August is hot. Humid, bedraggling, motivation-sapping hot. It’s so hot that Neil Diamond has a famous live album that’s literally called “Hot August Night.”
But what’s hotter than Neil Diamond busting out “I Am, I Said” for an amphitheater full of sweaty boomers?
A nuclear bomb going off over your head and turning you into atoms. That’s hot.
Obviously, the sabre-rattling between the U.S. and North Korea over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions has people nervous. Panicking, even. News broke last week that the Kim regime might be much closer to developing a nuclear warhead that can fit on a missile than anyone believed. He’s testing ICBM’s that could hit well into the U.S., and making grave threats about firing missiles at Guam and”mercilessly wiping out” his enemies.
The fear has ratcheted up to the point where newspapers are actually writing articles about “the one thing you can do to survive a nuclear blast.” Naturally, our president isn’t helping matters, going waaayy off script to babble about raining “fire and fury” down and being “locked and loaded” to do so.
Basically, we’re threatening them, they’re threatening us, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Right?
Let’s all take a step back. North Korea has been a thorn in the side of the international community since the moment Kim Il Sung’s troops crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea in 1950. Over 60 years have passed since then, and despite our giant nuclear arsenal and their giant conventional army, and even though the two sides have incessantly poked each other with both propaganda and actual armed incursions, the truce has held between North and South.
Call me crazy, but I don’t see that changing just because we have a leader just as erratic and bellicose as they do. The stalemate has existed this long for a reason: everyone knows they can’t win, and have far more to lose. An attack by the North is suicide for the Kim dynasty. And an attack by the U.S./South Korea opens up a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences – leaving Donald Trump on the hook for a humanitarian catastrophe as big as the end of the Second World War.
So what will happen between North Korea and its enemies? Are we all going to die, or will we make it through somehow?
Obviously, I don’t really know. But as a writer, researcher, amateur historian, and fan of lists; I have some informed guesses. Here are my thoughts on the future of the North Korea/United States standoff, with the least likely outcome listed first.
North Korea nukes us, kills us all
As terrifying as the prospect of Kim Jong Un laying waste the the west coast is (or not, depending on your political persuasion), they simply don’t have the technology to do so.
The NK ICBM test last month was scary because based on its trajectory, size, speed, and flight time, experts estimate it could go as far as 6,200 miles. But the missile was tested by firing it nearly straight up in the air. Beyond that, the test technically failed, as the “warhead” portion of the missile burned up on re-entry. A nuclear missile that’s incinerated before it hits the target is worse than useless.
It will likely be several more years before North Korea masters the guidance, miniaturization, and navigation skills needed to launch a nuclear-armed ICBM at a distant city. Not to mention there’s no evidence they have the capability of launching multiple-warhead missiles, which are a must for any nation that wants to kill everyone.
They might get there within a few years, but they’re not there now. There’s also the matter of WHY Kim wants nuclear weapons. It’s not to wipe out his enemies, or hold the world hostage in some bit of Blofeld-esque madness.
It’s to protect himself from regime change or invasion by South Korea.
Kim is an erratic and paranoid tyrant. But his erratic paranoia, replete with executions of close family members, is meant to shore up his power. He’s the god king of a nation with 25 million people. Is it worth giving that up and consigning his empire to ashes just to lob some missiles at the U.S. and maybe hit the target?
And finally, the goal of North Korea has long been unification with the South. According to an-depth study by the Brookings Institute, North Korean philosophy holds that this can only happen when the South denounces the U.S. and “expel[s] anti-unification forces.”
Does this really sound like something achievable if Kim lands a nuclear warhead in the middle of the city?
Right now, Kim has no reason to unleash nuclear hell on the world, and little capability to do so.
South Korea invades North Korea
Not going to happen. South Korea has a good thing going, with one of the most prosperous and advanced economies in the world, and a new president who has been nothing but courteous toward the North, when he’s not showing off his dabbing skillz.
Invasion by the South would trigger a nuclear and chemical response by the North, including the firing of thousands of artillery pieces at Seoul. The threat of invasion is why the Kim family has been obsessed with developing nuclear weapons, and likely the only reason they’d be used.
Whatever the North would gain (which is not a lot), it would lose far more.
North Korea invades South Korea
Extremely unlikely. The reason the North’s invasion of the South petered out in 1950 was because they moved too fast and couldn’t keep their supply lines going once United Nations defense stiffened.
There’s not much reason to think North Korean generals don’t know this, and any invasion would probably be blunted with massive force, with the fight quickly taken back into the North. Then things go nuclear, and North Korea stops existing.
President Trump launches a nuclear first strike against Kim
American command and control procedures put the ultimate authority to launch a nuclear strike in civilian hands. Right now, those hands are the tiny paws of Donald Trump.
Yeah, I gagged a bit too.
The President could order a nuclear strike on Pyongyang for any reason. If he’s acting on information that a nuclear strike against the U.S. is about to happen, and the fastest way to stop it is to fire first, the missiles will be launched. Nobody can stop him, at least not in any way that currently exists in U.S. law or military doctrine.
