We’re used to blood curdling propaganda from Pyongyang, but an American president using the same kind of language – ‘fire and fury’ – is a new departure. The threat of nuclear war in East Asia is suddenly alarmingly close.
But before this hysterical rhetoric reaches a climax, Western leaders must consider what history and strategic analysis teaches us about how to avoid calamity – or how best to contain it.
The devastating nature of the first Korean War in 1950-53 is a warning of the huge costs of a second, which could also drag in countries as close as Japan, as remote as Britain or as reluctant as China.
The options Washington is considering, range from the tried-and-trusted – to the once unthinkable.
Option 1: A Limited Strike
In 1994, President Clinton considered using strategic bombers to attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities before an atomic weapon could be produced.
Then, as now, the US had a range of airbases in South Korea, Japan and Guam from which to strike, with B1 bombers and cruise missiles plus its fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers, each with more attack planes than the entire RAF.
Clinton decided against military action because of fears North Korea’s huge ground force would wreak havoc across the South Korean border. A major war would be needed to defeat it.
Today, North Korea is far better prepared to survive even a severe air attack by the US. Its nuclear forces are not sitting ducks. It has repeatedly deployed mobile launchers so it can move and hide missiles.
The newer North Korean solid-fuelled missiles can also be launched much more quickly than the older liquid-fuelled rockets. These developments make neutralising Kim’s atomic warheads by a massive airstrike far from fool-proof.
2: Full-Scale Invasion
The US military routed the North Koreans in the first Korean War, but the US had many more troops and landing craft at its disposal. The US navy facilitated the D-Day style landing on the coast behind the North Korean Army, trapping it in the South.
North Korea has no navy to speak of to protect its coastline, and it’s tempting to imagine US Marines pouring ashore and marching to Pyongyang, just as they did in October 1950. But this time the North Korean army – ill-equipped but vast in size – would be waiting. To win quickly and decisively the US would require the bulk of its military man power to be deployed to Korea.
But Washington has other problems, from Afghanistan to Syria. War in Korea would tie down the army and marines – unless South Korea’s 650,000 troops also took part. However, South Korea is reluctant to engage in a pre-emptive war that would threaten Seoul and other cities with destruction from the North.
Then there is China. It is vehemently hostile to the US THAAD missile defence system that has recently been deployed in South Korea. Beijing’s fear is the real target of any US military action in the region is ultimately China. To act without being sure of Chinese neutrality runs the risk of a wider and far more perilous conflict – World War III in all probability.
Even if China was ready to accept the fall of Kim’s regime, a conventional invasion would not be quick enough to prevent Kim launching some kind of nuclear strike, as well as firing off his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.
The North has as many as 60 nuclear bombs, according to US intelligence. If only a couple were successfully launched at South Korea, the scale of the casualties would be horrendous.
3: A Decapitation Strike
A successful set of airstrikes on North Korea’s nuclear stockpile will not halt Kim’s ambitions. As long as the regime survives, it will be attempt to rebuild. So knocking out the North Korean leadership in a so-called decapitation strike is being widely touted in Washington.
Smart bombs could surely locate and kill Kim and his key commanders before they could organise a deadly counter-attack?
Unfortunately, a successful strike wouldn’t stop a barrage of a rockets being fired in instant retaliation.
In any case, assassinating foreign leaders is easier said than done. It would be a very lucky strike that took out Kim and his fellow leaders. If it failed, Kim’s revenge would be indiscriminate attacks aimed at South Korea, Japan and any US bases within range.
In practice, a decapitation strike would mean all-out war. And even if that was successful, a US-South Korean occupation of North Korea could face guerrilla resistance using Kim’s poison gas and bacteriological weapons.
Nor would China – faced with the prospect of millions of refugees – be pleased by a speedy collapse of Kim’s regime.
4: A US nuclear strike
Hotheads in Washington talk about using America’s massive nuclear superiority to ‘eliminate’ North Korea as a threat once and for all.
But such an attack would kill millions of Kim’s long-suffering subjects, making a mushroom-cloud sized mockery of America’s moral case against the regime. The fall-out from a US first-strike would shatter alliances and trigger massively increased defence spending by China and Russia.
5: Pressure on China
Trump has both wooed and warned Chinese leaders to use their influence to rein in Kim. It has even been suggested that China’s contacts could be used to promote regime-change from within. But their reach might be limited. North Koreans are wary of being seen to be close to the Chinese. They remember what happened in 2013, soon after Kim came to power, when his uncle Jang was deemed to be in thrall to Beijing. He was allegedly fed to dogs.
China remains the conduit for much of Kim’s most threatening technology. US intelligence fears that even if the Chinese government could be persuaded to stop providing assistance, North Korea will be able to bribe Chinese manufacturers to share their military secrets.
Whatever role it plays in limiting North Korea’s belligerence, China will want a guarantee of North Korea’s survival as a state in return. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has suggested he could live with that. Now he has to persuade Trump.
6: International action
The UN Security Council has backed sanctions since Pyongyang started its nuclear tests a decade ago, and last week reinforced that strategy. This means Beijing and Moscow agree in principle with what the US and its allies want.
China and Russia are North Korea’s lifeline to the outside world. They could strangle the regime if they acted together to cut trade and transport links. But then Beijing and Moscow might become targets of Kim’s missiles, too. Even if prepared for that risk, presidents Xi and Putin would demand a high price in exchange for their help.
Mark Almond is the director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford