North Korea and the Bankruptcy of Brinksmanship

Editor’s Note: In light of fast-moving developments, notably North Korea’s apparent hydrogen-bomb test on September 3, an update to this analysis will be provided shortly.


On Nagasaki Day 2017, hours after the city’s mayor, Tomihasa Taue, stated that “a strong sense of anxiety is spreading across the globe that in the not too distant future these weapons could actually be used again,” US Secretary of Defense James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis warned North Korea to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” America and its allies, said the retired army general, “possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo walk up the stairs into the Pentagon, Aug. 30, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo walk up the stairs into the Pentagon, Aug. 30, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

This suggests the US is prepared to use its nuclear arsenal not simply as a last-resort measure to prevent an imminent North Korean nuclear attack – an act of self-defense, however drastic, potentially in accord with the UN Charter – but for a preventive attack to destroy a regime and nation before it develops devastating ‘defensive and offensive capabilities’ of its own – a premeditated, avoidable attack clearly incompatible with international humanitarian law or the legal and moral underpinnings of the post-1945 global order.

Conventional wars, such as those waged by America in Vietnam and Iraq or by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, have previously sapped and rocked that order; a nuclear first-strike would destroy it.


Though Mattis is often described as one of the main ‘voices of reason’ tempering the wild, lurching rhetoric of President Donald Trump, his statement was at least as incendiary as the Commander-in-Chief’s threat on August 8 to rain down on North Korea “fire and fury like the world had never seen,” a sinister echo of President Harry S. Truman’s statement following the bombing of Hiroshima that if Japan does “not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

Whatever the exact nature of the “military solutions” said by the President to be “locked and loaded,” influential support is now arrayed behind the ‘preventive’ war option.

On August 14, John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s anti-UN UN Ambassador and a foreign policy adviser to candidate Trump, stated “I don’t think there are any further diplomatic options in terms of trying to persuade North Korea to change its behavior.”

And speaking on NBC’s Today show on August 1, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham – an arch-hawk whose recent cerebral contribution to world peace was to recommend “kicking Russia in the ass” – urged Trump to “choose between homeland security and regional security,” because “if there’s going to be a war to stop” Kim Jong-un, it should “be over there. However many die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” And,” he added, the President has “told me that to my face.” Which is only right, from Graham’s perspective, because “when you’re President of the United States, where does your allegiance lie?”

So much for reassuring America’s allies, one of the purported benefits of Washington’s massive conventional and nuclear presence in Asia!


However violently repugnant the Pyongyang regime is, and however reprehensible and destabilizing its development of nuclear warheads and missiles may be, does the strategic reality on the Korean peninsula really justify such an extreme threat?

The direst US intelligence assessment, greeted with much expert skepticism, is that North Korea may already possess up to 60 warheads, some of which may be small enough to form the ‘payload’ of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) perhaps capable of striking the American mainland.

Kim Jong Un inspects what is claimed to be a nuclear device in a photo released by state media on Sunday.

Kim Jong Un inspects what is claimed to be a nuclear device in a photo released by state media on Sunday.

The North’s recent ICBM tests, however, suggest it does not yet have a missile able to aim or deliver such a blow, or even re-enter the atmosphere without burning up. For a few more years, at least, the window remains open for a diplomatic initiative and political solution preventing the catastrophe of ‘preventive’ war. While peace can only be made between enemies, what should ostensibly peace-loving countries like Canada be doing to defuse the crisis?

Well, what Canada chose to do was participate (August 21-31) in large-scale computer-simulation war games and military exercises in South Korea dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, an annual show of strength event this year breaking ominous new ground: assessing options and scenarios for surviving and winning a nuclear exchange with the North.

An unspecified number of Canadian troops took part in the operation, alongside fellow guest-soldiers from Australia, Britain, Colombia, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand, all of whose governments, presumably, are signaling their willingness to participate in any actual conflict.

Although the exercises are routinely described as ‘purely defensive,’ it is clear, as retired South Korean brigadier Moon Seong-mook told Reuters on August 19, that offense is regarded as the best means of defence: “The drills deal with all the steps involved in a war, leading of course towards victory.”

As the virtual August Armageddon unfolded, Reuters wrote, Allied troops” will “hunch over laptops and screens wearing earphones and camouflaged combat uniforms,” processing “imagery from military satellites…used to peer deep into North Korea.”


