Is nuclear war possible?

 (The Philippine Star)

The  public consensus is that the possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea seems ridiculous. The idea that there could be war between a superpower and a third world country seems unbelievable. In fact, Americans spent twice as much for their pets as the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of North Korea.

But, as the Economist write: “Yet Kim Jong Un’s backward little dictatorship has grabbed the attention of the whole world, and even of America’s president, with its successful nuclear brinkmanship. On July 28th it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit Los Angeles. Before long, it will be able to mount nuclear warheads on such missiles, as it already can on missiles aimed at South Korea and Japan. In charge of this terrifying arsenal is a man who was brought up as a demigod and cares nothing for human life – witness the innocents beaten to death with hammers in his gigantic gulag. Last week his foreign ministry vowed that if the regime’s ‘supreme dignity’ is threatened, it will ‘pre-emptively annihilate’ their countries that threaten it, with all means, ‘including the nuclear ones’. Only a fool could fail to be alarmed.”

On the other side, we have an American president that uses rhetoric like “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” which no other responsible American president  have ever used in the past. Is Trump serious that he would risk a nuclear war with North Korea that would result in the loss of millions of lives not only in North Korea but also in South Korea? World leaders have publicly said that Trump should stop using such hot rhetoric which could only increase the already tense situation. Other top American officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have tried to calm down the situation by using more appropriate diplomatic language.


Why does Trump continue to use such hot language? I have been listening to all possible explanations. Surely, no one believes that such language will scare Kim Jong Un into giving up its nuclear arsenal.

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The most logical analysis I have heard so far is the idea that Trump is actually addressing  his die hard Republic base of support when he uses that type of war-like threats. He probably believes that it is the kind of language that reinforces his ‘strong man” image among his avid supporters. This is a president who seems more interested in propping up his image rather than being a world statesman.

With two narcissistic personalities at the head of the two opposing forces, is it possible that the United States and North Korea are on a collision course that neither party may want but both may find difficult to avoid. Can the world blunder into a nuclear war that could spread into other countries?

Deterrence has always been part of North Korea’s survival strategy. It clearly hopes to attain a nuclear deterrent without inciting the world powers to take decisive action. In fact, Baker says: “Its [North Korea} carefully curated image of aggressive unpredictability is intended to preserve its authoritarian and regulated society and, as a result its isolation. The North is unlikely to expose itself to the international community unless it can guarantee two things: the primacy and security of its leaders, and an effective military deterrent. And there are few deterrents as effective as nuclear weapons. …North Korea’s biggest fear is to be coerced into a  position of subservience, having to prostrate itself before China [its primary benefactor} or another powerful country {i.e. United States}.”

It is very clear that North Korea is convinced that the only way to deter foreign military action against it is to develop a nuclear weapon and the missile capability to deliver it to the American heartland. It is now in the final stages of developing that capability. Sanctions and negotiations have failed to persuade Pyongyang to abandon this strategy. So what options are left?

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One option is to try and assassinate the North Korean leadership. A major UK based newspaper reported that the South Koreans may have a special brigade just to do that. But Kim Jong Un is one of the best guarded target in the world. Any attempt could trigger an all out war.

A second option is to increase economic pressure. North Korea is already the most economically isolated country in the world. Increasing sanctions would require China’s full cooperation. But China actually does not want the Kim Jong Un regime to collapse. China does not want a unified Korea which will mean American troops at its border; and, a United Korea with nuclear power.

Then there is the plan for a preventive strike. There is reportedly a new U.S. military strategy in place – OPLAN 5015 – that details a preventive strike on the North Korean core military facilities and weapons as wells as its top leaders. It also includes plans against asymmetric aggression such TBM/WMD and cyber warfare. The result would denuclearize North Korea; but, it would result in the loss of millions of lives in the Korean Peninsula and even possibly Japan.

The final option is to accept that North Korea will become a nuclear power; and, other countries must simply prepare appropriate defense systems in the event of a nuclear strike. This is an option that the Trump administration will have extreme difficulty accepting since it will lead to negative domestic political consequences.

Once again, the world is a pawn in this multi dimensional power game where there are many ways for the fighting to escalate and stopping it becomes almost impossible once it begins.