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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2341

Dealing with North Korea: has the US run out of options?

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

North Korea fired an ICBM – Inter Continental ballistic Missile – into the Sea of Japan on Friday, while calling the bluff of the Trump administration and the response came in the all too familiar pattern: initial well-hackneyed condemnation, followed by threat of more sanctions, live fire grills near the DMZ – the demilitarized zone between the North and the South – and of course, coaxing China to rein in its neighbour.

This has been the game that most of the US administrations having been playing for decades when it came to dealing with increasingly-stubborn North Korea, but no avail. Judging by the rhetoric of the Trump administration over the past six months, things haven’t changed much – same old rhetoric, but simpler and less effusive, not quite jargon-filled.

The ability of North Korea to develop ballistic missiles evolved rapidly, since its last military march to celebrate the 105the birthday of its founding father Kim Il sung in April this year; there were quite a few missiles on display that day and some Western military analysts took the threats with a pinch of salt, after observing them while on display on trucks; a handful of them, meanwhile, even mocked them, while focusing on the outer casing of the missiles.

Things have since changed dramatically: no one takes the threat lightly anymore; the missiles are real and capable of hitting the mainland of the US, when Kim Jong-un decides to do so. If he can place a nuclear bomb in miniature form, as he claimed recently, at the top of any of these missiles, it no longer is laughing matter. Nor is it something for trivialization in order to play to the gallery of the US domestic audience.

The deadliest cargo that could potentially be loaded into these missiles, known as payload, may not necessarily be a nuclear bomb; it could be a chemical bomb or even a biological one – not much less deadly.

The latest ICBM, like previous ones, was fired almost vertically in order to minimize its horizontal range for obvious reasons: it flew just over 47 minutes, while reaching an altitude of over 3720 km.

If it was fired on a more inclined trajectory, it would have covered a horizontal distance of over 6000 miles – covering almost all the major US cities; so, Kim Jong-un has finally made something to brag about.

Since its speed is about 15,000 miles an hour, it only takes less than half an hour to reach its intended target, in the event of it being fired with hostile intentions against the US. So the US military does not have much time to respond effectively, even after spotting a launch in the nick of time.

Even if they respond in time, lots of factors, both known and un-known, may be at play, which could determine the effectiveness of the response. Since an ICBM moves so fast – 20 times faster than the speed of sound – it has to be followed by something that moves at a similar speed. So, the competition is like a bullet chasing after another bullet for striking the latter.

In short, the world is still in unchartered territory when it comes to deter a nuclear strike.

In proportion to North Korea’s mastery of the missile technology, the room for manoeuvre for the US, military or otherwise, is shrinking by the day.

The dilemma faced by the US was summed up by none other than James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, a former veteran in the battle field: "I would suggest that we will win," Mr Mattis said. "It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we've seen since 1953,” he added in the same breath in a recent Senate hearing.

Mr Mattis then went on explaining the danger: "It will involve the massive shelling of an ally's capital, which is one of the most densely packed cities on earth." Mr Mattis was referring to the South Korean capital, Seoul, where over 25 million inhabitants live, targeting which North Korea has installed over 8000 artillery guns, just 40 miles away.

In theory, according to some military experts, these artillery guns can literally target every single square foot of the capital in rapid succession within minutes.

Although, the US installed two THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – in South Korea against the missile threat from its neighbour, the cost was a bone of contention for the two countries for some time. Moreover, China was dead against it citing its own security concerns and it led to a serious diplomatic rift between the neighbours.

South Korean president, meanwhile, appeared to have done a big U turns over THAAD on Saturday. He recently came to power, while opposing the move and showing his desire to start the peace talks with North Korea.

In the light of the latest provocations, it looks like that he has been forced to change his mind; he has ordered more THAAD units into the country.

Japan and South Korea are easily within the firing range, if North Korea decides to commit a suicidal act. At present, they are at the end of their collective tether, yet the fear of unknown keeps the prospect of any pre-emptive action at bay, even if their main ally, the US, desperately wants to take a risk.

Much to the frustration of Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, traditional Western allies remain passive over the issue, perhaps due to the uncertainty about the US policy moves that revolve around ‘America First’ mantra.

In 2002, in his State of the Union address, George Bush, the then US president, referred to an axis of evil, accusing Iran, Iraq and North Korea of harbouring ambitions for producing the weapons of mass destruction.

Since both Iran and North Korea are embarking on sophisticated missile programmes, the axis of evil that Mr Bush used to refer while in power, is slowly becoming an axle of evil that could potentially spin uncontrollably, causing US policy making dizziness, unless a pragmatic approach is adopted on the issue – and as a matter of urgency.

- Asian Tribune -

Dealing with North Korea: has the US run out of options?
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