A New Korean War Scenario: Possibility of the U.S. to Take Pyongyang’s Aggressive Missile Tests as Attack

For decades, general rule over the North Korea problem has been that neither the United States nor North Korea can initiate an attack. It is basically intact even today after the repeated tests of Inter-Continental and Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles as well as nuclear bombs. The same amount of rainfall may break the banks if it rains in a short time, however, while it may cause no harm if it rains over time. Pyongyang’s urgency and radicalness makes us worry, at least to some extent, about a new war risk scenario that we have not seriously considered before.

Records of Recent Erratic Provocations by North Korea

On July 4 (Japan time), North Korea launched ICBM KN-20 with lofted trajectory toward Japan Sea.

On July 28 midnight, NK launched IRBM KN-17 with lofted trajectory toward Japan Sea.

On August 10, state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in detail that Pyongyang had plans to fire four IRBMs to land 30-40 kilometres from Guam, flying 3356.7 km for 1,065 seconds over Shimane, Hiroshima, and Kochi prefectures of Japan,

On August 29, NK launched IRBM KN-17, overflying Hokkaido of Japan and landing 1,180 km east of Cape Erimo.

On September 3, NK conducted a sixth nuclear test. It was about 17 times stronger than the bomb dropped at Hiroshima. Pyongyang claimed it was a hydrogen bomb. On the same day morning, KCNA deliberately revealed a picture of Kim Jong Un, observing a hydrogen bomb warhead, so they claimed, to be loaded on ICBM.

These magnitudes of events took place in only two months. Such quick pace shocks the world even if some of the provocative actions were seen as countermeasures to the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises and strict sanctions.

Kim Jong Un reportedly said it was necessary to modernize NK’s strategic forces and conduct more ballistic rocket launching drills toward the Pacific as a target. If his words are correct, North Korea will not stop, but accelerate its tests of missiles and nukes in the future.

Targeting the Pacific Ocean means that North Korean missiles will fly over Japanese archipelago. Big tragedy for Japan if they fail and fall! North Korea has launched missiles overflying Japanese territory for five times (until now) since August 1998. A Missile launch as of August 29 was more than 18 months after the previous missile-test to fly over Japan (Okinawa). From now on, however, we will have to be prepared for North Korean missile tests to overfly Japan far more frequently than ever.

 On September 15, only 17 days since August 29, NK launched IRBM KN-17, overflying Hokkaido of Japan and landing 2,200 km east of Cape Erimo. The total range was estimated to be 3,700, being enough to reach Guam.

In order to make ballistic missiles deployable, it is necessary to extend its range. We will eventually see North Korean missiles, potentially being able to carry nuclear warhead, will land in high seas within a stone’s throw from the U.S. territory. Here arises the risk of war between the United States and North Korea.


What If Americans Take Pyongyang’s Provocation as An Attack?

North Koreans seem to be thinking that they are following a tacit “rule” with the United States: no initiation of an attack on the other. When they announced their intention in August to fire four IRBMs toward Guam, they clearly stated missiles would land on the sea surface 30-40 kilometres away from Guam. Territorial water is usually considered to be 12 nautical miles, i.e. approximately 22.2 km. Even in rampant phrases, North Koreans must have sent a message that they would not fire missiles into the U.S. territory. The issue is, however, the United States may not always agree with Pyongyang’s selfish logic.

By all odds, the United States is unlikely to determine to take military option if North Korean missiles land on high sea off the territory of Guam only once. But what if such missile launches are repeated? And what if IRBMs/ICBMs are launched into high sea near the West Coast? Even if Pyongyang has no intention of attacking the U.S territory, it is very iffy whether the United States will take North Korean actions as mere tests.

 Russia and China, who possess nuclear-warhead ICBMs covering the continental United States, conducted ICBMs flight test this year. But the frequencies of the test and the location of the landing points were carefully designed in both cases so as not to be taken as threatening the United States. Russians test-fired missiles toward Kazakhstani site in March. Chinese did so toward deserts in China’s northwest in January.

At the (very) initial phase of North Korean missile launch until the data-processing is due, the United States does not know if the missiles are heading toward the U.S. territory, or into high sea off its coast. The United States will have to be nervous every time North Korea (test-) fires missiles. The situation will be far more stressful if North Korea convinces us (in very near future) of its ability to weaponize nuclear-warhead ICBMs. Will the U.S. President and American people be forever patient?

