Kim Jong Un's game of chicken roulette

Madhav Das Nalapat
This image released on December 9 by the North Korean official news service, KCNA, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a sightseeing trip to Mount Paektu, an active volcano on the border between North Korea and China. File Photo by KCNA/UPI
This image released on December 9 by the North Korean official news service, KCNA, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a sightseeing trip to Mount Paektu, an active volcano on the border between North Korea and China. File Photo by KCNA/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Since the 1990s, successive U.S. presidents have kicked the North Korean radioactive can down the road to his successor, until it has finally ended inside the doors of the Trump Executive Office Building.

For more than a quarter-century, the double-pronged U.S. presidential tactics have remained constant.These are (a) incentivizing China to roll back the North Korean nuclear and missile program and (b) imposing punitive sanction upon sanction on Pyongyang through a compliant U.N. Security Council, ever ready to take steps that resound on television prime time.


Beijing has pocketed the Korea-related concessions and free passes given to it with as much alacrity as Pyongyang has gone ahead with its nuclear and missile program. Even during periods of apparent success of U.S. efforts at a rollback, such as during the second Clinton administration, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea has "somehow" managed to secure enough laboratory knowhow to ensure steady improvements in its nuclear weapons program, the only difference being that overt testing was avoided.

Even now, "non-state actors" similar to those who manned the A.Q. Khan nuclear mart in Pakistan in the 1980s are ensuring that the DPRK makes steady progress in both its nuclear as well as missile programs. The 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, has found himself tethered to the same policies on North Korea as his predecessors, with the difference that within 13 to 15 months, it will be too late for the military option to get used against the DPRK.

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The Kim Jong Un regime would by then have developed the capability of inflicting hundreds of thousands of deaths on the U.S. west coast, not to mention substantially more in Japan, were it to be attacked. From then on, the United States and its allies will need to live with a North Korea that will have the freedom of action needed to wage an asymmetric war on Washington and Tokyo, the way Pakistan does on India. Neither Beijing or Moscow will be in the Kim cross-hairs though, and hence both can look upon a fully developed North Korean intercontinental nuclear weapons system with relative equanimity.

It is this difference between the Russia-China pair and the Japan-U.S. duo that does not seem to have been properly factored into the China and Russia-dependent U.S. decision-making on the North Korean threat. The question is: Will Trump blink at the game of "chicken roulette" that Kim Jong Un is playing, or will he sanction a war that would inevitably entail mass casualties-- and not simply on the North Korean side?

Kim figures that developing a nuclear weapons system capable of pulverizing U.S. cities will ensure that he has a greater chance of survival than doom in the event of an armed confrontation, the way Russian roulette gives a much higher chance of survival and death. Kim is also reasonably certain that the U.S. side is too chicken to actually launch a war during the coming year, the only period when Washington can take out North Korea as a nuclear threat without itself suffering an attack on the mainland.

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What takes place when an "irresistible" force, aka Donald Trump, meets an "immovable" Kim will become clear latest by mid-2019.

Either the United States will give a pass to the military option and continue with its policy of threats and U.N.-approved sanctions till then, or there will be war, waged by the United States, Japan and, possibly South Korea, to take out the nuclear and missile assets of North Korea before these become too deadly for countermeasures.

The Korean peninsula is legally still in a state of war, with only an armistice, rather than a peace treaty being agreed upon in 1953 between North and South Korea and their respective patrons. Since then, there have been regular eruptions of tension between the two sides, with the Demilitarized Zone cutting across the 38th Parallel witnessing testy exchanges between the rival militaries.

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A screenshot from North Korea's state television channel shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a warhead near Pyongyang, North Korea, on September 3. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI

Although President George W. Bush put North Korea alongside Iraq in his "axis of evil" speech, the 43rd U.S. president showed extreme timidity in dealing with the challenge to United States, Japanese and South Korean security posed by the steady accretion of the nuclear and missile strength of the Kim family fiefdom. This same Clinton-era action-reaction cycle has been played out repeatedly since the early 1990s, in which North Korea would test missiles and continue with its nuclear weapons research and development, followed by harsh words, but mild (in comparison to those imposed on Saddam-ruled Iraq) sanctions by a clutch of countries led by the United States and Japan.


