Rolling a painted mock-up of an intercontinental ballistic missile across a Pyongyang plaza before 100,000 cheering regime loyalists is a lot different from sending the real thing across the Pacific. North Korean scientists do know the difference. They’ve been slowly learning about the challenges posed by aerodynamic stresses, unstable rocket fuel—and possible U.S. cybermischief. So President Kim Jong Un’s April 15 dud launch, no matter what caused it to sputter, surely taught his engineers something. Failures often do. That’s why they test again and again, despite the complaints and threats of the country’s neighbors and the U.S. The North plans weekly missile tests, a top official said on April 17. This obduracy is why Pyongyang has come this far—and why the world is stuck with this crisis.
“Our policy right along has been oriented to try to keep North Korea from getting a significant nuclear weapon capability.” William Perry, U.S. secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, told me this in his private cabin in a military aircraft high above the Atlantic. That was almost a quarter-century ago. Back then, U.S. intelligence estimated Pyongyang had one or two nuclear weapons. Today’s tally is about 20. No matter how narrowly one defines “significant,” it’s tough to see U.S. policy as having achieved much of anything.
In 2006, Perry, by then a member of a think tank at Stanford, urged President George W. Bush to destroy a long-range liquid-fueled North Korean missile while it was readied for launch. The U.S. demurred. North Korean engineers have since developed mobile, solid-fueled missiles that can be hidden in tunnels and fired off quickly.
Today, there’s no good U.S. military option for taking out the North’s nukes and missiles without risk of a wider war. When 75,000 North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950, it began a three-year conflict that left more than 1 million Koreans and 33,000 Americans dead. A new hot war could easily exceed that toll. Pyongyang would likely rain steel on Seoul from the 10,000 artillery tubes it’s stationed along the Demilitarized Zone, a scant 35 miles from greater Seoul, which is home to half the country’s 50 million people—and equal to North Korea’s total population. As many as 500,000 rounds could be fired in the opening hour. Even if roughly 25 percent are duds—experts believe Pyongyang’s technology is uneven—it would allow North Korea to keep its pledge of turning the South into a “sea of fire.”
The North has about 1,000 ballistic missiles that can hit its neighbor, a third of which can also reach Japan, where there are 50,000 U.S. troops. A single such missile with a nuclear warhead could wipe out much of Seoul.
Over the past year, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to beef up Seoul’s missile defenses and sought tougher economic sanctions on the North from other nations. Seoul shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an industrial park just north of the DMZ, where 120 South Korean companies employed 50,000 North Korean workers. South Korea has also begun to sound more belligerent. After the North’s fifth and latest nuclear test last fall, Seoul unveiled its “Korean Massive Punishment & Retaliation” plan to strike Pyongyang and destroy its political leadership with massive conventional weaponry if it detected an imminent nuclear attack. But neither sanctions nor the threat of tit for tat has worked. The North’s atomic war drums have been growing louder since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
The U.S. president, so far, has been a match for his North Korean foe in impetuousness. He’s made it clear that he’s not interested in half-measures that might only delay Pyongyang’s nuclear goals. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the U.S,” he tweeted shortly before taking the presidential oath of office. “It won’t happen!” His administration cranked up the heat on North Korea by hinting on April 9 that the carrier USS Carl Vinson was rushing to the region. But it actually was steaming in the Indian Ocean, more than 3,000 miles from Pyongyang, well past the range of its 60 warplanes. It won’t reach Korean waters until late April. The feint was a way to increase pressure on the North, Pentagon officials say, while ducking any action that might spiral out of control. Winston Churchill once said military moves sometimes need to “be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” North Korea wasn’t fazed by Trump’s bluster. “We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war,” Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae said at the Pyongyang parade, “and a nuclear war of our own.”
What are the potential outcomes of the more confrontational policy Trump appears to be adopting? Is he willing to risk the shaky armistice on the peninsula to keep his pledge to stop the North from getting a missile that could eventually reach the Western U.S.? If war comes to the Koreas, it would likely be the end of North Korea’s 68-year-long, three-generation dynastic regime. That might give the Kims some reason to go out in a perverse blaze of glory.
The conflict could kill millions; and the survivors would have to rebuild their lives at huge expense. South Korea is a regional economic superpower: It’s the U.S.’s seventh-largest trading partner and a vital supplier of everything from U.S. auto parts to smartphone components. The South produces more than $1 trillion worth of goods and services annually. It’s critically important to the world’s economic health: From 2012 to 2014, the total value of its imports and exports topped 100 percent of its gross domestic product. If war comes again to the Korean peninsula, shipping lanes would close and much of the South’s manufacturing would slow or stop, shutting down assembly lines worldwide. The world’s annual economic output could contract by $350 billion, or 0.5 percent, Daniel Altman, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern Business School, estimated in 2013. Putting the peninsula back together again—including replacing North Korea’s decrepit infrastructure—could cost more than $2 trillion.
There’s another very interested neighbor. South Korea exports twice as much to China as it does to the U.S. The start of normalized relations between Seoul and Beijing in 1992 came at Pyongyang’s expense. But China walks a tightrope along the Yalu River that separates it from the North. Pyongyang’s collapse would likely send a flood of refugees into China and leave South Korean and maybe even U.S. troops just across the river. It would be anathema for the Chinese to have hostile forces right up against its border.
With the U.S. talking tough and seeking even tougher economic sanctions, the world may have to depend on China, with its desire for economic and border stability, to act as a brake on war. Beijing is exasperated by North Korea—whose 33-year-old leader is referred to as “Kim Fatman the Third” on local websites—even though the two nations have a defense treaty dating to 1961. Beijing had already cut into the hermit kingdom’s slim revenue by curtailing Chinese coal imports from North Korea. Now, President Xi Jinping’s government is threatening deep reductions in its oil shipments to the Kim regime. Trump has told China he won’t brand it a currency manipulator if it helps rein in the North. A week after that offer was made at Mar-a-Lago, a semi-official Chinese state newspaper suggested North Korea give up its nuclear aspirations and let Beijing protect both the “nation and regime.” However, as Xi cautioned Trump in a 10-minute history lesson at their Florida meeting, China’s leverage over its neighbor is limited.
Any U.S. military action against the North would come only after Washington consulted with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo. That’s likely to stay Trump’s trigger finger for now. But it also presupposes that it would be the U.S. making the first military move. That didn’t happen in 1950, and given Kim’s despotic DNA, there’s no reason not to think that something unforeseen might set him off and set the peninsula ablaze.
The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea, and in 2015 the Pentagon updated its “let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-Korea” handbook to guide the 10,000 or more military dependents and other U.S. workers in the event they have to flee. The first thing to remember: “In the event of an emergency, you should: (1) Disregard rumors.” With Trump and Kim staring each other down, it may be difficult to distinguish between rumors and prestrike psy ops, with the difference meaning life or death. The guidebook is written partly in militarese, but its warnings are decipherable: “In a ‘worst case scenario,’ an evacuation ordered due to the potential resumption of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the warning time prior to Noncombatant Evacuation Operation may only be a matter of hours.”
Thompson, former Pentagon correspondent for Time, is a national security analyst for the Project on Government Oversight.