Over the last month, North Korea has significantly escalated tensions on the peninsula by announcing it has entered a “state of war” with South Korea, closed key border areas, and announced the reactivation of shuttered nuclear facilities. The statement, carried by the communist country’s KCNA news agency, says inter-Korean relations will be dealt with in a wartime manner. “From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly,” the statement said, according to Reuters. In addition, North Korea previously scrapped the armistice and in effect re-entered into an official “WAR” with the United States. The fact that the U.S. is now in “war” and little to nothing has been said by the U.S. to the public is not only unsettling, but appears to be dereliction on the part of the White House to take this threat seriously. This prompts the question, how serious is North Korea about re-igniting a shooting war? Further, what are the larger strategic ramifications of North Korea’s escalation? Our analysts believe that the White House’s position that this is just more rhetoric is failing to appreciate the strategic situation as a real and developing threat.
The intelligence community and military are no doubt paying attention, even if quietly. Demonstrating support for this conclusion have been the rapid deployment of additional stealth aircraft and warships to the Korean theater. Currently though, it appears that no major military preparations in North Korea are underway. However, some activity around missile sites suggests that North Korea may conduct additional missile tests as soon as this week to further heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula and to try and force negotiations for de-escalation. Although, propaganda photos distributed appear to show missile trajectories that target the U.S. and its interests, North Korea doesn’t possess a proven capability to effectively carry-out such an attack. Further, some speculate that North Korea’s boy dictator, Kim Jong Un, has not solidified his control over the military and this game of brinkmanship is designed to show his internal circle he is a capable military commander more than it has anything to do with the outside world. This has led analysts to again conclude North Korea’s threats are just more rhetoric designed to elicit aid to the starving and backward dictatorship.
The analysis above summarizes the general mood of the intelligence community and analysts toward North Korea. The problem is this analysis has remained static while the world has changed. It is true that North Korea has perpetually “cried wolf,” but one must consider the game board as larger than a single peninsula. The fact is that the position the U.S. has previously enjoyed for decades has been eroded to the point of signaling a major geopolitical power shift. As such, one must re-evaluate motives, assessments, and ground truths. The military and intelligence community have at least not projected outwardly they have grasped this global sea change setting the U.S. and North Korea up for potential miscalculations and disaster.
For starters, analysts haven’t grasped that how the world view of America has shifted for the worse. In short, the U.S. now appears weak and unable to react to foreign analysts. The U.S. military has been exhausted over the last decade of constant war. Although the military now has a hardened cadre of combat seasoned soldiers and a conventional military unmatched globally, stock piles of supplies have been diminished, budgets have been cut, troop strengths has been slashed, and the appetite for further war is zero amongst both soldiers and citizens. Further, the U.S. is broke and the economies of Europe and the U.S. have remained weak and teetering on collapse. Even worse, the U.S. and NATO are seen as weak and as having been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Irrespective of whether or not the U.S. did or didn’t not “take the gloves off” and use its full might in those wars, the world perception is one of a country weakened and in retreat much like the Soviet Union circa 1989. Finally, the U.S. is seen as having tied itself down in a strategic struggle in the Middle East targeting Iran, while countries like China have rapidly built up their presence and military capabilities abroad. This sets the stage for drastic strategic miscalculation.
Our analysts are arguing that Kim Jong Un is not blind or ignorant to the capabilities of the U.S. as he was raised in part in the west. Instead, North Korea’s leader is dangerously over confident he can win a war of brinkmanship against a now weakened U.S. that is retreating globally. In particular, the U.S. has appeared weak in the Pacific against a growing Chinese dominance and has failed to check China’s moves against Japan and inroads in Taiwan. These areas are key to the collective perception of the U.S. by North Korea. Further, North Korea has witnessed what they consider a far inferior enemy in Iraq fight the U.S. to a hasty withdrawal and in Afghanistan to strategic defeat. Further, North Korea sees the U.S. military primarily focused on Iran and unable to deal with issues outside of the Middle East. Based on this, North Korea likely assesses the U.S. unwilling and unable to prosecute a full scale war on the Korean Peninsula. Add to the fact the U.S. economy is in shambles and the national debt is approaching default levels, one can see why Kim Jong Un suddenly has found his footing.
Unfortunately, North Korea’s assessment doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. can marshal an overwhelming strategic and or conventional military force against North Korea should rounds begin to be exchanged. For this reason alone the U.S. remains supremely confident in its dismissive attitude. Herein lies the serious danger for strategic miscalculation. For the first time, North Korea and the U.S. “both” believe they legitimately can back the other down and win in the event of war based on miscalculations by analysts on both sides. In fact, this situation is so dire, that Russia, seeing the developing crisis from its vantage point, has strongly urged both parties to de-escalate. Considering the above from a detached perspective, we assess that a very real threat has emerged not from intent, but due to miscalculation that could quickly lead to events spiraling out of control should any side misstep.
Strategically speaking, the U.S. has far more to lose than North Korea. Should North Korea follow through with its rhetoric, even in a limited fashion, the hand of South Korean politicians to finally retaliate may actually engulf the peninsula in war. The fact thousands of Americans are stationed there assures large U.S. casualties in the opening hours of a major war, which would force the U.S. into a hot war. Further, although North Korea is not assessed as having missiles capable of effectively reaching the U.S., North Korea could possible detonate a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere and generate a substantial electromagnetic pulse capable of wiping out electronics for hundreds of miles or more depending on the size of the nuclear blast, the altitude, and proximity. This could also be catastrophic for orbiting satellites and disrupt communication, commerce, and navigation globally.
Regardless of how the war is fought, a war would undo the entire geopolitical order. The U.S. would not have the ability to project force beyond Korea and its debt will expand beyond sustainable levels making it quite possible the U.S. would collapse from within before any long term war is concluded on a battlefield. This frees China to force its hand in the Pacific realm and Iran to continue its programs without fear of retribution. Even if the U.S. was to prevail, it would be at best a pyric victory as the U.S. would likely lose its empire much as England did after incurring the crippling costs of World Wars I and II. It is now time for the White House to wake-up and recognize how the world order has changed and update its playbook before it is too late.
By Guiles Hendrik
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