Thursday, April 04, 2013

Could North Korea's madness lead to a U.S.-China nuclear war?

Until now, I've not paid much heed to Kim Jong-Un's recent displays of animus against the United States. To my eyes, he was simply playing to the domestic audience. We're talking about a doughy, chain-smoking, easily-peeved, puerile brat trying to establish himself as a Really Tough Dude. The kid is simply ridiculous.

But now his regime has officially announced approval for nuclear strikes on the United States. This kind of rhetoric goes way beyond anything one would expect from a poseur like Kim...
North Korea dramatically escalated its warlike rhetoric on Thursday, warning that it had authorised plans for nuclear strikes on targets in the United States.

"The moment of explosion is approaching fast," the North Korean military said, warning that war could break out "today or tomorrow".
I was under the impression that the North Koreans had not yet developed missiles capable of reaching North America. Has that situation changed? (Apparently, this new missile can reach Guam.)

Conceivably, all of this nuclear sabre-rattling is designed to stave off defections in the North Korean military.
Defense analysts say that there are indeed some hints that Kim may be losing his hold on the military.

There have been defections of small units of North Korean soldiers to China – soldiers who were subsequently turned around and sent back to North Korea, says retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, which has an Asia Focus.

This may seem like a positive development, but it is a problem because it means that Kim may feel the need to reassert his control over the military, by beating the war drum and trying to get his troops to rally around it. The more he needs their support, the harder he might beat the drum.
“It seems that a more aggressive clique now has influence over Kim,” Howard says.

Indeed, plenty of questions remains about just what Kim’s relationship is to the military, says Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Is he in control, is he not in control? There are so many unknowns here,” Mr. Cha says.

“We don’t know how he views the world, we don’t know how he views the credibility of his own nuclear arsenal, whether he views the US and South Korea as paper tigers – we know none of these things.”
Has this young man has become totally delusional? Is he like Hitler in the bunker, planning architectural monuments while Berlin burns?

A few days ago, the Daily Beast published a piece which offered a deeper look at the power struggles within the North Korean establishment. The drama is a simple one: Young Master Kim came to power before he could install (or curry favor with) loyalists in key military posts. As a result, his position is more tenuous than was his father's.

His inner inner circle really comes down to two figures: An aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, and her husband, Jang Sung-taek. The key figure is Jang, a four-star general born in 1947. He has been completely reshaping the power structure put in place by Kim Jong-Un's father.
Moreover, Kim and Jang have sacked top flag officers, most notably Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the respected chief of the general staff. Some analysts believe there was a shootout between forces opposing Ri and those loyal to him when he was deposed last July. Whether or not these rumors are true, it has become clear that Kim’s removal of the popular Ri did not sit well with frontline commanders. In a further sign of turmoil, Ri’s successor, Hyon Yong-chol, was subsequently demoted.

Kim Jong-un may have gone too far in upsetting the top brass, so much of his strident rhetoric today appears to be an attempt to appease old-guard generals and admirals. Kim and Jang may be the most powerful individuals in Pyongyang, but they are not in control of the military, and they have not consolidated power over other regime elements. As a result of the disarray, the hardliners seem to have grabbed control.
Reportedly, an assassination attempt occurred around the time of that firefight.

Can't China restrain these guys?
China’s flag officers have maintained links with their North Korean counterparts and still hold pro-Pyongyang views. The Chinese military, for instance, has transferred at least six mobile missile launchers for the North’s new KN-08 nuclear-capable missile, thereby substantially increasing Kim’s ability to wage nuclear war. So instead of restraining their belligerent allies, the Chinese seem to be egging them on.

Are these guys serious? Any attack against the United States or its interests would lead to the annihilation of North Korea. Perhaps Kim doesn't mind that outcome. Or perhaps he cannot understand the consequences. Perhaps he cannot understand the limits of his ability to control events. Perhaps reality isn't really real to him.

Would China go in with North Korea on nuclear war? Remember, World War I started with an assassination in Bosnia.

Ominously enough, Chinese military figures have hinted at their own nuclear threats. Just last month, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu visited Washington. This same General is best-known for issuing a let's-go-nuclear statement in 2005:
“If the Americans draw their missiles and position [sic]-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” Zhu told reporters for the Financial Times and the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, according to their July 14, 2005, editions.

The comments raised questions within the Pentagon about the sincerity of China’s policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Zhu’s comments also were the most explicit statement of Chinese strategic intent since 1995 when another general, Xiong Guangkai, implicitly threatened to use nuclear arms against Los Angeles if the United States defended Taiwan in a conflict.
Defending North Korea and defending Chinese territory are two different things. Still, North Korea is a Chinese ally, and it's hard to imagine that the Chinese would simply sit back and shrug their shoulders while the United States and/or South Korea transform pockets of North Korea into ashes. Even an attack by conventional forces on Chinese interests could escalate into a nuclear response -- indeed, that was the very point Zhu wanted to hammer home.
Zhu’s comments called into question the stated Chinese policy of not being the first nation to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Zhu said the no-first-use policy did not apply to nuclear-armed states. He said the policy was limited to nonnuclear states and could be changed.

The Pentagon’s 2012 report to Congress on China’s military stated, “There has been no clarification of the ambiguity regarding the conditions under which China’s [no-first-use] policy might not apply or where conditional nuclear threats might be permissible.”

