Pyongyang (SCF) – The San Diego-based Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is on its way to North Korea to be joined by three guided-missile surface ships – all capable of long distance cruise missiles strikes against shore infrastructure. The Vinson group is fully prepared for the mission. Last month, it participated in joint drills with the South Korean military to prepare for a sudden change on the peninsula, including the collapse of the North Korean regime or an invasion.
Tensions are running high in the region after a North Korean missile test with more expected to follow. The show of force follows US airstrikes against a Syrian airbase.
A day later, the president told South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn that he would stay in close touch on events in the region. According to Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the US is building a «global coalition» to subdue North Korea. «Patience has basically come to an end. We are looking for an action-focused, results-oriented approach. We are going to be trying to cooperate with allies and partners in a global coalition to try to solve this problem in an urgent way that we haven’t really taken up before», the high-level diplomat noted.
Can «the urgent way» be interpreted any other way than a military action if the demands are rejected? It brings us back to 2003, when George Bush, Jr. applied efforts to bring together a coalition of «the willing» to invade Iraq.
The US and South Korea are holding the biggest ever drills that include stealth fighter training. Exercise Foal Eagle will last for two months till the end of April. North Korea is expected to hold a military parade on April 15 to celebrate the 105th birthday of its founding president, Kim Il Sung, and to mark the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25. The North Korean leadership said it would bolster its defenses to counter possible airstrikes similar to the US delivered against Syria.
President Trump reportedly pushed Chinese President Xi to do more to curb North Korean nuclear ambitions during the summit in Florida last week. North Korea is highly dependent on China, which supplies it with most of its food and energy and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume.
According to the Washington Post, analysts expect the recent barrage of missiles to continue, and activities around its known nuclear test site have raised concerns. Pyongyang has carried out five separate nuclear tests – two of them last year – while satellite imagery appears to suggest that it could be preparing for a sixth. On April 5, North Korea launched yet another medium-range ballistic missile, apparently testing a new land-based version of its submarine missile. It indicates that North Korea is in the final stage of preparation for a test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental USA.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution in February, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, «In North Korea, clearly we see now a combination of both intercontinental ballistic missile capability, as well as an effort to put a nuclear warhead on that intercontinental ballistic missile». The general believes that «North Korea not only threatens South Korea, not only threatens the region, but now presents a threat to the homeland as well». That is exactly the scenario Donald Trump promised to prevent. He has recently threatened unilateral action against Pyongyang if Beijing fails to bring pressure to bear on its neighbor to stem its nuclear weapons program.
The US stealth aircraft and sea-based standoff cruise missiles boast the first strike capability to knock out the nuclear program related infrastructure. GBU-57 massive ordnance penetrators could knock out underground targets. Two Ohio-class cruise missile submarines with more than 300 BGM-109 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles could be secretly deployed off the North Korean shore. Roughly 140 or more missiles would be added when the two Arleigh Burke destroyers (56 land attack Tomahawks each) and one Ticonderoga-class cruiser (24-26 Tomahawks) of the carrier group approach North Korea. After nuclear sites are destroyed, key defense installations, including transporter erector launchers and delivery vehicles will be hit. The carrier-based aviation will finish the job.
The US could limit the use of force to the nuclear program only in a hope to prevent escalation or it could conduct a large-scale operation to destroy the military potential in a regime change effort. Hopes for a limited conflict are a bleak prospect. In both cases, North Korea is likely to start a full-scale war, including strikes at Seoul, the South Korean capital within the artillery range.
The Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) will try to decapitate North Korea by physically eliminating its leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea has already developed a plan to annihilate the North Korean capital of Pyongyang through intensive conventional missile strikes.
North Korea can use chemical and biological weapons. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is within easy artillery range. 13,000 artillery pieces are deployed along the demilitarized zone, 30 miles from the city. Around 1,100 tactical short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles, in addition to 100–200 intermediate range weapons, could hit other targets, including those located in South Korea, Japan and US bases on Okinawa and Guam. South Korea and Japan could become targets for nuclear weapons. The North Korea’s army is 1.1 million strong. The country spends an estimated 25 percent of its gross national product on its military.
An alternative to war is to revive the Six-Party talks to prevent Pyongyang from developing a nuclear-capable ICBM in exchange for a peace agreement. For more than 15 years the US has not spoken with North Korean leaders directly. It could try and do it now.
There was a hard bargain with Iran. As a result of international effort, the Iran nuclear deal was reached. Despite the controversy over the legality of the recent ballistic missile test, the Iranian nuclear program is frozen. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are allowed into the country to verify compliance. A military conflict has been prevented. So, this can be done through talks, not intimidations.
The worrisome events call for coordinated activities. The problem of North Korea should be addressed during the visit of US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to Russia on April 11-12. The Six Party format could be extended. An international effort to include Russia, China, the US, the UN and other pertinent actors should be launched immediately to serve as an alternative to a military action undertaken by the US that will most certainly escalate into a full-blown regional confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Progress could be achieved step by step with the ballistic missile and nuclear programs addressed separately. International sanctions could be gradually lifted as a reward for measures implemented to curb the ballistic and nuclear potentials. The effort may have little chance to succeed, but so was the negotiation process with Iran. Instead, a military strike would kill any hopes to avoid a war. The airstrike delivered in Syria did not bring closer the settlement of the conflict.
This post originally ran on Strategic Culture.