Tensions on the Korean peninsula are as high as they have ever been. The United States has deployed an astonishing amount of military hardware to the region, from offensive assets like an aircraft carrier to distinctly defensive systems like THAAD. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has, with somewhat transparent timing, publicly warned of North Korea’s chemical weapons capability. Chinese state media have warned North Korea against further provocations and Chinese officials have said that “conflict could break out at any moment.” Oh, and the president has been tweeting an awful lot about his willingness to “solve the North Korean problem.”
April 15th is North Korea’s Day of the Sun, the anniversary of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday. The North Korean regime typically celebrates the country’s most important holiday with extravagant military parades, proclamations of its own power and the inferiority of its enemies, and an enormous festival brimming with pomp, circumstance, and fireworks. In 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday, North Korea tested a ballistic missile. (It failed.) As several media outlets have reported, North Korea looks to be preparing for a nuclear weapons test soon. What better day to demonstrate the power of your country and your regime than on a holiday that ostensibly celebrates both?
If North Korea does test a nuclear device — or perhaps an intercontinental ballistic missile — this weekend, the United States is likely to respond. President Trump has drawn the red lines and he campaigned on promises to follow through on them. What might a U.S. response look like, and what are some possible chain reactions thereafter?
Nuclear Detonation or ICBM
The U.S., Japan, and South Korea have longstanding promises to intercept any North Korean missile test that threatens their territory or assets. This weekend may see that promise fulfilled — or expanded. Intercontinental ballistic missile tests are widely considered one of the most provocative military actions the DPRK can take, one that has tested the patience of U.S. presidents before. If the DPRK tests an ICBM over the coming days, President Trump may choose to shoot down the warhead even if it were to otherwise crash harmlessly into the sea. This would almost certainly be seen as an act of war; it probably is.
This would be the last realistic opportunity for de-escalation. The DPRK could conceivably do nothing other than release a few formulaic statements about the treachery of the United States. The United States, in turn, could thump its chest, tout its “resolve,” and begin withdrawing its forces. Of course, such a peaceful resolution depends on the restraint of both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump. I am not holding my breath.
If the United States intercepts a North Korean missile test, either party could immediately follow up with military action. The U.S. could launch a limited, targeted strike against the North Korean test site, similar to what President Trump ordered against Syria earlier this month. Kim Jong Un’s behavior is less predictable. The North Korean military could respond by attacking the U.S. or allied ships that intercepted its missile test. It could fire artillery at decidedly unpopulated South Korean islands, like it did to Yeonpyeong in 2010. (In the current climate, with tensions running this high, even this possible attempt at face-saving de-escalation would likely spark a war.) Or, god help us all, it could strike Seoul with any number of its rocket launchers and artillery.
If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, the United States would be under severe pressure to respond. President Trump has ordered a “powerful armada” to the region, deployed THAAD on South Korean soil, and deployed additional air assets to Western Pacific bases. Additionally, he has tweeted on multiple occasions that he will not allow North Korea to master nuclear technology, has publicly pressured China to rein in its “ally,” and has promised to “take care of” North Korea. For the North Koreans to then test a nuclear weapon and President Trump to back down would be nigh unthinkable. President Obama infamously reneged on his red line in Syria, and President Trump (in)famously and strongly criticized that decision during his presidential campaign. After the domestic political benefits of retroactively fulfilling President Obama’s threat in Syria, President Trump would undoubtedly avoid the domestic political blowback of backing down in North Korea.
Whether North Korea tests an ICBM or a nuclear device, a targeted strike against the testing site is the most likely U.S. response — perhaps even a near facsimile of the April 7 strike on Syria’s Shayrat Air Base. American destroyers, loaded with Tomahawk missiles, are already within range of North Korean targets. Weapons research and development facilities, missile launch pads, storage and maintenance buildings, and other supportive infrastructure are all likely targets. Several of the possible test sites such as Sohae, Sinpo, and Punggye-ri are near densely populated cities — or, in the case of Punggye-ri, the Hwasong concentration camp, “home” to an estimated 20,000 people. If the United States hopes to avoid further escalation, it will avoid striking military barracks and nearby civilian populations. The U.S. would have to be careful to avoid these casualties, but this is well within its capability. (For reference, imagery released by the Pentagon after the strike on Shayrat Air Base demonstrated clearly the accuracy of Tomahawk missiles.)
Legally, the Korean War never ended. A truce was called and an armistice signed in 1953. If North Korea takes any military action after a hypothetical U.S. strike like the one described above, the Korean War may finally move into its endgame.
Once Tomahawks — or similar precision weapons — land on North Korean soil, Kim Jong-un may attempt to forcibly deter any future aggression. Even if Kim Jong-un does not intend to fully reignite the Korean War with his response, any attack on the U.S. military would be met with overwhelming force. But Kim Jong-un may very well intend exactly that.
After a limited strike, Kim may see the walls closing in and realize that this is his very last chance to reunify the peninsula — assuming that is even still a strategic goal. More cynically, he may see this as the last opportunity to bring as many of his foes down with him. Whether this would entail a nuclear strike on Tokyo, a chemical weapons attack on Seoul, a massive invasion into the South, or all of the above depends on the fraught whims of a thirty-something dictator.
This time, I am holding my breath.
Damen Cook is lead research associate at Strategic Sentinel.