The Obama administration did not make any credible effort to give an impression that it was prepared for conflict, with the consequence that the coming to power in North Korea of the youthful and steel-nerved Kim in 2010 as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (followed a year later by being appointed supreme commander of the Armed Forces) saw a steep acceleration in the pace of both the nuclear as well as the missile programs.

Their experience with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama has convinced the DPRK "leadership center" that Washington is bluffing when it warns Pyongyang of a possible conflict designed to take out the Kim regime. The only skeptic of such skepticism was Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jong Sang Thaek, who warned against dismissing the U.S. threat of war as empty, and counseled a slowdown in the WMD program so that international sanctions could be eased and funds diverted to civilian needs.

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Such advocacy was counter to Kim Jong Un's growing conviction that any U.S. administration would be relentless in its enmity to him and his control over North Korea, and hence that any U.S. talk of compromise was only a smoke screen designed to lull the regime into a false sense of security. Such negotiations would ensure that Pyongyang relax its vigilance and first dilute and then give up its WMD stockpiles, thereby making inevitable the kinetic U.S.-plus intervention designed to take out Kim Jong Un, the way Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi were in the past.


Videos of the final moments of both have been viewed several times over by Kim Jong Un, and helped make up his mind, by the start of 2013, never to compromise with the United States over the DPRK's missile and nuclear weapons program. Soon after that determination, his still doubting uncle was put to death as a warning to other conciliators, who immediately fell silent, in some cases due to death by firing squad.

The non-ideological supreme leader

Kim Jong Un is the least ideological of the triumvirate of grandfather, father and himself, who have run North Korea since the Japanese were ushered out of the peninsula by the United States in 1945. Since the close of 2012, and especially after mid-2015, Kim Jong Un has presided over a liberalization of the North Korean economy that puts in the shade all previous efforts at ensuring a less classically communist economic structure.

Such moves were half-hearted under his father, Kim Jong Il, who did not believe in economic liberalization, and ensured that the entire economy remained under the grip of the family since taking charge of the country in 1994. The consequence was that relative economic development between the two sides showed a worsening trend for the North, which by the formal close of Kim Jong Il's regime in 2011 had become an economic pygmy compared to South Korea, now among the most prosperous countries on the planet.


Although a decade (1998-2008) of what may be termed an "evening sunshine" policy was carried out by South Korea to placate and cajole the North, these relatively limited opportunities were mostly not taken advantage of by the doctrinaire Kim Jong Il, whose mind remained anchored to the Stalinist precepts he had acquired from the Soviet Union. His son was different. Had it not been for the additional sanctions placed on the DPRK since 2013, the North Korean economy would by now have begun to narrow the gap with its southern neighbor. A genuine "sunshine policy" would have worked with the grandson of DPRK founder, Kim Il Sung, in a way not possible under Kim Jong Il. However, after 2013, Kim Jong Un was emphatic that such a policy would have to accept the DPRK as a full-fledged nuclear and missile power, as events in the Middle East and in North Africa during 2011-13 began in him a deep distrust for any promises made by the United States.

From that time on, Kim Jong Un was inflexible in his resolve to ensure that his scientists and technicians mastered nuclear and missile technology sufficient to land a punishing blow to the U.S. mainland, in case of an attack by the world's most powerful country on the DPRK.


The 'pure' North vs. the 'slave' South

In an inversion of global perceptions, Kim Jong Un regards the Republic of Korea as a "slave" country, controlled by the U.S.-Japan alliance, despite being allowed to curse its masters in public to "pretend" to its people that it was independent. Despite its lowly economic performance, the Kim cohorts consider themselves to be the "purer" representatives of the Korean race, and hence better fit to run the entire peninsula, than the elected government in Seoul.

