By James H. Nolt
The North Korean development of nuclear weapons seems to be an intractable problem. A military solution is widely rejected across the political spectrum from right-wing Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, to most liberals, including military experts such as John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. Yet there also seems to be no diplomatic solution, in part because the North Korean leadership appears to believe the U.S. has no viable military solution. Trump and many other world leaders reiterate that North Korea as a nuclear power is unacceptable, yet there seems to be no stopping North Korea’s attainment of full-fledged intercontinental nuclear power.
Liberals generally have great faith in diplomacy backed up by the threat of economic sanctions. Despite the more and more frequent recourse to economic sanctions around the world, the strategy has scored few decisive successes. Perhaps the most significant in recent years is the controversial Iran nuclear agreement, which was achieved largely because of sanctions instituted by a broad array of countries, including all of Iran’s major trading partners.
North Korea, on the other hand, has only one major trading partner: China. China has just announced it will support unspecified additional sanctions against North Korea. Beijing did approve and implement United Nations Security Council sanctions on roughly half of North Korean exports, including coal and seafood, significantly reducing North Korea’s ability to earn foreign exchange. However, if North Korea continues to borrow from trade partners, the country might be able to purchase vital imports, including petroleum products, which the military heavily relies on. As North Korea produces almost no crude oil, its few refineries depend on about a half million tons of crude oil from China each year and about 200,000 additional tons of refined petroleum products.
The U.S. is now pushing to extend sanctions to block North Korean petroleum imports and thereby strangle the North Korean military, which depends on oil for its aircraft, ships, submarines, and trucks that deliver supplies and move artillery and other heavy weapons. There are suggestions in the Chinese media that China might be willing to curtail oil exports to North Korea, but a total cutoff seems unlikely since it would paralyze, and perhaps destabilize, the regime of President Kim Jong Un. Besides, if China did cut deliveries, other countries, such as Russia or Iran, might step in to sustain minimal supplies to North Korea.
If the U.S. is unable to stop oil supplies from reaching North Korea, or if the shipments are stopped but the North Korean regime refuses to give up nuclear weapons development, what is the Trump administration’s next move?
There are two alternatives: 1) provocative armed actions that risk full-scale war, or 2) learning to live with North Korea as a nuclear power. Neither of these is getting much serious attention in the U.S. press. The default media hope seems to remain that sanctions and therefore diplomacy still have a chance to work.
I have previously suggested that Trump may come to believe his own political power and success would benefit from a war. Whether he chooses this course depends a lot on the advice he takes—or doesn’t take—from those around him: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. McMaster and Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tilleson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, have all made strong public statements reiterating that the U.S. has viable military options, including preventative war. Haley said last weekend after North Korea’s latest nuclear-weapon test that Kim Jong Un is “begging for war.” Administration spokespersons continually reiterate the mantra, “All options are on the table,” including military ones. Yet the media and probably the North Koreans appear to discount the possibility that the U.S. might deliberately provoke a war or initiate some sort of military action.
It seems unlikely that the crisis will defuse diplomatically, yet the extreme rhetoric on both sides and the continuing North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles suggest that it will not fade away on its own, either. The U.S. survived for decades during the Cold War under the vastly more potent threat of Soviet nuclear attack and although periodic crises did occur, nuclear deterrence was sustained. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union gained a preponderant influence over the other by virtue of having nuclear weapons. Yet many assume that if North Korea, a much smaller and poorer country than the Cold War superpowers, acquires even a very limited nuclear capability, it will suddenly become more influential and more troublesome, if not actually attack the U.S. Given the heated rhetoric now swirling around this controversy, it seems politically impossible to question this view.
Certainly Trump has staked his own political reputation on preventing North Korea from acquiring the capability to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine he will be able to turn around and say, as Bannon did during his “exit interview” as he was leaving the White House that we just have to learn to live with North Korea as a nuclear power: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon’s bizarre, thousand-fold exaggeration of the North Korean artillery threat to Seoul is contradicted by more sober professional analysis. Some speculate that part of the reason Bannon was eased out as Trump’s chief strategist is because he is “soft” on North Korea, while others point to his persistent infighting and leaking of information.
Bannon’s gross exaggeration reflects a common refrain in the media that war with North Korea is unthinkable, even beyond the threat that it might manage to use nuclear weapons, because supposedly it has thousands of artillery and rockets able to rain death and destruction down on densely populated Seoul. One example from the Huffington Post describes 15,000 of these weapons “aimed at the glass skyscrapers, traffic-choked highways and blocks of apartment buildings 35 miles away in Seoul―and the U.S. military bases beyond.” This, like so many similar reports, conflates the total North Korean artillery force with the few hundred artillery systems (including 240mm and 300mm rocket launchers and rocket-assisted projectiles of 170mm guns) capable of striking the South Korean capital. The latter are huge mobile systems that cannot fire from granite caves; they must be out in the open to be used. The overwhelming majority of Pyongyang’s artillery, meanwhile, lacks the range to reach Seoul.
Rocket artillery was used extensively by the Russians and Germans during World War II, but it was both inaccurate and conspicuous because of the highly visible smoke and flame it produced, which required frequent redeployment to new locations to avoid counterattacks. Now, radar and computer fire control systems make rocket artillery even more vulnerable to rapid suppression. The idea that these could be fired on Seoul with impunity is nonsense. Damage and civilian casualties in Seoul are likely in the event of war, but this cannot be militarily decisive. North Korea remains militarily vulnerable. U.S. military leaders know that and have said so publicly. As so often happens in media coverage of military affairs, potential enemy capabilities are exaggerated while countermeasures are ignored.
The key question is whether Trump knows this, or cares. Based on his public statements, Bannon likely warned the president that North Korean rocket artillery holds Seoul hostage. It may be that Trump’s advisers are emphasizing the potential difficulties of military action because they do not want Trump to take a leap into war. Trump may become impatient with the lack of diplomatic progress or his inability to solve this highly visible problem. Will he demand the armed forces provide him a viable option to engage the U.S. military? Will they comply? This possibility should not be ignored or dismissed.
James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.
[Photo courtesy of Stefan Krasowski]