Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Korean Missile Crisis.

In October 1962 a young President J K Kennedy faced the Cuban Missile Crisis which, in the words of some, put the world a blink away from a nuclear war. The 13 day crisis was defused finally but not after a level of brinkmanship which has remained a text book case study of crisis management. Today North Korea's King Jong Un and President Donald Trump are enacting a dance of brinkmanship that, without a doubt, is possibly going to dwarf the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are stark differences between the two conflicts, and yet the similarities are to the extent that a possible nuclear confrontation could get out of hand.

Without discussing the 1962 crisis in too much detail, one thing was clearly obvious in that crisis was that the Russian movement of missiles to Cuba in a sense posturing by Moscow to get the US to roll back its Jupiter missile deployment in Turkey. Indeed, as the crisis rolled out the posturing could have resulted in outbreak of hostilities but one can argue that given the Russian motives there was a line they did not want to cross.

In contrast the current crisis is not something that has suddenly surprised the world. North Korea for some time now has not been secretive about its desire to have both a nuclear weapons capability and to have a credible delivery system. A study of nuclear proliferation shows that once an aspiring nuclear country crosses a certain point in its development system the roll back of the system through pressure and threats begins to fail. We saw this in the case of Israel, India and Pakistan, and North Korea is no exception to that process. Theoretically a nuclear capability is easier to achieve that back during the 1940's Manhattan Project, the two big challenges are to develop a delivery system and to then be able to reduce the size of the nuclear weapon to then be carried as a warhead.

While there is no conclusive evidence that this warhead capability has been developed by North Korea, there is a capability with them to drop a dirty nuclear bomb from conventional means, i.e aircraft or a crude warhead. Irrespective of the effectiveness of such a capability there is no doubt that a dirty bomb or a sophisticated warhead the threat to the world is present and dangerous. So let us assume that North Korea does have the capability to cause considerable trouble.

On the current crisis it is evident that the crisis and the outcomes will be influenced by the personality of the two principal players in the sordid drama; Kim Jong Un and Donald J Trump. Let is first see the Korean leaders stance, personality and posture.

Kim Jung Un is clearly an autocrat who has absolutely no restraint on his actions from within his government or its functioning system. He has demonstrated clearly that he does not tolerate dissent and more often than not will eliminate opposition even on the basis of a hint of discontent towards him. He seems to have a stubborn streak and tends have a tit for tat mentality without regard for the stakes involved in his actions. he is on record to have said recently that he has no issue to attack American military capabilities in the region and even said he soon expects to have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting mainland United States of America.

To Kim Jung Un the goals seems to be to continue his missile testing without restraint and to continue play a game of brinkmanship with President Trump. The Korean leader is posturing as if in a game of chess and relishing the standoff perhaps believing that without the support of Congress it would seem unlikely that Trump would up the ante to a first strike on North Korea. Kim Jung Un could be making a fatal mistake as it is obvious that President Trump might be impulsive enough to order a first strike without warning. All one could then hope for is that his military brass are correct in assuming a first strike could disable North Korea's entire missile system.

Should such a first strike take place it will have to assume that China, who seems to have agreed to work with Washington to defuse the situation, may step back from being neo-neutral and change its posture. Secondly, one cannot assume that Russia would stand back in the event of a US first strike against North Korea; for them there would be distinction between a missile strike in Syria by the US with an all out first strike against North Korea.

Donald Trump has approached this crisis with a degree of aggression and bravado that is atypical of the Presidents office. The fact that Trump has said he does not rule out hostilities with North Korea is a chilling statement and while it may well be designed to give a strong message to Kim Jung Un, it was greeted with a missile launch by North Korea the very next day. Diplomacy is not one of Trumps strong points and one would imagine sane voices in his Administration would have suggested that China be asked to deliver the message of US resolve.

The danger remains that the two leaders could get embroiled in a ego war the cost of which will be borne in the loss of human life beyond our imagination. The solutions have to be offered for a quick deescalation of crisis and it would seem China's role in this is paramount. Already there is a mixed message out there with Trump saying there is a major risk of war and Secretary Tillerson not ruling out the possibility to sit and talk with the North Koreans. Indeed giving an escape route to the North Koreans to come to their senses is a plausible policy, but then one is not dealing with a rational human being. One additional problem is the maverick personality of President Trump which can only create uncertainty in the current climate.

On a closing note I wonder if Trump is reading up on the 1962 Missile Crisis and if Kim Jung Un is attending his anger management classes. Sad we are close to a stage where in one afternoon we can destroy all what God created on earth.

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