The U.S.-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week, the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.
On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan” that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?)
It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.
These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturized nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability.
But the politics of the situation demands that the U.S. government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.
So next year the U.S. government will spend another billion dollars or so to place 14 more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And on Friday, it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.
It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats.
But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.
The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation.
And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.
Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily — the U.S.-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing — and he may ultimately feel obliged to do something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.
It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 km from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.
Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than 50 years now.
We really don’t need to see it again.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.