On 31st July 2017 I wrote an article for The Duran in which I said that the US is overreacting to the North Korean ballistic missile tests
Here is what I wrote in that article
……though the test launches of the Hwasong-14 missile represent an impressive technical achievement – all the more so because the missile is mobile and road launched – the missile appears to be still in its development stage, with its payload apparently small and with great uncertainty as to whether the North Koreans have miniaturised their nuclear warhead technology sufficiently to arm it. There is therefore still time before the missile enters service and does so in any quantity.
Beyond these questions there remains the overriding fact that even if North Korea does eventually field a number of operational missiles of this sort its nuclear capabilities will still be overwhelmingly dwarfed by those of the US, a fact which because of the immense industrial and technological disparity between the two powers will never change. What that means is that unless the entire North Korean leadership – including Kim Jong-un – are intent on a bizarre form of suicide, there is no possibility of North Korea launching nuclear armed Hwasong-14 missiles at the US except in self-defence.
The US can therefore afford to take these North Korean missile tests in its stride. By contrast threatening military action against North Korea – or worse still actually engaging in it – is the one thing that might actually provoke North Korea to strike against the US – or more realistically against one of the US’s allies – of which in all other respects no risk exists.
In the short time since those words were written it has become clear that North Korea’s capabilities have been grossly underestimated. There are now reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency – the US intelligence agency once headed by General Flynn – has reported to the US National Security Council that North Korea has successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead and developed a re-entry vehicle for its Hwasong-14 missile. Supposedly North Korea also now has a stockpile of up to 60 nuclear bombs – far more than previously thought.
If this information is correct then the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme has advanced much faster and much further than anyone – including the Chinese and the Russians – anticipated, further confirming my longstanding point that the perennial claim that the country is a backward economic basket-case simply cannot be true (see below).
However the main contention I made in my article of 31st July 2017 remains true. Even if North Korea has indeed developed a useable nuclear weapons capability which it is able to launch against the continental US – or against the US’s far flung network of military bases like Guam – sooner than anyone expected, its nuclear weapons capability is still overwhelmingly dwarfed by that of the US and will always be so.
For North Korea to launch an unprovoked attack on the US would therefore be an act of national suicide, both on the part of its people and its leadership, and there is nothing to suggest that North Korea’s leaders are considering it. On the contrary the consistent explanation the North Koreans give for their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is that it is defensive – intended to deter a US attack upon themselves – and – as I have repeatedly pointed out – that is the only explanation which makes sense.
Here is what I wrote about North Korean intentions on 29th April 2017, during the previous occasion when relations between the US and North Korea seemed to be veering towards crisis
What purpose then does the North Korean nuclear weapons programme have?
An obvious starting point in any discussion of this issue ought to be what the North Korean government itself says.
There is a difficulty here because the political language North Korea uses comes across to a foreign ear as so rhetorically inflated and bombastic that it is sometimes difficult to take it seriously. However this commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s Workers Party, explains the motivation behind North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme clearly enough
Recently, the U.S. representative to the UN, faulting the DPRK’s just measure for bolstering the nuclear deterrence, said that it may pose threat to the U.S. and several other countries and that “countries doing bad acts” like the DPRK would not sign the convention on banning nuclear weapons nor would be willing to implement it.
This is a gross distortion of the situation.
The U.S. is deliberately distorting and hyping up the situation in a bid to turn the table in its favor. The aim is to brand the DPRK as a harasser of peace, cover up its true colors as a hideous nuclear criminal and justify its moves for stifling the DPRK.
It has neither qualifications nor rights to fault the DPRK’s measures for bolstering the nuclear deterrence.It is also not entitled to trumpet about the convention on banning the nuclear weapons.
The U.S. is trying to convince the public that the world denuclearization has not been realized because of the DPRK. This is senseless rubbish shunning the historical course of why the DPRK was compelled to opt for having access to nuclear weapons and bolstering them qualitatively and quantitatively and why it became necessary for the world to have the convention on banning nuclear weapons.
It is none other than the U.S. which compelled the DPRK to have access to nuclear weapons and it is again the U.S. which persistently forced the DPRK to bolster them qualitatively and quantitatively.
The DPRK’s nuclear deterrence is not to threaten others but it is a means for self-defence to defend the sovereignty of the country from the U.S. nuclear war provocation in every aspect.
The DPRK will continue to exercise this right with dignity no matter what others may say.
(bold italics added)
In other words North Korea decided to acquire nuclear weapons not out of some fanatical desire to attack the US, or because it wants to use its nuclear weapons to conquer South Korea or to hold the entire world hostage – all of them suicidal acts of no conceivable benefit to itself – but because it feels threatened by the US.
This is both clear and logical and is in line with what is known of the recent historical record.
I repeat all this today especially because so much Western commentary seems to assume the opposite. Here for example is a commentary which appeared on 9th August 2017 in the London Times, whose owner Rupert Murdoch is known to be close to US President Trump and which may therefore reflect his thinking or that of his advisers
The questions the US intelligence community will be asking are: what are Kim’s intentions? Does he really intend to launch a nuclear ICBM attack on an American city? If so, what does he expect to gain by doing so?
Intentions are always the most difficult part of intelligence analysis. The North Korean leader has publicly warned that he wants to attack the US. But is it just the warning of a seriously insecure, isolated leader or does he really believe the launching of an ICBM will solve his problems and bring the US to its knees?
(bold italics added)
The highlighted words straightforwardly describe North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un as wanting to attack the US and therefore as a crazed fanatic – a sort of real life Captain Ahab figure with nuclear missiles – whose hatred of the US is apparently so extreme that he is busy acquiring nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for no other reason than because he wants to attack the US. The implication is that unless he is stopped he will actually do so before long.
