As the crisis between the US and North Korea waxes and wanes, a commonly expressed view is that it is not a real crisis at all but an exercise in ‘bait and switch’, an attempt both to draw attention away and to justify the activation of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea, which has now been activated.
This is a superficially attractive view. THAAD is strongly opposed by China, and there is also widespread opposition to it in South Korea. Cranking up tensions against North Korea is an effective way both of drawing international attention away from it, and for justifying its deployment to the South Korean public.
THAAD however is almost certainly not the reason for the recent outbreak in the crisis between the US and North Korea. Opposition from China and in South Korea was not going to prevent the deployment of THAAD, even if the incoming South Korean President is said to be unenthusiastic about it. Given the dangerous rise in tensions and the very serious possibility of things going dangerously wrong, it is scarcely conceivable the US – even when led by an administration as inexperienced as that of Donald Trump – would have deliberately stirred up a crisis in the Korean Peninsula in order to get THAAD deployed, when it was going to be deployed anyway.
In fact the reason there is currently a crisis in the Korean Peninsula is not difficult to see. It is the acceleration of the North Korean ballistic missile programme and Kim Jong-un’s almost certainly untrue boast that North Korea will be in possession of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US before long. It is the possibility that Washington might itself soon be within the reach of the nuclear missiles of a regime the US is profoundly ignorant of and whose sanity it regularly questions that has policy makers there filled with alarm.
I would add that though North Korea is probably decades away from a capability to reach the US, the pattern of its ballistic missile tests show that it is indeed becoming more ambitious in its ballistic missile programme. The chart showing the success and failure rates of North Korean ballistic missile tests provided by my colleague Alex Christoforou shows this.
The reason North Korean missile tests before 2013 regularly ended in failure was because North Korea had not yet perfected the technology of the short and medium ranged ballistic missiles it was testing. The 100% success rate of its tests in 2013 and 2014 however shows that by those years this technology had been fully perfected and had become reliable.
The fact that there have been more unsuccessful tests since then is not a sign of regression. Nor is it a sign of successful US interference in North Korea’s ballistic missile programme through the introduction of computer viruses and the like.
Rather it is a sign that North Korea is now developing and testing new more advanced and more powerful missiles, whose technology it has not yet perfected.
In other words the recent increase in the failure rate of North Korean ballistic missile tests is a cause of concern, not of complacency. That unquestionably is how the US intelligence community interprets it.
Though THAAD is not the reason behind the recent increase in tensions in the Korean Peninsula, it is nonetheless inherently destabilising.
Though THAAD is pitched as a defence against attack from North Korea, there is no doubt the Chinese see it is a significant threat to themselves. This is not because they worry that it can compromise their own strategic deterrent capability – which is obviously much greater than North Korea’s – or because its attendant radar systems have a range that can extend deep into China – a view which has recently been widely expressed.
The claim that THAAD is being used as a cover to deploy an advanced radar system close to China overlooks the fact that the US could deploy an advanced radar system to South Korea any time it wished without needing THAAD to provide it with cover. Indeed it would be politically much easier to do so if the radar system did not come with THAAD. The Chinese undoubtedly know this, and it is unlikely that it is the presence of the radar system they object to.
The likely reason the Chinese worry about THAAD is the same reason the Russians worry about the US’s deployment of anti ballistic missile interceptors in Romania and Poland: the installations for these interceptors could be quickly converted for use by offensive medium range missiles targeted against China and Russia. Moreover because the systems are based so close to Chinese and Russian territory, the reaction times if the installations were converted in that way would be drastically shortened.
The background to all this is the US’s unilateral decision in the early 200os to scrap the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, which has previously constrained the US from developing – or purporting to develop – anti ballistic missile systems. Contrary to US claims that this was intended to provide the US and its allies with a line of defence against missile attacks from Iran and North Korea, the true reason for scrapping the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty was to put the US in a stronger position against China and Russia. President Putin said as much during the plenary session at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 17th June 2016
Another, equally important, or perhaps, the most important issue is the unilateral withdrawal [of the US] from the ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty was once concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States for a good reason. Two regions were allowed to stay – Moscow and the site of US ICBM silos.
The treaty was designed to provide a strategic balance in the world. However, they unilaterally quit the treaty, saying in a friendly manner, “This is not aimed against you. You want to develop your offensive arms, and we assume it is not aimed against us.”
You know why they said so? It is simple: nobody expected Russia in the early 2000s, when it was struggling with its domestic problems, torn apart by internal conflicts, political and economic problems, tortured by terrorists, to restore its defence sector. Clearly, nobody expected us to be able to maintain our arsenals, let alone have new strategic weapons. They thought they would build up their missile defence forces unilaterally while our arsenals would be shrinking.
All of this was done under the pretext of combatting the Iranian nuclear threat. What has become of the Iranian nuclear threat now? There is none, but the project continues. This is the way it is, step by step, one after another, and so on.
That these deployments of US anti ballistic missile interceptors Romania and Poland and of THAAD in South Korea are intended as part of a strategy for the US to achieve military superiority over China and Russia is shown by the dismay in the US at the prospect of North Korea acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile. Obviously the US does not feel that its defence against such a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile has been secured by THAAD. That is why it is currently pulling all the stops to prevent it appearing.
This in turn points to how dangerous deployments of systems like THAAD ultimately are. The Chinese and the Russians will not only feel threatened by them, but will of course take steps to counter them. The nuclear arms race, which in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be running down, will thereby accelerate, with the US in turn taking steps to counter the steps the Chinese and the Russians are taking. Already the US is complaining angrily that the Russians are breaching the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty even though it was its decision to scrap the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty and to position anti ballistic missile systems in Romania and Poland that got the nuclear arms race between the US and Russia restarted. The same is now bound to happen between China and the US in the Far East. In the meantime reaction times have been radically shortened, reducing the time to correct things if they go wrong.
Worryingly all this is happening with barely any public discussion. My impression is that even in Washington there are many policy makers who have not fully grasped what is happening.
In the short term what this means is that whereas during the Cold War the US was engaged in a single arms race against the USSR, today it risks becoming drawn into two parallel arms races at both the eastern and the western ends of the Eurasian continent against China and Russia, whose aggregate resources are greater than its own. In the longer term the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war has increased.