There’s mounting concern around the world that history is set to repeat itself in 2018, and under similarly dubious circumstances. One big difference though … the United States (US) is confronting a far more formidable foe in modern-day North Korea, than it was fifteen years ago in Iraq.
The ‘unnecessary’ Iraq war
In 2003, President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear weapons program and possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the leadup to this war, the media was awash with reports of 3 000 aluminium tubes intercepted on their way to Iraq – allegedly for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium. It was also alleged that 500 tons of uranium yellowcake was sold to Iraq by Niger in the late 1990s.
Despite the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asserting that the aluminium tubes were likely to be artillery rocket tubes, and a report by Joseph Wilson concluding that the yellowcake transaction almost certainly never took place, Bush and his senior officials chose to disregard these findings, and rather interpret the evidence in such a way that supported their ‘fixation’ that Iraq did indeed possess WMDs.
This led to the full-scale invasion of Iraq which resulted in the deaths of up to 460 000 people, and destabilisation of the entire country that persists today. The invasion, however, was quickly established to have been ‘unnecessary’, as no evidence of a nuclear weapons program or WMDs was ever found – thus verifying the CIA’s pre-war findings.
Trump will justify a war … irrespective of the counter-evidence
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump and his senior officials appear to be falling into the same trap that ensnared the Bush administration. They are so utterly convinced that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is not for deterrence purposes only (as Kim Jong-un claims), that they are both cherry-picking and misrepresenting evidence to support their viewpoint.
But fortunately, a US General recently stated that if Trump orders a nuclear strike on North Korea, he (the General) would have the final say on whether to execute the launch. To be honest, though, this should serve as little comfort to the world’s population – especially those living in East Asia.
What constitutes an ‘act of war’?
The expression ‘act of war’ is as dangerous as it is vague. Thus, it is paramount that its exact definition be agreed upon by all involved in this North Korean standoff, especially since it will determine whether any military response by the US to a North Korean ‘provocation’, is deemed to be either a pre-emptive first strike or a retaliatory second strike.
The importance of this cannot be stressed enough as China recently warned of the following: “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral”, but if the US and South Korea “try to overthrow the North Korean regime… China will intervene and prevent them from doing so.”
Pre-emptive or retaliatory strike? That’s the crux
While the US is unlikely to launch a spontaneous pre-emptive strike against North Korea, it might well carry out a strike in response to a ‘provocation’ that threatens US soil. Here are some thought-provoking scenarios in order of magnitude:
Luke-warm: North Korea tests a second hydrogen bomb (either surface or sub-surface) in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Warm: North Korea launches an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that demonstrates its capability of reaching any part of the US mainland.
Hot: North Korea launches an ICBM that not only demonstrates its range, but also its ability to successfully deploy a targetable re-entry vehicle fitted with a dummy/conventional warhead.
Super-hot: North Korea launches a ballistic missile that detonates in international waters near Guam.
Smoking gun: North Korea launches an ICBM fitted with a live (hydrogen bomb) nuclear warhead. The warhead is successfully deployed at high altitude, returns to Earth and detonates just above a remote, pre-determined point in the Pacific Ocean – proving in one fell swoop North Korea’s capability to place a nuclear warhead 300 metres over Washington DC.
The devil is in the detail
The scenarios above beg a crucial question: Which of these scenarios, if any, would be deemed sufficiently threatening to US soil, for China to regard a subsequent US strike on North Korea as retaliatory?
This grey area highlights the need for both China and the US to be in absolute agreement as to what constitutes a threat to US soil, because even the slightest misunderstanding could result in China squaring off against the US in an unthinkable nuclear confrontation.
Will we see another ‘unnecessary’ war in 2018?
Considering the recent spate of rhetoric coming from President Trump with regards to “the imminent North Korean threat“, “North Korean aggression” and “North Korea being named a state sponsor of terrorism”, one gets the feeling he’s grooming the media and the general public for some inevitable invasion – much like Bush did in the months preceding the US invasion of Iraq. This has become a US hallmark of impending war.
In my humble opinion, Trump would be wise to start treating North Korea with the same level of respect he shows Russia. Kim Jong-un has proven himself to be a shrewd and ruthless operator – much like his communist comrade, Vladimir Putin – and would probably only conduct a smoking gun scenario test once he had at least a dozen identical ICBMs deployed in the field.
Any subsequent military strike by the US – be it pre-emptive or retaliatory – would be met by the counter-launch of these nukes targeting various unsuspecting American cities, and possibly even Seoul and Tokyo.
This is the essence of nuclear deterrence, and the sooner Trump concedes to this fact, the better.
Disarming North Korea
A more diplomatic and civilised way forward would be for the US to negotiate a mutual, proportional nuclear disarmament agreement between itself and the other eight nuclear states – including North Korea. This would have to include the mandatory and immediate signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed by the United Nations on July 7th, 2017.
Originally published on News24, 23 November 2017.