High Noon on the Korean Peninsula?

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At noon local time, September 3, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, an estimated 100-120 kiloton detonation – seven or eight times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – of what it claimed was a two-stage (fission-fusion) thermonuclear hydrogen warhead small enough to fit in the cone of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

North Korean state news announces hydrogen bomb test. (Image via youtube)

North Korean state news announces hydrogen bomb test. (Image via youtube)

While the North’s claims, about both the weapon and delivery system, cannot be verified, the terrifying yield from the explosion – generating an initial seismic shock registering 6.3 on the Richter Scale, and a large aftershock of 4.5 – dwarfs the scale of the isolated dictatorship’s previous tests in 2006 (1 kiloton), 2009 (2-5 kilotons), 2013 (6-7 kilotons), January 2016 (4-6 kilotons) and September 2016 (10 kilotons).

All six tests have been conducted at the Punggye-ri facility in a remote region of northeast North Korea. The condition of the site – a network of tunnels, reportedly dug by political prisoners, built into Mount Mantap (2,205 m/7,234 ft) – is causing grave concerns among scientists, with satellite imagery suggesting the latest detonation caused landslides and possibly some internal damage.

In the South China Morning Post, Wang Naiyan, one of China’s foremost nuclear weapons physicists, vividly depicted the worst case scenario if further, massive tests take place:

We call it ‘taking the roof off.’ If the mountain collapses and the hole [test tunnel] is exposed, it will let out many bad things.

 

Politically, the worst-case scenario is a preventive conventional or even nuclear attack by the US and its allies – the “total annihilation of a country,” in the words of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on September 3 – to destroy the North’s facilities and infrastructure (and regime) before it can complete its quest for a nuclear-tipped missile capable of targeting North American cities.

Kim Jong-un briefed by generals. (Image released by North Korean state news agency)

Kim Jong-un briefed by generals. (Image released by North Korean state news agency)

On September 7, US President Donald Trump, while stressing that “nothing is inevitable,” made clear that “military action would certainly be an option” and “If we do use it…it will be a very sad day for North Korea.”

Given the North’s conventional military capability (and large stockpile of chemical weapons), sufficient to cause immediate mass casualties in the South Korean capital of Seoul, the prospect cannot be ruled out that the ‘it’ will be a ‘limited’ nuclear strike to take out the regime leadership in a single blow. A nuclear attack may also be ‘needed’ to destroy hardened and deeply buried bunkers and the Punggye-ri complex.

On September 4, a live-fire missile attack on Punggye-ri was simulated by the South Korean navy; the next day, South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, described the “redeployment of [American] tactical weapons” on the peninsula as “an alternative worth a full review,” and urged the US to “regularly” send “strategic assets” (nuclear-armed ships, submarines and planes) to South Korean territory. (President George H.W. Bush withdrew US tactical nuclear weapons from the South in 1991, though Washington continued to target the North with more destructive, longer-range weapons based at the Pacific Island of Guam and elsewhere.)

 

The day after the test, addressing yet another emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis, US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned starkly that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was “begging for war” and must be stopped: “We have kicked the can down the road long enough. There is no road left.”

Dismissing the call by China and Russia for a ‘double freeze’ – a moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile tests in conjunction for a halt to provocative US-South Korea military exercises – Haley then launched a predicted, fruitless effort to persuade Beijing and Moscow to cut off all trade and aid to Pyongyang and agree to sanctions so severe they would induce a North Korean collapse (and mass starvation) or military retaliation or both.

Nikki Haley, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, delivers remarks.

Nikki Haley, Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, delivers remarks.

While a Security Council Resolution, significantly trimming Haley’s hair-raising first draft, was unanimously adopted on September 11, the text’s tensions were perhaps more significant than the range of incremental measures involved: capping oil imports, banning liquid natural gas imports, banning textile exports, restricting the number of North Koreans working abroad (and sending foreign currency home), ending a range of joint ventures, etc.

The resolution, for example, “reaffirms its support” for resumption of ‘Six Party talks’ between the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, noting that as part of that process (suspended since April 2009) the US and North Korea “undertook to respect each other’s sovereignty and exist peacefully together.” Under both Obama and Trump, however, the US position has been that Pyongyang must unilaterally suspend and reverse its nuclear and missile programs before any resumption of talks; and as the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, observed on September 11, Washington is pointedly refusing to provide any of the ‘Four Nos’ requested by China and Russia as part of their July 2017 ‘double-freeze’ peace plan: no regime change, no regime collapse, no accelerated reunification, and no American military deployment north of the 38th parallel dividing the two Koreas. As Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told the New York Times on September 11, while sanctions have “to be paired with a pragmatic strategy of engagement…those talks are not yet happening.” Both sides appear to have more plans in place for war than peace.

 

Ambassador Haley’s September 4 remarks to the Security Council contained two underreported assertions illuminating the hubris at the heart of the US position. First, she insisted that nuclear weapons as such were not the issue or the problem: what mattered more was who had them, and whether they deserved them: “Nuclear powers,” she argued, “understand their responsibilities. Kim Jong-un shows no such understanding.”

In the eyes of two-thirds of the world’s nations, however – the 122 states who recently adopted and will soon start to sign a treaty banning the Bomb  – one of those solemn ‘responsibilities,’ enshrined in the legally-binding nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is to reduce and eliminate, not modernize and venerate, their arsenals.

The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2375 (2017), condemning in the strongest terms the nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) 2 September.

The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2375 (2017), condemning in the strongest terms the nuclear test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) 2 September.

And, despite Haley’s straight-faced claim that “war is never something the United States wants,” Kim Jong-un surely has understood the lesson of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, where it toppled a regime that tried and failed to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, after all, was just part of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” along with Iraq and – North Korea.

The Kim dynasty also has six decades of evidence that the US will not contemplate any peace settlement (to replace the 1953 Armistice) involving ‘security guarantees’ that Washington will not attack except in response to aggression. Absent such guarantees, reinforced by comprehensive denuclearization and demilitarization on the peninsula and beyond, the crisis will remain essentially unresolvable, and conflict ever more likely.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, speaking in Beijing on September 5, “they will eat grass but will not stop their program as long as they do not feel safe…We all remember what happened with Iraq and Saddam Hussein…”

 

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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