Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, recently gave one of the more ominous comments I’ve heard about North Korea. Asked by the BBC whether the administration was committed to a peaceful resolution of the situation, McMaster replied:
We’re not committed to a peaceful [resolution] – we’re committed to a resolution. We want the resolution to be peaceful, but as the president has said, all options are on the table and we have to be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearisation of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime.
McMaster has said, then, that unless the North Koreans give up their nuclear weapons, “denuclearization” will be “compel[led].” There is very little likelihood that North Korea will voluntarily give up their weapons. “Compulsion,” then, seems a genuine possibility.
Every scenario that involves direct military action against North Korea has catastrophic outcomes. The New Yorker spoke to retired Major General James Marks, who commented that in any conflict: “The devastation to the peninsula would be disastrous, just disastrous… There would be horrendous loss of life. There are twenty-five million people in South Korea within artillery range of North Korea.” In 2015, the U.S. Congressional estimate was that North Korea had 10-16 nuclear weapons. Now, some experts put the number as high as 60. Each of these can obliterate a city in an instant. But nuclear weapons are only part of the problem. Strategic intelligence analysts at Stratfor have concluded that North Korea’s “most powerful tool is artillery”; the DPRK has a vast buildup of heavy conventional weaponry positioned along the border, including “an estimated 12,000 pieces of tube artillery and another 2,300 multiple launch rocket systems.” Even worse, North Korea may possess significant quantities of biological and chemical weapons. There is evidence that the country has a biological weapons development program, though the status of that program is largely unknown. There are firmer estimates about chemical weapons: the Center for Nonproliferation Studies has suggested that North Korea possesses “between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons,” including a large supply of VX, “the deadliest nerve agent ever created.”
Given these facts, combined with the very serious risk that any U.S. military action would trigger immediate escalation toward all-out nuclear war, a peaceful resolution to the crisis is imperative. Even Steve Bannon understood this. He explicitly ruled out the idea of a military solution, realizing that the cost in human life would make any such move an act of pure murderous insanity:
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 ten 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.
It’s alarming, then, that McMaster has said he isn’t committed to a peaceful resolution, but “a resolution.”
Worse, there’s evidence that this isn’t just rhetoric. Yesterday, The Telegraph issued an exclusive report that the United States, believing diplomatic options may have been exhausted, is actively preparing to attack North Korea:
America is drawing up plans for a “bloody nose” military attack on North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons programme, The Telegraph understands. The White House has “dramatically” stepped up preparation for a military solution in recent months amid fears diplomacy is not working, well-placed sources said. Three sources – two former US officials familiar with current thinking and a third figure in the administration – confirmed military options were being worked up. The Pentagon is trying to find options that would allow them to punch the North Koreans in the nose…
If The Telegraph‘s reporting is correct, this is the most important news story of the moment. Compared to the possibility of war with North Korea, everything else looks insignificant. This has potentially more serious consequences for human lives than anything else going on right now.
I am phrasing that with deliberate caution, though. The Telegraph‘s story relies on anonymous sources, two who do not actually work in the administration and one who does. It’s always difficult to figure out who has reliable access to the truth. Furthermore, because international relations is frequently an elaborate and potentially genocidal game of “chicken,” disinformation is common. H.R. McMaster may privately have reached the same conclusion as Steve Bannon, but believe that the U.S. needs to appear serious. I don’t know. None of us knows what is actually going on, because it’s a secret known only to people at the very top of the United States government.
I can think of half a dozen good reasons why we should believe the U.S. might take sudden military action against North Korea, though. The first and most obvious is the personality of Donald Trump. Kim Jong Un has adopted the strategy of deliberately taunting Trump by increasing his nuclear tests, and Trump is not a man who likes to be humiliated. But there are also some concerning new factual developments. For one thing, “though December is normally rather quiet for military drills, the US this month brought in a record number of stealth aircraft to train up on an air war against North Korea.” Ten days ago it was reported that China has begun to plan new refugee camps along the North Korean border, suggesting it sees war as a real possibility. China has also apparently distributed printed advice for how to survive a nuclear attack to residents along the border. Business Insider says that “the US and China are preparing for all hell to break loose in North Korea.”
It’s tough to know how to think about the risk of war here. We have been in a state of tension for so long that, however risky the situation may look on paper, it is hard to actually imagine there being a Second Korean War (or rather, a continuation of the first Korean War, since it never actually ended). The nuclear threat is strange, because all of us simultaneously know it’s real and find it impossible to actually imagine. We pretend it isn’t there despite knowing full well that it is.
What I can’t understand, though, is why American news outlets aren’t spending more time on North Korea. As the British Telegraph was reporting that the United States is literally making plans for an attack, the New York Times was spending its time on such pressing matters as an Atlantic writer going on a social media break and the question of whether Jesus was born under a palm tree. On the entire Times homepage this morning I found just one reference to North Korea, a tiny headline near the bottom of the page about a low-ranking DPRK soldier defecting across the border.
Of course, I don’t like it when journalists scaremonger either. If CNN were doing nothing but hosting panels of experts speculating on when the U.S. was going to strike North Korea, goading Trump into action, that… wouldn’t be good either. The last thing we want is the kind of media-fueled “war fever” that overtook the country in 2003.
But I do wish someone would tell me what was going on. Because if this goes wrong, it will make everything else look trivial.
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