Nothing Kim Jong-un has ever said or which has been said by any other official of the North Korean government gives any reason for thinking that this is the case. All the comments they have made – and all the surrounding facts which are known and which provide the context for these comments – shows on the contrary that Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s other leaders are rational people and that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is as they say defensive, and has no other purpose other than to deter a US attack on themselves.
Given that this is so there is no reason to fear an unprovoked North Korean nuclear attack on the US or indeed on any other country – including South Korea – and there is no reason or excuse to go on talking as if there is a real risk of one.
The tragedy is that if direct talks leading to a peace treaty between the US and North Korea had taken place before the mid 2000s – as was in fact promised – they might have borne fruit by now. In that case we would be looking at a peaceful and stable situation in the Korean Peninsula without North Korea having acquired ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons or feeling the need to do so.
Instead – because of the folly of previous US administrations, most especially of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations – North Korea now possesses both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and may have – though this is still disputed – the continental United States within reach. Needless to say, that will make negotiating with North Korea leading look like a US climbdown.
Not only will that be a humiliation for the US – and one which it will not be able to conceal – but it will also be a disaster for the world’s already tattered nuclear non-proliferation regime, laboriously created by the superpowers in the 1960s, but already honoured increasingly in the breach.
To be clear, the US starting talks with North Korea now – after North Korea has acquired ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons – when the US has previously consistently refused to do so, will serve an object lesson to the whole world and to force the US to the negotiating table is to threaten it with nuclear weapons.
That is a lesson all sorts of people around the world are going to learn. The high probability is that the result will be that what is left of the world’s nuclear non proliferation regime will collapse. Deplorable though that prospect is – and to be clear, the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons is a very bad and dangerous thing – it is the inevitable consequence of the reckless regime change follies the US has indulged in since the end of the Cold War.
There is however nothing now to be done about this, and the US needs to put aside its customary intransigence and fire-eating and counter-productive rhetoric and do what the Chinese are urging it to do, which is sit down and talk with North Korea now.
Apparently the North Koreans have said at a conference in Manila that they are prepared to sit down and talk – though they have reiterated that they will not under any circumstances give up the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capability which they have so painstakingly acquired – something which should surprise no one.
The alternative is to go on as we have been doing: lurching into an uncontrolled arms race in East Asia that the US knows almost nothing about.
One of the points I have repeatedly hammered home in The Duran about the US’s conflict with North Korea is the US’s catastrophic ignorance of the country. Here is what I said about this in my article of 29th April 2017
One of the difficulties in discussing North Korea is that knowledge of the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’ is so limited.No Western leader has ever met with Kim Jong-un, and nor at the highest level have the Chinese and Russian leaderships. There is scarcely any knowledge of the institutional frame-work within which he works. We do not know who his top advisers are and how he consults them. We do not know how well-informed he is about the world or even about North Korea itself. We do not know how intelligent he is, or if there is any institution like a Politburo or a cabinet or a Security Council which he consults. We do not know what his exact relationship with his top civilian and military officials is.
The West’s extraordinary ignorance of the most basic facts about North Korea is shown by the fact that there is even uncertainty about the identity of the institution or institutions which control North Korea’s secret police……
It is clear however that the North Korean government, however it is organised, is efficient or at least effective, that it is in complete control of the country, and that it both makes decisions regularly and is able to enforce them across the whole country.
Just as we know next to nothing about North Korea’s government, we are similarly profoundly ill-informed about North Korea’s economy.
North Korea’s success in pursuing a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme shows North Korea must have a significant industrial and technology base, which must encompass fields like advanced chemistry and nuclear physics. North Korea’s success in making its own smart phones and tablets and in developing its own apparently extensive intranet (the “Kwangmyong“) suggests it must have a reasonably sophisticated computer and IT industry it can draw upon. Pictures of Pyongyang, which appear from time to time in the Western media, show it to be a highly modern even futuristic city, a significant fact in itself even if Pyongyang is a show-case which is not representative of the whole country.
Nonetheless despite these obvious signs of industrial and technological strength and modernity there remains a widespread view that North Korea is a primitive basket-case of a country, with its people struggling in conditions barely above subsistence.
Frankly that doesn’t seem fully consistent with the known facts.
Lastly, we remain supremely ignorant of North Korea’s actual military capabilities. Though North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests no-one outside North Korea knows how many nuclear weapons it has, or whether it possesses the means to deliver those nuclear weapons it does have.
The latest report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency, even if it exaggerates North Korean capabilities, highlights the disastrous consequences of this ignorance, and of the bad and arrogant decisions it has led to.
It turns out that North Korea may now have an intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capability bringing even Washington DC within reach that even the Chinese and the Russians thought thought it would not acquire before 2040. A North Korean nuclear challenge that no-one outside Pyongyang imagined the US would face for another 20 years is already upon us.
At its most basic level, this is a catastrophic failure of intelligence, showing how completely wrong about North Korea at least in this respect the US and most of the rest of the outside world has been. How do we know if instead of talks there is now an arms race that there won’t be other, possibly still more catastrophic, intelligence failures further down the line?
I will finish by quoting a famous epigram attributed to the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you are a fool and will succumb in every battle
In relation to North Korea it is high time the US admitted that it doesn’t know its enemy, and there are times when I wonder whether it even knows itself.
In other words the US has been behaving like a fool, setting itself up for defeat in a conflict involving nuclear weapons where its own national territory may be at risk. In the interests of the world and itself it is desperately important that it stops doing so.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.