Once the DPRK perfects its nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems, the intention is to prod the South Korean authorities to open unification talks "solely between the two parts of Korea" that would establish a government where there would be a "permanent and honored presence" for Kim Jong Un and his key military and security chiefs. None of this is acceptable to either the United States or to South Korea, which would like to see the dissolution of the DPRK regime and its absorption into the Republic of Korea on the lines of the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic in 1992.

That took place through the surrender by Mikhail Gorbachev of Moscow's interests in the GDR, a humiliating move that was soon followed by the extinguishing of Communist Party of the Soviet Union control over what till that time had been the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


Kim Jong Un has no intention of allowing his regime to dissolve, or to give up his interest in developing a nuclear and missile deterrent that would be effective against the United States and Japan, the two countries he regards as the "enemies of the Korean race." Interestingly, the leadership center in North Korea believes that "the Japanese tail wags the American dog," and that it is Tokyo that is setting the pace for Washington's hostility toward Pyongyang.

Until the second term began of George W. Bush, it would have been possible to denuclearize North Korea with minimal damage to either South Korea or Japan, but by the final two years of the second four-year term of the Obama administration, North Korean capacities had (in the estimation of Pyongyang) reached a level where tens of thousands of deaths and many times that number sick and injured would take place in Japan and South Korea, were the United States to attack the DPRK. By now, those figures for potential casualties are in the North Korean view be substantial underestimates, and will include U.S. citizens in Japan, South Korea, Guam and the Philippines.

Delay will increase casualties

Just as every year that passed after Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 steeply increased the potential casualties in the event of a conflict with Germany, the delay in taking military action against Pyongyang that has been palpable since the period in office of Clinton, is making certain that the number of those killed, wounded and rendered sick in the event of war with North Korea will rise to levels that are almost unbearable so far as South Korea and Japan are concerned, and will before the close of the next year be for the United States.


Each of the three U.S. presidents placed most of their hope on the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership ensuring that the DPRK finally surrender its nuclear stockpiles, and in order to incentivize Beijing, ensured a steady flow of concessions to the People's Republic of China. The second stage was to work through the U.N. to ensure that sanctions got imposed on North Korea that would (it was expected) force the Kim regime to reverse course.

Interestingly, in practice, such is the same policy being pursued by Trump, in case his tweets are disregarded. In reality, given China's essentiality as a base area for the North Korean economy, it is under no threat even from a fully weaponized North Korea. Nor is Russia, the "steadfast historical friend" of the Kim family. At the same time, a DPRK made immune from retaliation through its nuclear arsenal would be able to ceaselessly harass the United States and Japan the way nuclear-armed Pakistan (another ally of Beijing) does India, thereby weakening both and diverting their attention from Beijing and toward defense against North Korean asymmetric warfare. Indeed, the greater the DPRK menace, the more important it would be (in the traditional Washington calculus) to placate Beijing in order to incentivize it to prod Pyongyang into "better behavior" with the United States and Japan. Such has been the theory and practice since Clinton's tenure in the White House.


Sanctions backfire

The behavior of the "International Community" (i.e., the U.S.-led alliance) toward North Korea meets the classic definition of insanity, which is to repeat an activity over and over again in the expectation that it would generate a different result. The reality is that since 2001 and the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, Pyongyang has diversified its sources of cash and vital components, not for civilian, but for military use. Through various means such as counterfeiting, smuggling, cyber scamming, cybercurrency, hacking and sale of services to criminal and rogue players, the Kim regime has ensured that there is a sufficient flow of funds for the WMD program and its delivery systems. The more the sanctions lever gets used, the greater the resort of the Kim regime to such underground activities.

Paradoxically, such a shift has decreased, rather than enhanced global security, especially because the sanctions causing them have not been able to appreciably affect the North Korean WMD program, including its nuclear component. The DPRK regime leadership core believes that "Koreans are not Arabs," by which is meant that Kim Jong Un will not wait in a catatonic state the way Saddam or to a considerable extent Gadhafi did before their forces were attacked in 1990, 2003 and 2011 by a U.S.-led and a French-led coalition, respectively.