Let us remember the basic understanding on the use of force in Korean problem: neither the United States nor North Korea can initiate war. But it does not mean that either should refrain from any use of force when attacked. When the United States, be it Guam, Hawaii, or continental mainland, is attacked, it will never hesitate to war with North Korea. Americans will not worry about Seoul or Tokyo if their own territory is under attack.

North Korea has repeatedly conducted both nuclear and missile tests. And it has claimed its ability to attack the United States. (For example, Kim Jong Un was reported to say that North Korea has almost completed its nuclear war-fighting capability on September 16.) If Pyongyang repeatedly launch ICBMs/IRBMs to land on high sea very close to the U.S. territory, we cannot exclude the possibility that the United States will judge North Korea has both “capability and will” to attack the States. Then, it will finally decide to use force against North Korea. Washington may also try (under coordination and cooperation with China) “regime change” even there will be a risk of inviting war.

Basically, it is not unlawful to use force preemptively if there exists imminent threat. In case of 2003 Iraqi War, there was no consensus in international society whether Saddam Hussein had material “capability and will” to attack the United States, including the development of weapons of mass destruction. In the above case, however, North Korean “capability and will” can be said to be far clearer. It would be easier for the United States to claim its use of force as an exercise of right to defense. The U.S. government also has an option to legally legitimize its attack as North Korea has breached Korean Armistice Agreement. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 83 already authorized the member states to use of force in July 1950.

We didn’t have to worry about this kind of war scenario until recently. Kim Jong Il, Jong Un’s late father, was more cautious. But young Jong Un is not. Personality of Kim Jong Un aside, however, I would like to point out two reasons why North Korea has become dangerously provocative.

First, there is a possibility that Kim Jong Un has been accelerating nuclear and missile tests because he and his regime feel really threatened by the words and behavior of his enemies—mainly the United States. For our part, we are pressuring North Korea by increasing military exercise and deployment, or posing severer sanctions as responses to Pyongyang’s provocations. However, who is acting and who is reacting is blurred in the repeated action-reaction circles. President Donald Trump has also diligently joined this reproductive cycle by his careless tweet. (Prime Minister Abe seems to join Trump by innocently emphasizing only “pressure.” ) In any case, the more Kim feels threatened, the more desperately North Korea tries to show its muscles to deter the enemy. North Korea believes that only nuclear missile reaching the United States is the guarantor of its safety.

Second, Kim Jong Un may be considering that the United States is deterred now that North Korea has almost completed ICBMs/IRBMs to carry nuclear warhead and reach American territory. Having learned lessons from the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Pyongyang has desperately developed nuclear weapons and delivery system. But the logic of nuclear deterrence against the United States could be true when the United States does not perceive to be attacked. If the United States finds “imminent” threat in extremely provocative behaviors by North Korea, there is a chance that the United States is not deterred by its adversary’s nukes. In the Cuban Crisis when the United States felt really threatened, President Kennedy seriously considered an option to initiate nuclear war with Soviet Union, with whom nuclear parity existed. It goes without saying that the nuclear and strategic balance between the United States and North Korea is far from parity.

In other words, a mere fact that North Korea has possessed nuclear missiles being able to reach the American territories will not be enough to move the United States to decide an attack on North Korea. If Kim Jong Un slows down the pace of development and deployment of nuclear-warhead ICBMs/IRBMs, say conducting nuclear and long-range missile test only occasionally, I speculate his ambition will be more safely realized.

Of course, it is not an easy choice for the United States to go to war with North Korea. Especially at the early stage of war, North Korea may attack South Korea and Japan and potentially pose considerable damage to U.S. bases and American citizens in the two allies. Should nuclear missiles are used, the damage could be catastrophic. Furthermore, nobody can guarantee that the U.S territory is 100% safe. The U.S. government will let American citizens covertly leave South Korea and Japan if it determines to attack North Korea. But Pyongyang will surely find out such movement and may attack us preemptively.

If the tension escalates further, there is also a possibility that North Korea perceives to be attacked, faced with the increase in demonstrative military actions by the United States and South Korea (and Japan) in and around the Korean Peninsula. That is, we may see the situation where either the United States or North Korea, or both, would take the action by the other an attack on itself. Then, the general rule that neither the United States nor North Korea could initiate war against the other is out of question.

Should it happen, the Kim dynasty would be ruined. At the same time, Japan and South Korea would experience critical damage. Kim Jong Un said “We should not judge the United States by its words. Americans must show (their good will) by action.” Well, it is also Kim Jong Un himself who should worry how he is seen.

<English translation based on the Japanese posts as of September 10th and 11th.>

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