Is war between the US and North Korea likely?

A pre-emptive, surgical strike against Kim Jong Un is risky, but his regime will soon have a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, say Isabel Reynolds and Enda Curran.

Navy vessels moored at the US Naval Base Guam at Apra Harbor, Guam.

WITH the window closing fast for the US to stop Kim Jong Un from obtaining a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, North Korea watchers are analysing US president Donald Trump’s military options.

Trump warned on Tuesday that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury”, if it continued to make threats. After the UM agreed to its most stringent sanctions yet on Kim’s regime, North Korea repeated its stance that its nuclear weapons programme was necessary to deter a US invasion. For Trump and the US, there are no easy choices.

Can’t the US try a surgical strike?

It probably wouldn’t work. North Korea’s missiles and nuclear facilities are dispersed and hidden throughout the country’s mountainous terrain.

Failing to hit them all would leave 10m people in Seoul, 38m people in Tokyo, and tens of thousands of US military personnel in northeast Asia vulnerable to missile attacks — either by conventional or nuclear warheads.

Even if the US wiped out everything, Seoul would still be vulnerable to attacks from North Korea’s artillery.

Why might Kim go nuclear?

Kim Jong Un has accelerated North Korea’s nuclear programme, since he took power in late 2011, testing more powerful weapons and developing longer-range missiles to carry them.

On July 28, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Hwasong-14, for the second time in a month. Kim declared the launch a success and claimed that the entire US territory was now within range of his missiles.

US defence analysts believe North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear bombs and can build warheads small enough to fit atop their missiles, the Washington Post reported on August 8.

After the US accused China and Russia of being “economic enablers” of North Korea, the three countries joined together on August 5 to level the toughest United Nations sanctions yet against the regime.

The US and its allies have shown their resolve with military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea said it would consider adding more Thaad missile defence launchers, a move that drew a condemnation from China.

“Even a limited strike” by the US “would run the risk of being understood by the North Koreans to be the beginning of a much larger strike, and they might choose to use their nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Somehow, the US would need to signal to both North Korea and China — Pyongyang’s main ally and trading partner — that a surgical military strike is limited, and that they should avoid nuclear retaliation.

Is regime change an option?

New leadership wouldn’t necessarily lead to a new way of thinking among North Korea’s hierarchy.

Kim’s prolonged exposure to Western values, while at school in Switzerland, led some to speculate that he might opt to open his country to the world, until he took power and proved them wrong.

If Kim somehow were targeted for removal, the ruling clique would have to go as well, making for a long kill list. China, fearing both a refugee crisis and US troops on its border, would likely seek to prop up the existing regime.

Does that mean all-out war is the best US option?

A full-scale invasion would be necessary to quickly take out North Korea’s artillery, as well as its missile and nuclear programmes. Yet any sign of an imminent strike — such as a build-up of US firepower, mobilisation of South Korean and Japanese militaries, and the evacuation of American citizens in the region — could prompt North Korea to strike preemptively. China and Russia may also be sucked in. “Realistically, war has to be avoided,” said John Delury, an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University, in South Korea. “When you run any cost-benefit analysis, it’s insanity.”

How might North Korea retaliate?

The most immediate reaction would likely be massive artillery fire on Seoul and its surroundings.

North Korean artillery installations along the border can be activated faster than air or naval assets and faster than larger ballistic missiles, which can target South Korean, Japanese, or American bases in the region with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Those countries have ballistic-missile-defense systems, but can’t guarantee they will shoot down everything. Japan has begun offering advice to its citizens on what to do in the event a missile lands near them — essentially, try to get under ground — and US firms are marketing missile shelters.

While it’s unclear if North Korea can successfully target US cities, like Denver and Chicago, with a nuclear ICBM, it’s similarly unknown if US defence systems can strike it down, adding to American anxieties.

What would be the economic toll, if war broke out?

South Korea accounts for about 1.9% of the world’s economy and is home to Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, and other large companies. A severe drop in business activity, due to war on the peninsula, would cause widespread pain regionally and globally, and that’s without deployment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons against its neighbour.

Global financial markets would also suffer a tremendous shock in the short-term, with a flight to safe-haven assets, such as gold, the US dollar, and the Swiss franc.

“The humanitarian crisis and economic reconstruction of the Korean peninsula, after such a nuclear conflict, would require large-scale international co-operation, led by China, the US, and the European Union and it would likely take over a decade to rebuild the economy,” according to Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia-Pacific economist for IHS Markit.

What options remain on the table?

Many analysts say it’s time to start talks to prevent the situation from worsening.

Stopping North Korea from obtaining a thermonuclear weapon, or more advanced, solid-fuel missiles, is a goal worth pursuing, according to Lewis.

However unpalatable it may seem, that means offering rewards to entice North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Lewis suggested one reward could be to scale back US-led military drills around North Korea.

The question of what can be offered to the North Koreans “is a conversation that should be happening both with the public, with Congress, and with the North Koreans, instead of having this imaginary conversation about war scenarios,” said Delury.

“The realistic option is a diplomatic one that slows this thing down. And that’s going to require a lot of talks.”

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