North Korea has ‘entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile(ICBM)’. So crowed North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s Day message aimed at tough-talking US president-elect, Donald Trump.
In case there was any doubt about Pyongyang’s meaning, Kim warned his nation would continue to build its ‘capability for preemptive strike’ as long as the US and its allies continued their nuclear threats and ‘war games they stage on our doorstep.’
North Korea is a small, backwards, dirt poor nation of 25 million that has been under a fierce US-imposed sanctions regime for over half a century. Call it a North Asian Cuba. Without modest economic and military help from China, North Korea would likely have collapsed long ago. It remains under constant siege by the US and allies.
It’s easy to dismiss pip-squeak North Korea and sneer at its pretensions to major power status. That would be a mistake. In 1950, at the time of the Korean War, North Korea’s economy was larger than that of South Korea thanks to Japan’s colonial industrial policies. Korea’s Communists, like their allies in China, took the lead in fighting Japanese occupation. America suffered heavy casualties fighting North Korean forces.
To many Koreans, particularly young ones, North Korea is the authentic Korea while South Korea remains a well-off but politically powerless American semi-protectorate. The humiliating collapse and impeachment of South Korea’s first female president, scandal-ridden Park Geun-hye, only reinforces the South’s image as a rudderless ship in stormy seas.
A consensus of military experts now accepts that North Korea has at least ten nuclear devices, and maybe possesses up to 30. Some have been miniaturized so they can fit atop the North’s medium-ranged missiles, thus threatening South Korea, much of Japan, Okinawa and perhaps the major US Pacific base at Guam.
North Korea is steadily developing the means of putting another stage atop its proven medium-range missiles that can allow the enhanced missile to strike parts of North America. But having a few nuclear-armed ICBM’s – as India does already – does not mean that the US faces Armageddon, as too many ill-informed politicians claim.
As leader Kim stated on new year, his nation’s ICBM program has two objectives: counter US threats to use its tactical nuclear weapons based in South Korea, Guam, Okinawa and at sea on the 7th Fleet against North Korea in the event of a war. Or, as Pyongyang greatly fears, a surprise decapitating first nuclear strike to wipe out North Korea’s leadership and command/control targets. Russia, by the way, shares similar fears of a surprise US strike.
Second, Kim calls on the US and South Korea to stop their huge annual military exercises practicing for a land and amphibious invasion of North Korea. Each fall these very provocative war games send North Korea into a frenzy of bloodthirsty threats and sabre rattling. Meanwhile, South Korea’s intelligence agencies pump out all sorts of gruesome stories about the Kim regime, many of them totally fake, that are eagerly amplified by South Korean and American media.
One of these days, the war games and barrages of threats could lead to a real shooting war. But, unlike US Congressmen and the media, who constantly fabricate scare stories about foreign dangers, many South Koreans remain blasé about North Korea and far more concerned about their own imploding government than Kim’s bombast. As in the US, fundamentalist Christian sects in South Korea play a key role in fostering alarms about North Korea.
North Korea is rattling its cage in hopes of easing or ending the US-led embargo and military threats against Pyongyang. What it really craves is long-denied recognition by Washington and an end to US regime-change efforts. Pyongyang has long asked the US for a peace pact to end the Korean War. South Korea keeps pressing the US to keep North Korea isolated – but not too isolated lest the eccentric communist regime collapse, sending millions of starving refugees south.
Instead of building more elaborate anti-missile systems, why not have Donald Trump invite Kim Jong-un to a nice lunch in Beijing and work out a deal that will end the state of war between North Korea and the US in exchange for Kim ending his nuclear programs. The US recognizes all kinds of unsavory regimes around the globe. Why keep pounding on Kim when diplomacy and trade are the grown-up answer. A few friendly tweets from Trump might even be a good start.