted in this brinkmanship on the first place.
What would be a scenario of a war? What assets will be used? Recently we have seen an unprecedented 3 Carrier battle groups surrounding North Korea. USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and USS Theodore Roosevelt, combined has over 300 planes, over 30 flattops of different categories, and undeclared under surface assets, both nuclear and non-nuclear, enough firepower to overwhelm any country other than a Great power. There hasn’t been such show of Naval force since the Cold war. The exercise in the Sea of Japan also included B1 and B2 bombers. It also included Japanese Heli-carriers, which can be counted to be operational in any eventuality of an invasion. United States is also developing CHAMP, which is Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, which is aimed at North Korea to fry the electronic communication circuits. According to National Interest, “The idea would be to launch a cruise missile such as an AGM-86C—which is carried by the Boeing B-52—that is armed with a CHAMP warhead to disable Pyongyang’s nuclear forces.” Finally, US has now deployable F-35s in Japan, which is arguably the most advanced craft in the entire theatre.
However, any eventuality of an actual war in the Korea peninsula, will result in around 20,000 deaths, daily, comparable to Second World war. These are the estimates from American Department of Defence, in a war simulation. Overall, US and allies will be able to subdue Korean forces, and control Korean skies within a week or so of constant 24-hour bombing, but by that time North’s artillery and Submarines would have killed over a million South Koreans, Japanese and American soldiers combined. That is, if the war doesn’t escalate to a nuclear one. If it does, even if one rudimentary North Korean bomb crosses on to reach mainland US, the loss of lives from that would cross millions, for example, is one nuclear weapon is exploded over Los Angeles, then immediately a hundred thousand would perish, given North’s nuclear size. Total, over the years the casualty would range to 1.2 million. It is impossible to think that any leader would risk this.
The only way out, is to talk to North Korea. One side needs to give in, and since North Korea is the smaller paranoid party here, the perceived threat is more real for them. Naturally, the unilateral step down must come from the big guns, like China or US. There needs to be a symbolic call of détente, some one-sided incentive, which will result in the Kim regime to feel that his fate isn’t similar to Gaddafi. The goal of both China and US is denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It is tough, but not absurd. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons, as did South Africa. But it is very near improbable the way things are now. More prudent way is to come to a table to negotiate.