When President Obama briefed President Trump in November, he warned Trump that North Korea would be his most difficult problem. Why should this be the case? North Korea has routinely been threatening to go nuclear and bomb other countries for decades. Literally every Spring, North Korea fires a few volleys of missiles to make everyone nervous. They also make threats around any U.S. election. Then there is the way they test missiles whenever their food supply gets too low or feel like ISIS and Al-Qaeda get too much attention. This has been an empty piece of kabuki theatre for so many years that it's hard to believe this time it's serious. Unfortunately, there is reason to think something has changed.
A GIANT PRISON CAMP
North Korea is a very weak country. It is stuck in the 19th Century. The bulk of it's 22 million people live hand to mouth farming as if it were 200 years ago. Very few, even in the capital city where the elite live, have regular electricity. There is no internet. The few shoddy goods the North Koreans trade are purchased almost entirely by China (85%). North Korea has no allies, and there are no guarantees that their large military has the food, fuel, or supply-lines to keep a war going for more than a few days.
Neither is there much proof that their weapons are any good. We only see the outside of the missiles in parades, and North Korean tests fail far more often than they succeed. The country is really just a giant prison camp. The North Koreans live in constant fear of being sent to prison camps which are horrifically brutal. Regular beatings, torture, even the crushing of the skulls of infants are regularly reported. Entire families of multiple generations can be sent to prison for the most basic offenses. All of this is led by a small group of geriatric, authoritarian leaders and whichever Kim is alive. Currently, it's Kim Jong Un. People are taught that that Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and founder of North Korea, is God. His also deceased father Kim Jong Il plays the Jesus role, and the Holy Spirit of revolution is "Juche." For most of the last 60 years, the average North Korean truly believed that their country was the greatest, their leaders gods, and that they were constantly on the brink of war with South Korea and the USA. Years of being cut-off from the normal world left them starving to death, mentally and physically impaired, and unable to cope with or understand modern life. There is simply no country as dysfunctional or bizarre as North Korea. Nothing is even close. Once it collapses, the stories that will come out of there will leave the world stunned.
For the most part, North Korea has been full of hot air and empty threats. I lived in South Korea just after the great famine and there was a brief time in 1995 while I was there, that North and South almost went to war. The trigger was almost pulled. We dodged a bullet, and things returned to normal with North Korea claiming they could launch nuclear weapons and blackmailing the international community for foreign aid.
The past 10 years, however, have seen some dramatic changes. The death of Kim Jong Il put his inexperienced, twenty-something son in charge. This seems to have led to a jostling for power and the execution of an uncle by aircraft fire. There's rumors of more dissent at the upper levels of leadership. DVD's and Mp3's started to get smuggled into the country showing the North Koreans that the world outside was wealthy, modern, and peaceful. Soap operas from China and South Korea were not only a hit underground, but showed how much the people had been lied to by their government. Relations with their only (and even then), partial ally China deteriorated, and their natural distrust and disdain for the Chinese reasserted itself. Last, a black market is flourishing and border guards have become easier to bribe as people seek to escape.
Meanwhile, North Korea has at least developed the outside shells of some new land and sea-based weapons that can easily reach Japan, South Korea, and they say, Los Angeles. None of this can be verified, but experts now believe that by 2020, the North Koreans will be able to put a nuclear-tipped warhead on a missile that can reach L.A. That is the issue Obama was most-likely talking about. Can the world allow a nuclear North Korea?
WHAT WOULD WAR LOOK LIKE?
An option for Trump would be a pre-emptive strike. On one hand, it was reported in Foreign Affairs Journal that the U.S. military now has the capability of destroying a nuclear missile before it leaves the silo. There are also reports that the U.S. can now control the missiles after their launch thanks to cyber-espionage. If true, perhaps a pre-emptive strike would work. Unfortunately, it's much more complicated than that.
For starters, the North Koreans have heavy artillery on the border which is a very short distance from the 12 million people of Seoul, South Korea. Even if Kim was bluffing about his military power, there would be enough time to kill thousands, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions in the very opening rounds. In that sense, the people of Seoul are already hostages.
The South Koreans and the U.S. would be able defeat North Korea's old, primitive, poorly led, and poorly supplied military. That is for sure. Nevertheless, in the time that it would take for that to happen, North Korea could also bomb and kill thousands of Japanese by firing over the Sea of Japan. So the decision to fight really has to be in the hands of Japan and South Korea, not any U.S. President because once the war starts, Japan and South Korea; our allies, home of thousands of our troops, and juggernauts of the global economy, will take severe hits. Not to mention that China could also be targeted or join in the fight against the U.S. Neither outcome would be good.
It gets worse, Kim could have a nuclear capability or at least produce a dirty bomb. If not that, then possibly a large chemical attack. But let's say North Korea completely blows the opening act of the war and is defeated quickly. The problem then is that North Korea is one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Weapons and people would be able to be hidden all over the country--and probably are. Thinks of the problem of Vietnam, but with even worse terrain. It would take hundreds of thousands of troops to clear out every mountain, valley and cave; and how long would the resistance last? Are Americans up to another 20 year war against insurgents? What if, like in Syria, the region becomes engulfed in thousands of mini-militias all fighting the U.S and any other country involved? This is all highly possible.
This "good option" (a quick win), would make the situation in Syria look like a walk in the park. Suddenly, we would have 22 million refugees fleeing militias and none of them would be remotely equipped to integrate into the modern world. Food and housing alone would require assistance from the whole global community. And then where to put them? South Korea is already crowded, and how do they integrate millions of people that have been trained for generations to hate the South? China already has 1.3 billion mouths to feed. The U.S barely wants to take in a few thousand well-educated Syrians. Are we going to take in 20 million North Koreans who barely have a 3rd grade education and suffer the effects of years of malnutrition?
IS THERE ANY WAY OUT?
Starting a war in North Korea now would leave us with the biggest crisis since World War II within the first 10 minutes of the war. The only half-way decent thing is highly unlikely: a sudden regime collapse followed by a global effort to feed, educate, and partially re-integrate North Korea into the modern world. Even then, a unified Korea would make both China and Japan nervous and lead the region to go nuclear. Another better but certainly not rosy scenario is that the North Koreans don't fight at all and simply surrender. That still would leave someone, or many countries, with the responsibility of occupying a highly populated nation of people who don't know how to survive in the modern world. Then there would be the clean-up damage in Japan, South Korea, and even China due to our use of force. Once again, that would seem to want to push all sides to go nuclear.
If Kim pulls the trigger first, then the U.S., South Korea, and Japan will respond immediately and some form of massive chaos will take place. However, I think Kim is mostly bluffing. He knows that having a nuclear weapon is what could have saved Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qadaffi from being toppled. If the U.S does a pre-emptive strike, they better make sure Japan, South Korea, and China are part of the decision and ready to possibly lose hundreds of thousands of people and be inundated by refugees. Let us hope the President has thought of all these complications.
One way or another, a moment of reckoning is coming soon, and there's very little reason to think that the U.S. striking first would be a good idea. Sadly, the absolute best option might be for all the countries to get their own nuclear weapons, North Korea to slowly reform, and for the stale-mate to continue on for more decades. You know the situation is dire when a bunch of countries that hate each other pointing nuclear weapons at each other for decades is the best solution.