If the escalation of the crisis over the advancing nuclear weapons program in North Korea has taught observers anything, perhaps the biggest lesson is that in the face of all that would appear to be sane and rational, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to choose what seems to be the “worst case scenario” option at each progressive critical juncture.
By now, readers are likely aware that any number of Washington politicians and ex-government figures have said that the United States ought to simply lie back and “accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” There are additional geopolitical armchair quarterbacks who insist that despite his bellicose rhetoric, Kim Jong Un is “sane” and “rational,” i.e., “not crazy,” and therefore, we should be able to expect that as a nuclear-armed nation, North Korea would abide by the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) that kept the Soviet Union from attacking the United States during the Cold War.
Of course, left out of these arguments is the fact that for most of the Cold War, half of all Soviet citizens weren’t starving to death (excluding, perhaps, during the terrible Russian famine of Stalin’s time). But also, these arguments ignore that Russian leaders weren’t executing their own uncles with anti-aircraft guns or rubbing out their half-brothers in Malaysian airports. In fact, other than during the Cuban missile crisis, there were precious few moments of direct confrontation where it seemed like the Soviets might attack the United States, against all odds of logic and common sense — quite unlike the recent pronouncements Kim Jong Un made about U.S. military bases in Guam a month ago or so.
Recent estimates by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) have stated that North Korea may be in possession of as many as 60 nuclear weapons, but even if that estimate is totally off-base, it’s no secret that the North Koreans are working as quickly as possible to ramp up production of nuclear bombs that can fit into the nose cones of their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — ICBMs that could one day land on an American city.
Whether it’s 20 bombs or 60 bombs today, why on Earth would North Korea stop the production of these weapons?
Estimates of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, by comparison, average somewhere around 80 nuclear weapons, and it’s said that the United States has perhaps 4,000 such weapons in its active inventory (with another 2,800 in some form of retirement). But why would the North Koreans stop even at that level? What would motivate them to cease production?
What would a nuclear North Korea look like that’s in possession of not 60, but 6,000 nuclear bombs? In some analysts’ eyes, that brings them to a par level with the largest of nuclear states in the world presently — the United States and Russia. Such a fearsome stockpile would give North Korea tremendous leverage over its neighbors and perhaps even over its great protector and trading partner, China.
As Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford recently noted, North Korea has already proven itself to be a proliferator of nuclear technology of the first order, trading reactor parts and missile plans with states like Syria and Iran, and this is even before their weapons program has advanced to a stage where it can be considered truly dangerous to the world.
When such a country, which is in desperate, extreme need of hard currency, considers its options — with one of those options being a transformation from one of the world’s poorest regimes to one of the richest — the prospect of proliferating its weapons and technology further likely appears to be a no-brainer.
It’s under these conditions that the United States has to consider the cost of not taking immediate action to halt North Korea’s ambitions. As many analysts have pointed out, it’s in no country’s interest except North Korea’s to have a new nation in Asia possessing and proliferating nuclear weapons. Of course, readers are also probably aware that these same analysts have been repeating like a mantra that “there are no good military options when it comes to dealing with North Korea”; all choices would lead to devastating casualties and destruction.
So what other alternatives are left?
It appears, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken great pains to proclaim, that trade sanctions against North Korea are not working. There are many reports that North Korean factories are happily continuing to produce goods for export and simply slapping “Made in China” labels on their products before they’re shipped. And likely, China is not only aware of this practice, it’s complicit in it. As a way to gain leverage over the United States, China is able to use North Korea’s threats to play “good cop, bad cop” with the United States and see how far it can push things.
Could China get the U.S. to leave South Korea, the South China Sea or even Asia itself if Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric is belligerent enough (with China [and perhaps even Russia] backing up North Korea if the U.S. preemptively strikes it)? While China publicly claims to be as supremely annoyed with North Korea’s behavior as the U.S. is, it’s pretty unlikely that this is the case; China has much to gain militarily from another nation in Asia threatening to attack America.
So where does this leave the administration of President Trump? Ordinarily, many might say the White House has few choices it can make. But as it turns out, the U.S. still holds a few significant cards it can play in this high-stakes game if it needs to.
The fact of the matter is that China is capable of applying much, much more pressure to its smaller eastern neighbor if it so desires. More than 90 percent of North Korea’s oil supply comes from China. While analysts have said North Korea may have as much as a year’s supply of oil reserves, if there was any significant military action within that year, the time frame becomes much shorter. These same analysts say that in wartime conditions, North Korea might have just one month’s worth of oil, which means that after that runs out, not much will be able to move (or be heated) in the Hermit Kingdom.
Consider this: U.S. trade with China is valued at approximately $650 billion per year currently. If the U.S. were to suddenly halt this trade, it would certainly be painful (at least in the short term) for the United States. But for China, it would be near catastrophic. In fact, such a move could be as simple as denying the largest Chinese banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and the China Construction Bank — the ability to trade in U.S. dollars. Faced with this threat, China would likely sit down at a bargaining table with the U.S. and try to work something out regarding North Korea.
And this is to say nothing of the potential of China’s other neighbors in the region such as Japan or South Korea acquiring their own nuclear weapons from the United States or elsewhere. For some China-watchers, this step alone might be enough to prod the Chinese to act more forcefully against the regime of Kim Jong Un.
Recently, in an interview with 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose, former White House Chief Strategist and Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon raised these prospects, but warned that such steps should not be considered casually. “We have tremendous leverage in capital markets; we have tremendous leverage with Chinese banks,” he said. However, “you don’t use this lightly; it would have an impact here in the United States — there’s no doubt about it.”