The DPRK leadership intends to build up military, especially WMD capabilities, and if necessary, "to strike first before an imminent" U.S.-led attack. This willingness to go to war if an attack by the other side is calculated to be imminent, introduces yet another strand of risk and uncertainty into the Korean peninsula calculus, making even the most casual public remarks by U.S. or Japanese leaders capable of triggering an armed response that from then on will follow a predetermined escalatory logic that early on escalates into the WMD stage.

Fear of slaughter may deter U.S.

The sending back of Otto Warmbier in a severely damaged condition may have been as a human "technology demonstrator" of what the North Korean regime is capable of, should it unleash its chemical or biological arsenal. According to elements north of the 38th parallel, the life-support systems of Warmbier were removed soon after he reached the United States "because of the realization that the damage to him was too extensive and permanent to permit anything in the way of [what may be called] a human life." In both South Korea and Japan, the DPRK is known to have embedded human vectors, who can get activated to spray biological agents in populated areas once a conflict begins.


Since 2015, Kim Jong Un has "given priority to setting up such networks in Canada as well," so that these may enter the United States easily, if needed. While efforts are ongoing to create agent networks in the United States that are similar to those already operational in Japan and South Korea, these seem to be some years from achieving criticality. Once Pyongyang develops enough nuclear and missile capability to render a U.S. attack merely a theoretical possibility, the forecast is that North Korea will facilitate "asymmetric warfare" vectors within the United States and Japan, the way Pakistan is active in India. Just as nuclear-armed Islamabad regards itself as safe from significant retaliation from Delhi, so will Pyongyang over Washington and Tokyo, once the capability to ensure mass slaughter within the continental United States gets perfected and demonstrated by the DPRK, a stage that technical personnel in Pyongyang expect will take place "well before the middle of 2018," no matter the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea. Stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have been added to since 2013 under instructions from Kim Jong Un.

Either the United States will have to learn to render minimally toxic its co-existence with North Korea (an option that Kim Jong Un does not extend to Japan) through ensuring what may be termed a "midday sunshine" policy toward the Kim regime, or it will have to learn to live with a succession of taunts, jabs and pinpricks the way India has had to ensure with Pakistan, once Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 declined the offer of the Soviet Union to jointly attack that country and destroy its military capabilities. The other option is war, well before mid-2019 (by which stage it will be too late, without horrendous loss of life, including on the west coast of the United States).


President Donald Trump has exchanged fiery rhetoric with Kim Jong Un. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

Trump nears decision mode

It is now up to Trump and his national security establishment to demonstrate in practice that they are not bluffing when they warn Pyongyang to disarm or face war. And if they are, to reach out to Kim Jong Un, rather than continue with a failed policy of sanctions that only drives North Korea into yet more toxic behavior, often clandestinely. Kim Jong Un will not disarm, and day by day he is increasing preparedness for a war that he will to fight without mercy. This is a war that he is seeking to prevent, not through surrender of WMD, but by crossing the threshold into nuclear and missile capability to hit cities within much of the continental United States.

Whether Trump is serious or not when he talks of war is, as yet, unclear. What is beyond doubt is that Kim Jong Un is wholly serious when he says that he will continue to develop WMD capability, no matter what the cost in sanctions. And that if a war comes, he will unleash on the United States and Japan (and South Korea, if Seoul joins forces with Tokyo and Washington) the full range of nuclear, conventional and asymmetric assets that he has built up at an accelerating pace since 2013, the year when he reached the definitive finding that compromise on the nuclear issue was no longer an option.


The unthinking rush to vengeance against a miscellany of Arab despots by George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande have created a crisis in the Korean peninsula that may lead to the world's first nuclear war since 1945. Every day that passes, such a war will harvest more casualties and consequences.

Madhav Das Nalapat is a professor and the director of the Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, UNESCO peace chair and the editorial director of The Sunday Guardian-India and NewsX channel.

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