How Serious Is The Threat Of A Conflict With North Korea?

09/04/2017 10:46 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2017

I have been asked by many people over the last few days what I thought were the risks of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. As someone who has made it a point to stay as close to the truth as I can, without being shut down, I want to give an honest assessment. 

The test of a nuclear device (reportedly the most powerful such test yet, although no objective sources have confirmed this point) by North Korea was just the last stage in a grand play that is intended to help the floundering Trump administration, to prop up Prime Minister Abe, to make millions of dollars for traders who knew what they were supposed to buy yesterday and, no doubt, to help the Dear Leader domestically as well.

I doubt this this tragicomedy has anything to do with security as we know it in the pre-Trump era.  But it certainly resembles the comic prelude to the First World War.

Sunday’s September 3 nuclear weapons test in North Korear came just a few hours before the Xiamen Declaration was released to the world at the BRICS summit. This declaration spelled out a sophisticated road map for the world going forward which goes far beyond anything of which the Trump administration is capable of writing, let alone finding support for around the world. The contrast suggested a new low for American stock in terms of legitimacy (although highs on the actual  stock exchange).  The Xiamen Declaration included a sophisticated discussion of the future of the internet, for example, that is reminiscent of US policy of the 1990s. The rule of law and the role of the United Nations were purposefully highlighted in the declaration.

By contrast, the Trump administration hinted at the same time that it is ready to pull out of the Korea-US (KORUS) FTA. That blow is timed to make the economic pressure on Korea from China because it has been forced to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system against its own strategic interests even more unbearable.

The only conclusion one can reach after observing this combination of Trump threatening “fire and fury” military strikes against North Korea while attacking the South Korean trade agreement that was supposed to be the foundation of the alliance  is that the Trump administration wants to squeeze Korea, not to protect it. That perception is not lost on Koreans, no matter what positive news appears in their media. 

We can only imagine which traders are making what sort of money from their investments in military contractors and from the buying and selling of currency over the last few days―and for the next few days.

I shutter to think of policy making process in the United States that places higher priority on speculation than security, but that is the reality we face.  

Of course I do not have a smoking gun that suggests Trump has escalated tensions with North Korea, Russia and China so as to help out his friend Shinzo Abe, whose popularity has plunged. But it sure does look that way. Whether Kim Jung-Eun is directly in on the game (via secret communications) or is just playing along, we do not know yet. At this point, it is not even all that important. 

So what will happen if North Korea fires another missile test (as everyone assumes now)? To start with, the process just looks  too well coordinated. This process does not resemble ordinary military planning, rather suggesting that  Donald Trump wants  a sudden escalation in tensions that will make his backers rich and draw attention away from his own crimes.

Here is a guess as to what will happen. The April  launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles by the Trump administration against the Syrian  Al Shayrat Airfield might be an example of what we can expect. That attack was clearly planned so as to show a willingness to take military action against Syria, thus pleasing critics who claimed Trump was too pro-Russia, but also  involved so few losses that it could be quickly forgotten by the media. Sounds like a win-win, no?  

But although that might have been  the plan, the situation in Syria has only degenerated since, with United States taking increasing covert, and not so covert, action in that tragic country. There is no easy way out and that conflict could lead to a major war in itself.

So what would happen in the case of North Korea? Well, the chances of a strike against something not too critical are quite high. After all, although Trump may not know it, most everyone in the military knows that there is nothing to hit on the surface in North Korea. North Korea has spent fifty years building the most extensive underground facilities in the world, which go down to great depths. Even if you occupied the complete surface of North Korea, you would not be even close to controlling it. 

And it would be natural that North Korea would take some sort of action in response. I doubt either side wants a full war―But here is where things get slippery.

Even if the Trump and the Dear Leader have an agreement to exploit this confrontation for their own political gain, they are not in control. Trump’s command of the military is questionable, seeing as he is constantly attacked by his Secretary of Defense and other high ranking military officers. . 

But let us come back to the question at hand. Once a strike on North Korea is made, Trump will be out of the picture and different factions will play this game out in complex and unpredictable ways. 

We know that the administration has deeply alienated professional military and diplomats and that essentially no one who knows East Asia is in any position of authority in their administration. The narrow-minded and inexperienced James Mattis and Rex Tillerson are now treated as enlightened moderates for the simple reason that no one with any sense or experience is allowed near the stove.

That means that there is a team in place in the United States, overseeing a highly automated missile defense system that does not know what it is doing and is facing internal opposition at every level. Some of that opposition comes from outstanding military officers who hold up a standard of honor, but some of the opposition comes from factions who want some sort of big war even more than Trump does. 

Add to this the Houston flood, the greatest natural disaster in United States history. This flood was a result of climate change (which Trump denies exists) and the contempt of Trump, and of many other politicians, for infrastructure and for government. The Houston Flood is enough of a social crisis to bring Trump and his people down. There can be so doubt on that point. 

So you can be sure that the Trump people will be sorely tempted to do something powerful to draw all the air out of the reporting on their domestic failures. If Trump was fully in control of the political and military situation in the United States, and in Northeast Asia, or if those who oppose him had only noble intentions, we could laugh it off. Unfortunately, no one is in charge of this run-away locomotive. 

The only question will be whether there are those within the system itself ready to stand up and stop this train wreck. Maybe. But the Bush, Obama and Trump administration have spent 16 years trying to drive those sorts of people out. If you want to know who used to be standing there as a counterweight in the military, check out  Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. They are no longer there. This time it is up to us.

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