The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) tested a nuclear weapon on Sunday, September 3rd, which was its sixth test, according to the New York Times and the first time the country’s claim to have tested a Hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb might actually be true. While some analysts doubt the truth of this last claim, or at a minimum remain unable to verify it as true, Sunday’s blast reportedly set off tremors felt around the region, indicating a higher yield than previous tests, and the possibility that the North did in-fact test an H-bomb.
If the North did test a Hydrogen bomb, or even just a device with a boosted yield that would indicate at least some thermonuclear material inside of it, that would mean it is now in possession of a weapon far more powerful than those (fission-stye) devices used by the United States to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
To make matters worse, the rogue nation also launched a ballistic missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido early last week. While worrying in and of itself — that the DPRK is launching missiles over the heads of our allies, metaphorically spitting in our faces in diplomatic terms — the more pressing concern is the possibility that the North might soon marry the two technologies, the ballistic missile and the thermonuclear warhead. While it has shown no sign that it has accomplished this goal, we should not doubt that it wants to and could be able to in the future.
To date, this author has not banged the drums of alarm over the possibility of a war between the United States and North Korea. Yes, I have stated that the spark of a possible world war lies on the Korean peninsula, but I have not judged it likely that North Korean bombs would start falling on America anytime soon. Rather, I have judged their provocations mostly as attempts to garner attention and thus diplomatic concessions of some sort from the United States and the rest of the world.
After Sunday’s test and last week’s ballistic missile firing over Japan, however, I am not quite as sanguine as I was just last weekend. No, I am not building my fallout shelter just yet, or getting my gear together so that I am ready for World War III and the coming conscription. But, things are coming to a frightening head. There has been a clear shift in the paradigm, and it has brought all of us one step closer to the possibility of real military conflict in East Asia.
After all, China now likely feels the pressing need to act to salvage its diplomatic reputation and its power over the North — even if the latter is just an illusion at this point. The U.S. government also clearly feels the need to act, as both President Donald J. Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have made recent comments referencing the use of military force against the North. Obviously, the North is acting, almost weekly now, and soon Japan and South Korea will also be pushed past their threshold for action.
In other words, all the players on the board are being forced into more and more aggressive postures. Diplomacy is more important than ever if we are to avoid a shooting war.
What are the options, though, for both the United States and its allies, as well as for China and North Korea at this point? For America, continued shows of force such as bombers flying over the area, or naval maneuvers in the region, can display offensive capabilities in not-so-veiled threats. The United States could also escalate those shows of strength by flying over North Korea itself, or some other more provocative measure. Such moves would likely be met with North Korean provocations in turn, and would likely fail to accomplish much save an increase in tensions and a collective walking up to the line of no return.
An American attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, launched from air or sea, would also likely fail to completely erase the nuclear threat and would almost assuredly lead to a wider war, as North Korea retaliated against South Korea for any attack. A small, special operations-led attack on a North Korean nuclear facility, or even a more robust air assault-style attack, would surely have the same result.
In truth, all the options beyond the diplomatic risk re-starting the Korean War, bringing devastating attacks to Japan and South Korea, and the casting of East Asia into chaos and destruction. That would probably drag the entire world down with it into the tar pits of economic depression, if not all-out world war.
In other words, what can we do here? President Trump’s trade threats against China are counter-productive, in that a trade war with China to punish them for North Korea’s behavior is a classic example of cutting off our nose to spite our face. China knows it, too. More likely, as far as China goes, is an assessment by the Chinese that Kim Jong un has finally gone too far, and must be removed before he irreparably harms Chinese national interests by dragging it into war, humanitarian crisis, and/or economic conflict.
While I do not pretend to know what the right answer is here, I will predict that in the end, it comes down to the Chinese handling the “Kim Jong un problem.” It is in their interests to do so, they have the power over the North to force a change, and events are likely pushing them in that direction. The combination of these three elements seems to indicate the likeliest outcome — a Chinese intervention to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula.
One thing is clear, though: events in Asia are moving the world toward conflict, and quickly. National leaders need to make decisions, and now. The status quo is quickly falling apart, and before we know it, we are going to stumble into catastrophe. We should all hope that diplomacy or a behind-the-scenes coup orchestrated by China (a China ex machina, if you will) staves off conflict. That would seem to be the best option we have right now.
(Featured image of American thermonuclear weapon test on Bikini Atoll in 1954, courtesy of Wikipedia.)