The 2011 annual report said it is possible that China’s military considers “demonstration [nuclear] strikes, or high altitude [nuclear] bursts” as permissible under its doctrine. It also said it is unclear whether Chinese doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional strike that threatened its nuclear forces or the communist regime, as Zhu stated in 2005.
It remains unclear whether China has formally renounced its once-sacrosanct no-first-use policy. It also remains unclear whether China would risk a nuclear counterattack by defending an allied nation run by a petulant boy whom most people -- even most Chinese -- don't seem to like.

Although China has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, they would be drastically outgunned in any nuclear exchange. Here's the most recent information I could find:
The United States has 18 times more nuclear warheads than Chinese (7,295 compared to 400). The entire Chinese nuclear arsenal packs about as much firepower as the nuclear weapons on one American trident submarine. The United States has 982 missile with multiple nuclear warheads that can reach China. China has 32 missiles that can reach the United States.
I refuse to believe that Kim's madness will trigger such a planetary catastrophe. Undoubtedly, cooler heads in Beijing are quietly seeking ways to leash the brat. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Chinese are mulling over quiet methods of bringing about regime change in Pyongyang.

All of that said, Kim's recent threats are simply...extraordinary.
Unless the Chinese generals are completely unhinged they wont do anything to ruin trade relations with the rest of the world.

How many people remember that Bill Clinton had Kim Jong-Un's father shelve north Korea's nuclear program until Bush the Lesser opened his big yap and spouted that Axis of Evil speech?

Republicans, the gift that keeps on giving.

The only restraints we have is how weather will affect nuclear fallout distribution over our Asian allies. Other than that dealing with North Korea and China will be like swatting a gnat. What we have been doing in the Middle East and parts of Asia has been fighting with both hands tied behind our back and blindfolded. The world has forgotten how terrible a destructive power we can be if pushed into it. The hell we can unleash is greater than the destructive forces used by both sides in both World Wars and Korea.
This is Iraq, all over again.

Saddam didn't have WMD's. He fussed with inspections because he didn't want his regional enemies to have verification of his weakness. He feared them more than the West.

Kim is facing off on his power base, the military. He must convince them he can be tough on the West.
He fears them more than us. Defections are undermining his authority, and he must feed the hegemony of his own military or face his own demise.

The North Korean regime is a nuthouse military-based despotic monarchy, but although Kim Jong-Un could evidently benefit from a better diet and more exercise, I think to call him a puerile brat may well be jumping to conclusions. That leaders of countries other than Israel and the US shouldn't be trusted with nuclear weapons is what the US authorities want us to think... Even errand-boy David Cameron has been allowed to say something...namely that North Korea might nuke the UK! (No shit!)

But I suppose this is the next step from saying that putting US anti-ballistic missiles in Poland was to 'defend' 'Europe' against Iran! It's all getting madder.

Don't underestimate the Korean emperor in Pyongyang. I make this reference intentionally. There are aspects of the North Korean regime which are similar to those of the Korean Empire, notably the role given to the Sun in the state ideology.

Another point is that the South Korean regime is also nuthouse. Look at how the soldiers are made to stand in the Joint Security Area, in taekwondo stance. What market are they playing to? Many commentators are saying there's a danger of an oversized Korean response to a North Korean 'pinprick' face-helping attack, which response might trigger a biggie from Pyongyang. Oh how everything would be so safe under Pax Americana!

Meanwhile an unnamed US official is quoted in the WSJ as explaining the possibility that the US may 'pause' its military activities in the region in terms of US concern "that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations".

That would sound to me very much like the sound of the US backing down.

Which, everything else being equal, would be rational behaviour, for fuck's sake!

So it's not what I expect! :-)

Last point - you can't argue this by saying that the US has got 18 times as many nuclear warheads as China. All it takes is one US city to be obliterated, and the US ideology of self-confidence (which is as psychotic as Pyongyang's) could fall apart.

I mean what about the option that the US pulls its forces out of the region, and maybe gives up Okinawa and Guam? Like, you know, stops aspiring to being the world island's policeman? Eventually it will have to.
Well, first and foremost, I don't trust ANYONE with nukes. The human animal is too unruly and brutish.

What sounds to you like the US backing down sounds to me like something else. My guess is that the Chinese have made a sotto promise to help keep the Korean brat in line.

That would be the wisest course of action all around.
That might not be so easy for Beijing to deliver.

Part of the price they might want could be a sorting out of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, currently run by Hyundai Asan in competition with China. The position is different from what it is in Rason, the other 'zone' in the north, near Pyongyang, which is invested in by companies from China and Russia.

The Kaesong Industrial Zone makes me think of Switzerland during WW2. Except, the North Korean regime reports that the zone is "on the verge of bankruptcy". Interestingly, US sanctions apply on this miserable territory, a fact which can't be relished among the rulers of either North or South - although I'm not sure how effectively they are enforced, and perhaps they are just ignored. The South Korean elite is supposed to have sent a $100 million bribe north to Kim Jong-Il to get the zone started up, in which wages are about a quarter of what they are in China. Withdrawing the 100,000 Northern workers would seem to be a next step, if the North Korean regime really wants to escalate...and can handle the required rail logistics - which it probably can.

Are you following the North Korean press releases? They seem to be concerned about reports that statues of Kim il-Sung, the 'great leader', will get sabotaged. I wonder how that idea got in their heads, and whether it was deliberately put there.
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