Predictably, Pyongyang reacted to these provocations provocatively, launching three short-range missiles into its own waters (August 26) and a new medium-range missile, the Hwasong-12, over Japan (August 29), an unprecedented move described by North Korea as a “first step” in a new phase of war preparations.

And on September 3, the Kim regime crossed a blood-red line by conducting a massive underground nuclear test, apparently of a hydrogen bomb more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs but small enough to be loaded on an ICBM. Although The North has conducted five previous tests since 2006, this was by far the most powerful – generating a 6.3 magnitude earthquake – and ominous. 

How much longer can such choreographed hostility on both sides continue without triggering, by design or misstep, an actual dance of death? Not much longer, according to President Trump, who tweeted on August 30 that “talking is not the answer” and on September 3 that the North Koreans “only understand one thing!” And though Secretary Mattis the next day insisted the US was “never out of diplomatic solutions,” by ‘diplomacy’ the Pentagon (now in near-total control of foreign policy) seems to mean political isolation, economic coercion and threats of destruction designed to force the North into humiliating unilateral disarmament.

Prior to the August war games, North Korea announced detailed plans to fire unarmed Hwasong-12s close to the US Pacific territory of Guam, from where nuclear-armed, B-2 ‘stealth’ bombers would launch any ‘preventive’ American attack; and from where, in recent months, B-1 ‘Lancer’ bombers have flown reconnaissance missions over North Korea.

The nuclear bomber fleet is the jewel in the crown of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, a ‘tip of the spear’ unit designed, according to its mission statement, to “provide the President of the United States sovereign options to decisively employ airpower across the entire spectrum of engagement,” ever-ready to “fight tonight.”


Guam is one of the least authentic bastions of freedom and democracy on earth. An American military colony since the 1898 Spanish-America War, the Island is known to its remaining indigenous (Chamorro) inhabitants as Guahan.

“For decades,” as Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman noted in an August 11 interview with LisaLinda Natividad of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Chamorro “have resisted the militarization and colonization of their homeland by the United States, which has now put them in the crosshairs of a possible nuclear war between the US and North Korea.”

Washington and Pyongyang have remained in a state of suspended conflict, and trigger-ready animosity, since the Korean War Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, designed to hold only “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers join up with a Japanese air force F-15 fighter jet during a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kamaile Casillas

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers join up with a Japanese air force F-15 fighter jet during a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kamaile Casillas

The Armistice rightly refers to the “great toil of suffering and bloodshed on both sides,” though as Columbia University historian Charles K. Armstrong wrote in The Asia-Pacific Review, “the North suffered the greater damage, due to American saturation bombing,” including the dropping of 32,557 tons of napalm, “and the scorched earth policy of the retreating UN forces.”

Paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice calls on both sides to “cease the introduction into Korea” of new combat weapons. In January 1958, the US began deploying battlefield nuclear weapons in South Korean territory; nearly a thousand such weapons were deployed by the mid-1960s. In 1991, these ‘tactical nukes’ were withdrawn,although, thanks to such formidable assets as the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ at Guam, the threat of American nuclear attack remained.


At no point in the post-Armistice era have the two sides drawn close to agreeing a comprehensive peace settlement. To be comprehensive, such a settlement would have to include meaningful security guarantees to the North that its territorial integrity would be respected; as well, naturally, as guarantees to the South that it would not face invasion.

And to make such guarantees meaningful, not only would the whole peninsular need to be completely denuclearized and radically demilitarized, but longer-range American forces (conventional and nuclear) would need to be explicitly ‘stood down’ and dramatically scaled back.

If such a disarmament dynamic could be created, it would allow the North to divert resources from its obscenely bloated military to economic and social development, engendering a change of internal climate perhaps sowing the seeds of manageable transition…or perhaps not. But it is surely more naïve to expect peace without a peace settlement, or a peace settlement without security guarantees, or for China to somehow come to America’s rescue and ‘pull the plug’ on Pyongyang with likely calamitous results.

For Bolton, Graham, Mattis and Trump, the conclusion seems to be that ‘jaw-jaw’ hasn’t worked: all they are saying is ‘give war a chance,’ though they’ll settle for North Korean collapse or capitulation. For diplomacy to be effective, however, America and her allies need finally to accept the wisdom and explore the radical implications of the lesson drawn by the American pacifist A.J. Muste from the carnage of the two world wars:

“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.





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