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North Korea, an Embrace Before the Apocalypse?

North Korea, an Embrace Before the Apocalypse?
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

Life these days seems to be a bed of roses for Kim Jong-un.

The inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang this week gave yet another illustration of his current ascendancy. Although the state of war on the peninsula was not terminated - it cannot be without the United States and China, signatories of the 1953 Armistice Agreement - an unprecedented détente is settling in the region, with the complicity of President Moon Jae-in. And, with it, the start of a strategic decoupling of South Korea from the United States. With perhaps, in a more distant future, the departure of American troops and Seoul’s potential neutralization...

Meanwhile, the Trump administration, be it out of loyalty or blindness, fully supports the American President's displayed illusions. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained learnedly that the country must be denuclearized "before January 2021". The same date, of course, as the end of Mr Trump's (first?) term of office.

Yet North Korea hasn’t made any new significant commitment. Pyongyang is indeed still making the same promises as it has in the past 25 years and merely settles for purely symbolic or reversible gestures. North Korea is a nuclear state, and betting on the abandonment of this capability is an illusion for as long as the current regime exists. At most, one could imagine the continued freeze of nuclear devices and ballistic missile tests with intercontinental reach, at least in time for Pyongyang to reap some additional political or trade benefits... 

However, not only do we not know how Mr Trump will react when he realizes he has been cheated, but the situation on the peninsula still depends, as always, on a potential incident that  could yet again well lead us into war.

"Everything in Lewis' book is incredibly realistic. He describes an "accidental war" - as many conflicts unfortunately are"

This is precisely the topic of a short book that came out this summer in the United States - it was deliberately published on 6 August, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. This dystopic story written by Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on these issues, takes the form of the report of an official committee of inquiry set up to investigate the "North Korean nuclear attacks of 2020". The book is particularly frightening because it is as politically credible - supported by many historical precedents and parallels - as it is technically well informed. 

Almost everything in Lewis' book is incredibly realistic. He describes an "accidental war" - as many conflicts unfortunately are. An airliner carrying South Korean schoolchildren is mistakenly shot down by North Korean fighters, unnerved by the increase in US air patrols near the demarcation line. The reaction of South Korean public opinion prompts Seoul to react: six ballistic missiles are thus fired at political and military targets in the North. But while it is deliberately designed as restrained, this response is perceived in Pyongyang as the beginning of a joint offensive between Washington and Seoul - all the more so given that, at that moment, American forces are on alert for an exercise. To make things worse - but again, this perfectly exemplifies escalation dynamics in the "fog of war" – mobile phone communications are saturated by the panic spreading among the North Korean elite… The regime fears it is the result of a massive American cyber attack. For Kim Jong-il, there is no doubt that his country’s invasion is under way.

"It is not irrational, from Pyongyang's point of view, to go for broke"

It is at this very moment that Donald Trump chooses to tweet (in capital letters): "LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER". From then on, it is not irrational, from Pyongyang's point of view, to go for broke: 54 missiles armed with nuclear warheads are launched on Seoul, Tokyo, and US military bases in the region. In Washington, the Strategic Command is then ordered to launch a massive air campaign to reduce the North Korean ballistic and nuclear threat. This only adds to Kim Jong-un's determination, who then decides to play his trump card – so to say: he fires 13 missiles against American military and urban objectives (seven of which will hit their target). His goal being to bend the American public, which would then ask for mercy. Of course, none of this happens. And, logically, the end of the North Korean regime then looms. 

A few rare elements are less plausible than others in Lewis' analysis. President Moon refuses to warn Washington of Seoul's initial response. Mr Trump never seems to want to seriously consider the nuclear option: neither as first use nor after the North Korean strike. No missile defense system works in the region.

Yet, overall, it is by far the most realistic scenario of a nuclear escalation in East Asia in modern times ever published. And a serious warning to all of those who are tempted to admire Mr Trump "innovative" strategy. 

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