With prospects growing that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could soon have long-range nuclear missiles at his disposal, Donald Trump is threatening a military response. Suddenly nuclear war seems possible, but how great is the threat of escalation?
Rehearsals for the apocalypse have long been underway. Every two months, always in the early afternoon, the sirens begin wailing in Seoul. Cars and buses come to a halt, civil defense officials take up their positions at busy intersections and volunteers wearing yellow armbands guide pedestrians into the nearest shelter, of which there are hundreds in the South Korean capital.
The army, too, is prepared. Highways between Seoul and the border at the 38th parallel are lined with watchtowers and every few kilometers, heavy, concrete barriers hang above the road. Should war break out, explosive charges would drop the barriers onto the roadway, blocking the way to attackers. Beaches on the coast are likewise outfitted with tank traps and barbed wire — all in an effort to protect the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from the poor yet heavily armed north.
The facilities are defensive in nature, but the South Korean military also has an attack plan, abbreviated as KMPR, which stands for Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation. The details are secret, but the first scenes of a new Korean war would look more or less as follows: Before North Korea could attack, the South would seek to eliminate its opponent’s missile launch sites with cruise missiles of its own while anti-aircraft defenses would shoot down those rockets that evaded the initial strikes. Before North Korea could set its infantry in march, the plan calls for South Korean special forces to infiltrate Pyongyang and liquidate dictator Kim Jong Un.
When South Korea’s defense minister spoke publicly for the first time about these plans last September, it was primarily of interest to Asian military experts. Now, though, the scenarios described seem disturbingly realistic. The Korean Peninsula hasn’t been this close to military conflict since 2006, the pro-Chinese government newspaper Global Times recently wrote in Beijing.
From a global perspective, the situation could hardly be more sensitive. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un is a dictator who appears prepared to wage war to ensure his regime’s survival, one which could result in hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of casualties. On the other side of the world, in Washington, D.C., sits Donald Trump, a democratically elected president who knows little about the world but who, in addition to the nuclear codes, also possesses a Twitter account that he tends to use imprudently. He has also shown, in both Syria and Afghanistan, that he isn’t shy about deploying cruise missiles and massive bombs.
As such, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un isn’t the only destabilizing factor in this conflict. And the other is sitting in the White House. Combined, the two are fraying nerves across the globe.
On New Year’s Day, three weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Kim announced that his country would soon be testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Such a rocket would have sufficient range to reach the North American continent and Kim’s disclosure was the most concrete and credible threat of a direct attack on the U.S. that his regime had yet issued.
“It won’t happen,” Trump answered in a tweet, essentially laying down a red line that his predecessor Barack Obama never drew with respect to North Korea.
Trump sees Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal as the greatest danger facing U.S. national security, but he isn’t just inexperienced when it comes to foreign policy — he often veers into downright clumsiness. A recent example came two weeks ago, when he announced that he had directed a U.S. aircraft carrier to head toward North Korea as a warning — even though the vessel was actually heading in the opposite direction to take part in a maneuver near Australia. Whether it was a bluff or whether Trump had misunderstood something remains unclear — even as the vessel, the USS Carl Vinson, is now steaming toward Korean waters — but it does show the degree to which things can go wrong under this commander-in-chief.
Following the numerous failures and defeats he has suffered early on in his presidency, Trump badly needs successes to present to his supporters as he passes the symbolically important 100-day threshold. An aggressive stance toward North Korea at least gives him the appearance of resolve and Trump hopes to demonstrate that he is able to stand up to the Pyongyang dictator. When he launched 59 missiles at Syria earlier this month, he received praise even from commentators who don’t normally have a kind word to say about this president. Because of Trump’s apparent addiction to public acclaim, it isn’t difficult to imagine the conclusions he drew.
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