Unlike many of the other problems Donald Trump is facing, the North Korea issue is not of his own making. This ticking time bomb has been passed from Bill Clinton to George W Bush, to Barack Obama, and on to the current president.
And now Trump is facing an adversary which has a well-running nuclear programme and is probably in possession of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. The only certainty around North Korea’s nuclear weapons is that they are accelerating in both yield and delivery systems. In addition, North Korea has an army of a million soldiers, dozens of submarines, hundreds of jets, thousands of tanks and tens of thousands of artillery pieces.
If a conventional conflict without weapons of mass destruction breaks out, the death toll could be anywhere between 30,000 and one million. The last conventional war with North Korea (1950-1953) left over five million dead after three years of bloodshed. And there was no victor.
If war breaks out today, it will progress much quicker than the last one. As North Korea is in the close proximity of several major population centres, the fear of overwhelming losses will demand a military response within less than 20 minutes.
If weapons of mass destruction are used in the chaos that follows, the death toll would grow exponentially. Anything above a couple of dozen nuclear weapons could turn a regional conflict into a nuclear winter, which would have extremely dire consequences for the planet. If China, which is linked to North Korea via a treaty of mutual aid and cooperation joins the conflict, the World War III may break out. Such a scenario can even lead to the extinction of our species.
Trump has three options on how to approach resolving the North Korea crisis.
In conjunction with his allies, and especially the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, Trump may wish to amplify the military preparedness of the forces facing North Korea. More drills, exercises and deployments of soldiers, vessels and aircraft.
Trump and his allies could also choose to expand the THAAD system of missile air defence. Although the THAAD can be overwhelmed, tricked with decoys or outflanked by submarine launches, it offers, in theory, a type of defence against some missiles (but not the intercontinental ones).
The risk with this approach is that it will lead to both North Korea and China rattling their sabres even louder. Although the chance of these planned events leading to intentional war is very small, the risks of unplanned events caused by paranoia, accidents, mistakes or uncontrolled anger make this one of the most dangerous situations facing humanity since we almost had a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962.
The second option Trump has is to tighten the sanctions in the hope they will bring North Korea to the negotiating table as they have done with other countries which acted in defiance of the international community.
The United Nations has been squeezing North Korea with sanctions since 2006. These have expanded from a ban on military supplies and luxury goods imports to shutting North Korea out of the global financial system and banning precious metal, coal and iron exports with only a few small exemptions. With the latest round of sanctions, a third of North Korea’s exports will be affected.
Trump wants to make the sanctions even stronger by putting oil on the list, making the ban on coal total, banning their national airline, stopping their commodity exports and moving towards a total economic and diplomatic quarantine of the country. This is not a good option for two reasons.
First, it is impossible to obtain the comprehensive sanctions desired because some countries, especially China do not wish to squeeze that hard on either the economic or diplomatic veins of their ally.
Second, even if China did agree to apply the highest level of sanctions possible and the country is made to feel extreme pain, Kim Jong-un does not care. This is the country that the 2014 Commission empowered by the UN Human Rights Council accused of crimes of extermination, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution on political, racial and gender grounds, and prolonged starvation.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘What are Trump’s options on North Korea’.