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article imageOp-Ed: North Korean ICBMs: Regional detonator or nuisance?

By Paul Wallis     Jan 3, 2017 in World
Sydney - The supposed development of a long range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability by North Korea has several ramifications. Whether or not the ICBM can hit the U.S. or not, it represents a potential catalyst for a serious regional war.
The development of the ICBMs has now reached at least the point at which North Korea (correct name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) is prepared to do some gloating. While the usual pattern of information from the DPRK is based on a degree of spin, this is a bit different. When it comes to ICBMs, you either have this capacity or you don’t. So it’s likely that at least some level of increased capacity has been achieved.
At this point, the U.S. is skeptical of North Korea’s actual capabilities. There’s some doubt as to how far this technology has advanced, and whether it can actually deliver a warhead on target.
Nor are the technical issues getting any simpler: the DPRK’s stated goal of delivering nukes from submarines, particularly the obsolete and rather undersized Whiskey and Romeo class subs, is of equally dubious value and almost zero combat credibility. Those subs could be tracked from one side of the Pacific to the other by Radio Shack level equipment, let alone American and Japanese ASW capabilities. A few drones could stooge around the Sea of Japan and sink them quite easily, too. Sub launched missiles really are not a working option.
The DPRK, meanwhile, is trying to get the U.S. to reverse its current policies of non-acceptance of it as a nuclear-armed state, by developing ICBMs, real or not. As a diplomatic position, it’s a bit hard to accept the logic. It’s also potentially suicidal, for less obvious reasons.
Regional detonator?
The regional implications of a new ICBM capability are significant. The DPRK’s neighbors have their own views on nations with nuclear strike capacity. China has no reason to consider this new development a threat, but Japan may see things differently. Japan has reacted very negatively to short and medium range tests near its territory.
Add to this the alliance between China and the DPRK, and any conflict with Japan could bring in China. That’s not a natural scenario, though. China can pick and choose its level of participation in any conflict. One way of reminding a client state that it’s a client state is to leave it hanging in a crisis. That’s not impossible, either.
Nor is Russia a natural engagement. In the 1950s, Russia aided North Korea in the Korean war in many ways, including equipping its air force with the revolutionary new MIG 15s which basically rewrote air tactics for the next 50 years. It’s not clear whether the Russian Federation would respond at all in any future conflict scenario. There’s not much in it for the Russians, in terms of political or other gains. “Amused spectator” would be a likely option, unless there’s any tangible gains to be made out of a confrontation with North Korea and Western-aligned nations.
A confrontation between the U.S. and the DPRK, however, makes Chinese intervention in some forms far more likely. China has been trying to make a point about expanding its regional interests, and a Korean war might be a game changer. China’s most predictable reaction would be “not in our back yard”, with related actions, but not necessarily direct conflict. Active Chinese participation, however, could turn the conflict in to a major regional war.
The more likely immediate confrontation, if any, would be a clash of the two Koreas. That could get extremely nasty, very quickly. The DPRK has what is basically a post Cold War/ Iraq War style military force, with added naval capacity. Despite the huge size of the DPRK military, South Korea has one of the most powerful and fully modern conventional military forces in the world, and it can hit back, hard, if a confrontation arises. South Korea is perfectly capable of winning a conventional war with the North on its own.
That not very secret fact, however, could well bring in Chinese and Russian support. Currently, China and Russia provide a low level of support to the DPRK military, but the overall DPRK arsenal is circa 1980s. Against modern weapons, the viability of these systems in combat is highly debatable.
That very lack of viability, however, is more of a problem than it looks in a war scenario. Given the obvious problems and serious risks in mounting a conventional attack, an unconventional attack is therefore far more likely. In 1950, the DPRK mounted a very effective surprise attack which drove the combined South Korean and U.S. forces back to the very tip of the Korean peninsula.
The current scenarios are completely different, though. Against a fully prepared opponent, a surprise attack by conventional forces would have to achieve miracles. Even with a huge force, there’s no getting away from the fact that South Korea is a very hard target for the DPRK. 1950 won’t happen again, but a variant, particularly a failed variant, could create a cascade of events, including super power involvement.
No good scenarios for any Korean conflict.
The most likely scenario for a real war, based on the current DPRK posture and previous actions, is a dramatic action of some kind. This would have to be a direct surprise strike, on a “no going back” basis. A serious strike would definitely bring in other nations, in different capacities.
Whether the U.S. is moving to a less engaged role or not, it has 28,000 military personnel in South Korea, and they’re potential targets either directly or as collateral damage in a strike on Seoul. Any strike on American forces, however, would instantly bring in U.S. forces, and retaliation. The range of possible escalations is obvious.
The DPRK can’t necessarily count on support in a dramatic strike, either. Starting a large scale regional war wouldn’t go down too well with China or Russia. This is no longer 1950 in other ways, too. Chinese and Russian leadership is highly pragmatic. There’s no reason to believe they’d want to be drawn in to any conflict, on any level.
They are very unlikely to respond well to a sudden demand for support in a conflict with the U.S. or Japan, or both. The degree of commitment required to support the DPRK in an actual war would be huge. Nor are they likely to enthuse about supporting the side most likely to lose in such a war.
In global politics, the Koreas are a sideshow, if potentially a very ugly sideshow, if a war starts. The major powers have nothing to gain but an unwanted problem and an expensive range of options. None of those options deliver any real benefits.
ICBMs or no ICBMs, the DPRK is holding one card in a game where all the other players have much stronger cards. The real risk is escalation caused by people doing the wrong things and reacting the wrong way to situations.
The problem is that history is full of cases of wars starting for exactly those reasons.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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