North Korea’s threat to fire a nuclear missile at Guam should the US try anything to jeopardize the hermit kingdom’s nuclear programme is more the domain of an hysteric media for now. He is the wolf crying boy – “I will eat your sheep when I wish, what are you going to do about it?” Of course, no sane government can dismiss his threats. The 33-year old leader has assassinated subjects and relatives who he feared might pose a challenge to him. He taunts his enemies in full knowledge the collateral damage the West may suffer would likely be factor fold higher than he stands to lose. North Korea’s GDP is estimated to be around $12 billion annually. Tokyo’s GDP is estimated to be around $1.5 trillion, 125x larger. Seoul’s GDP is around $780 billion (65x North Korea) but is located in shelling distance. From a purely militaristic standpoint, North Korea doesn’t stand a chance. The US has spy satellites parked permanently over North Korea surveilling troop movements, missile test sites and US submarines will have constant watch over Pyongyang’s naval activity. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is not a bargaining chip in this case. While it does raise the ‘risk’ factor, it is not enough to exclude war on the peninsula.
The problem is that all the while no action is taken, PyongYang’s arsenal grows more sophisticated. Kim has no plans to halt his development. In 1994 then President Bill Clinton came closest to taking action against its nuclear capability but in the end chose diplomacy. We are 23 years on and the capabilities are such that this game has increasingly limited life span. Trump made his thoughts clear in a 1995 interview. Try to talk him out and if all else fails take the military option
The more advanced his arsenal becomes, the more weight his demands carry. Kim is in his 30s. Assuming the West does nothing, there is another three decades of threats and bellicose to consider. Over time its weapons programme will be sufficiently credible to hit Washington DC. Just like Russian missiles in Cuba, America will not allow a condition which could threaten it to exist.
North Korea has 3 main nuclear missile launch sites (Musudan-Ri, Punggye-Ri and Tongchang-Ri) among the fourteen nuclear facilities ranging from R&D, power generation, mining and refined fissile material production. A surgical strike would be difficult to achieve without North Korea getting away a few missiles itself.
Why Guam? Of course one can view his threat in several ways. One, Guam is the current realistic technical capability of his nuclear weapons, two; Kim hasn’t said he’ll strike Washington DC which should be interpreted as evidence that he is not completely deranged and bragging about capabilities he does not yet have, three; he could theoretically bomb the US military installations in Okinawa which is closer than Guam and more likely to score a relative hit but he has been careful not to drag Japan into this contest (yet) and finally; his nuclear programme is his only bargaining chip. Were Kim to cease his atomic aspirations, he would literally be a sitting duck. He knows – as did his father and grandfather before him – the regime survives on the will of the Rest of the World to appease it. If he has no trump card, the RoW can ignore it.
On April 10th this year, China’s special envoy on the North Korean nuclear programme, Wu Dawei, visited Seoul with the idea of pushing a harder UN resolution in case of another nuclear test. In the short term China is hoping a short term halt to coal imports will bring Kim Jong-Un to heel they have not ruled out removing him entirely. It is the least preferred option but Trump’s moves will only mean China is being forced to up the ante. However China has been lamenting that it can’t force Kim to come to heel. Once again this is partly China testing the will of Trump versus his predecessor. Do not think for one second that China hasn’t been channeling Sun Tzu as to how it can pull off a geopolitical masterstroke by bringing Kim to heel and the US to back down. This is becoming harder to achieve, even more so with an unpredictable president.
Let us not forget the strategic benefits of North Korea to China. It provides a buffer to the US friendly South Korea and keeps furthering China’s status as a dominant force (economically and militarily) in the region. One of the last things China wants is the equivalent population of Australia (24 million) as refugees on its northern border. Best it remains contained inside a regime presiding over a tiny economy. Even less desirable is a US invasion/strike which puts a US protectorate on China’s doorstep.
Global markets are not reacting too erratically to this crisis. They are collectively taking the path of most common scenario vis-a-vis history to date. Minor risk on. Even Korean CDS spreads, at 14 year highs (61) remain well down on GFC and the death of Kim Jong-Il. However a president who wants to reassert US foreign policy after 8 years of willful abuse under his predecessor may be more than willing to take decisive action and put an end to the North Korean problem. He won’t risk it unless his generals can give a very high level of assurance the collateral damage will be minimal
While some media want to believe that Trump is itching for a war in North Korea or Iran to resurrect his sliding poll numbers, that is an obtuse way of thinking. North Korea is a growing threat. Pure and simple. If North Korea gets a capability to potentially hit the US mainland then that is untenable. Any country that threatens to attack another puts itself on a geopolitical chess board of its own making. This is dragging China into a game it would rather not play but inevitably Beijing realizes that it has to take control before Trump takes it from them leaving them in the worst of all worlds.
Cooler heads to prevail? Maybe but something suggests that North Korea is brewing beyond what markets are currently pricing.