Dangerous Pantomime: Trump and North Korea’s Missile Program
It’s all fine while it remains on the stage, a matter of contained, almost camp displays of grunting and strutting. The diplomats can still have some say; the foreign ministries retain some hold over the military instinct. But the longer the Korean Nuclear Dance continues, the more likely it will repel the jaw jaw option in favour of war war.
Starting premises are important. The refusal by the United States to consider a peace and security solution that has several limbs to it (denuclearisation only after the formal signing of a peace-treaty; the open acknowledgment that Washington will not engage in regime change) remains crippling.
The intercontinental ballistic missile test by Pyongyang on Tuesday of the Hwasong-14 – one that was, on this occasion, successful – was merely the fruit of insecurity and fears that have been the hallmark of the regime for decades. Its options in terms of defending itself against the might of the US military machine were always limited, leaving the way open for meagre psychological options: to frighten, to threaten, and to repeatedly warn.
A nuclear option has always been one of the most grotesque yet valuable aides in this sense. It has all the elements of the perfect pantomime, provided its actors worship at the tabernacle of deterrence. If this be the case, then Kim Jong-un is playing his cards exactly as he should: seeking the means of arming his state, at least sufficiently, to proof it against a US-led attack.
The catch here is that no one knows, perhaps not even the North Korean military establishment itself, how effective their programs would necessarily be if put to the test. (Favourable analysis that such an ICBM can, in fact, reach US soil is exactly what the DPRK regime wants to hear.)
The need for putting up a good show, however illusory, is paramount. As the announcement on North Korean state television went with inevitable hyperbole, North Korea had become “a full-fledged nuclear power” that had acquired “the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world.”
The response from the US and its allies, however, takes the rational out of the equation and replaces it with a madman who refuses to take his medication or see the shrink. This has a mutually destabilising effect: the assumption of madness entails a necessarily mad response, one that might even entail the use of force. The situation escalates, and the calming, if absurd state of deterrence, abates.
Rather than going through the maze of diplomatic options, President Donald Trump’s suggests flustered opinions and frustrated tweets. He had claimed prior to his inauguration that Pyongyang would simply not acquire an ICBM option that could reach the US.
But in Warsaw, he suggested that he was considering “severe things” by way of retaliation against a state “behaving in a very, very dangerous manner.” He also blamed China for foot dragging on curtailing Pyongyang’s nuclear efforts, a persistent nonsense that Beijing somehow has a magic, coercive hand over the DPRK. “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try.”
A suitably dangerous manner was advocated on Wednesday, when US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, suggested that the “considerable military forces” at the disposal of Washington was an option. “We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been more cautious, suggesting that the next stage of North Korean weapons development did not spell the need to duck and cover. “I do not believe this capability bring us closer to war.”
Any military option – be it the idea of a surgical strike, a limited pre-emptive assault that would attack both the nuclear arsenal and the DPRK leadership – is marred by the inferno that is bound to engulf the peninsula, urged on by the use of North Korean artillery amassed along the border. This blood-letting, the potential result of 8,000 rocket launchers and artillery pieces, given that half the population of South Korea lives within 50 miles of the Demilitarized Zone, could be astonishing.
Astonishing here is a matter of degree. Another speculation in this calculus of death was advanced by Roger Cavazos for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Stability in 2012, suggesting “three thousand casualties in the first few minutes” that would drop once the element of surprise was lost. “If the KPA were to engage Seoul in a primarily counter-value fashion by firing into Seoul instead of primarily aiming at military targets, there would likely be around thirty-thousand casualties in a short amount of time.”
The North Korean supreme leader, whatever hysteria blows his way, is sitting well. The last thing he wants is an easing, a sober brake on proceedings that might cause a halt to his ongoing project. Crisis breeds monsters of opportunity. As Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre suggests, “The ICBM test removed the false hope that we might be able to stop North Korean nuclear provocations with either sanctions or the use of military provocations.”