The best we can hope for is that President Trump just doesn’t have the courage to accept the consequences of a nuclear first strike launched for any reason other than imminent attack on the United States itself. America would instantly be seen as a violent aggressor, and Trump himself a mass murderer possibly guilty of war crimes. The repercussions for the U.S. would be enormous, including instant economic calamity.
At the very least, we know Trump craves fawning press coverage, and an anger-driven nuclear strike on North Korea will turn virtually everyone who isn’t on the Breitbart payroll against him.
Let’s hope it’s enough.
Kim gets taken out, either by us or his own people
Neither are especially feasible. Assassinating Kim in person or via drone would be extremely tough, given the massive security apparatus around him. And doing it via missile strike assumes that we can figure out where he is at any given moment.
But the much more appropriate reason not to decapitate the Kim regime is that literally nobody knows what happens next. Kim has no appropriate heirs (the most likely man to take over for him was his half-brother, who was conveniently assassinated with liquid nerve gas while under Chinese protection) and there’s no vice-president. Kim’s death would create an instant power vacuum.
All those guys that stand behind Kim Jong Un taking notes and wearing medals down to their knees?
They all command military forces, and all of them are likely to fight each other for control of the country. Throw some nuclear weapons into the mix and you have a prescription for total chaos and a humanitarian nightmare, with refugees pouring both north and south.
As for a coup attempt, there have been a few. All have petered out, with the culprits never to be seen again. North Korean soldiers and politicians are monitored for signs of disloyalty, and commonly disappear if any are found.
North Korea strikes first with conventional weapons to protect itself
If Kim truly believes he’s on the verge of being attacked, thanks to either intelligence reports or President Trump crossing a verbal red line, he might lash out first.
This could take a number paths, but would most likely include an artillery barrage against Seoul, and missile strikes against U.S. and South Korean bases.
The North’s ability to “flatten” Seoul with its thousands of artillery pieces is overstated, but Kim’s guns could cause intense damage and casualties to the huge city in the first few minutes of an attack.
What happens if Kim orders not a full-scale assault, but a short World War I style hurricane bombardment of Seoul, firing all guns and missiles at once, and ceasing fire after just a few minutes? It would maximize the damage inflicted and minimize the risk of his artillery batteries being exposed to retaliation.
It would also cause panic in Seoul, likely crater the world’s financial markets, and put President Trump in an impossible position – back down and look weak, or escalate toward an uncontrollable conflict. Kim might feel like he has no choice but to roll the dice.
The U.S. attempts to take out Kim’s nuclear program with military force
Here’s where it gets dicey. The United States absolutely has the power to do this. We know where all of the nuclear reactors and test sites are. They’re literally on Google Earth. Using massive air power, missiles, and special operations to take out or capture them could be done, as long as the correct preparations were made.
It could be done either through a massive, all-out assault; or a more limited attack on a few nuclear sites, just to show Kim we want him disarmed, but not a full-scale war. And given American and South Korean military technology and skill, it would almost certainly work, to a great extent.
But even a mostly successful strike likely wouldn’t be enough to stave off retaliation and mass death.
Even a full-scale strike that takes out every WMD and every major North Korean military asset would probably leave something standing. And one nuke, cache of nerve gas, or batch of artillery guns would be able to do enormous damage to Seoul and/or Tokyo.
A massive strike that kills Kim and takes out most of the nukes creates that power vacuum discussed above, as well as the humanitarian crisis of the century. And a more limited strike assumes Kim KNOWS it’s a limited strike and doesn’t retaliate.
Who on earth would want to take that risk with so many lives on the line? If North Korea pops off its sixth nuclear test, President Trump might feel like he has no choice but to be the one rolling the dice.
Nothing happens, and the situation tamps down
I really believe this is the most likely scenario. And not because I’m a fan of any of the people leading this cliff dive.
Nobody has anything to gain by attacking anyone, and deep down, it’s likely everyone involved knows it. I’m not saying either Kim or President Trump are rational people. They aren’t. But I’m willing to say they aren’t suicidal, and that they’d rather keep the power they have than risk it here and now.
The Korean stalemate has held for 60+ years, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the brutal famine of the 1990s, and countless incursions and incidents, many of which cost actual lives. South Korea didn’t even take the bait in 2010 when North Korea attack a South Korean island. The sides traded shells, but cooler heads somehow prevailed.
Against all odds, the postwar years have seen a remarkable ability of humanity to not do the worst thing possible when it came to nuclear weapons.
We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1983 war scare, countless technical glitches and panicked phone calls, and Boris Yeltsin being the only person in history to open a nuclear briefcase with the possibility of launching.
Humanity got through it, even when beset by paranoia and incompetence. And we can get through this.
Kim is the god king of a nation, and Trump has a lot of nice hotels. It would be a shame if something happened to either one.