Exclusive: The murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi – after they surrendered their WMD – taught North Korea’s Kim Jong-un not to give up his, setting the stage for a dangerous crisis, explains Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
When a hostile government, armed with atomic and chemical weapons and the world’s fourth largest army, declares “the situation is already on the brink of nuclear war,” Americans should sit up and take notice. Compared to North Korea, ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists are insignificant threats to U.S. security.
Experts agree that within a few years, at most, North Korea will have mastered the ballistic missile technology needed to destroy U.S. cities with nuclear warheads. It recently demonstrated the use of solid-fuel technology in intermediate-range missiles, and earlier this month the regime tested a sophisticated new rocket engine that even South Korea called a technical breakthrough.
The Trump administration did take notice. Although North Korea has never threatened to use nuclear weapons except in self-defense, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned this month that the regime must “abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction,” or face the threat of the United States and its allies using military force to stop it.
More than a few elite pundits have endorsed preemptive war as an option. A recent Washington Post editorial conceded that striking North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities could trigger “a potentially catastrophic war,” but declared nonetheless that “further steps by North Korea toward deploying nuclear-armed ICBMs might compel such action.”
Last fall, the influential Council on Foreign Relations issued a major white paper calling North Korea’s weapons program “a grave and expanding threat” and asserting that Washington may have no choice but to “consider more assertive military and political actions, including those that directly threaten the existence of the [North Korean] regime and its nuclear and missile capabilities.”
Such threats are foolhardy and counterproductive. As many analysts point out, a pre-emptive attack by the United States cannot guarantee to destroy all of North Korea’s hidden nuclear weapons or mobile missile launchers. Missing even a handful would guarantee the incineration of Seoul, Tokyo, and other nearby cities in radioactive fireballs. Even in the best case, North Korea could respond by flattening Seoul with artillery barrages, and killing tens of thousands of Koreans and Japanese with chemical weapons.
How North Korea Could Hit U.S.
An America-First madman in the White House might view such casualties as an acceptable price to pay for eliminating a latent threat against the U.S. homeland. But hardly anyone has pointed out that North Korea can and almost certainly would retaliate against U.S. cities as well.
Even without long-range missiles, they can simply float atomic bombs into U.S. harbors aboard innocuous-looking commercial freighters. No anti-missile shield can stop them from wiping out big parts of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Houston in response to a U.S. attack.
Back in 2000, reporter Sydney Freedberg, Jr., called attention to the near impossibility of detecting a shielded bomb packed into one of the 45,000 shipping containers that enter the United States every day. “Hiding a bomb there would be a lethal needle in a huge haystack,” he remarked.
Although major U.S. ports have since installed radiation detectors to prevent bombs from being smuggled into their waters, “if there is highly enriched uranium metal that’s shielded and below the water line, it’s going to be really tough to detect at long range,” said Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear terrorism at Harvard University.
Even a small bomb detonation would do immense damage. A 2003 study by Abt Associates for the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that “The economic impact of even a single nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. seaport would be very great . . . A successful attack would create disruption of U.S. trade valued at $100-$200 billion, property damage of $50-$500 billion, and 50,000 to 1,000,000 lives could be lost. Global and long-term effects, including the economic impacts of the pervasive national and international responses to the nuclear attack . . . are believed to be substantially greater.”
Three years later, experts at the RAND Corporation conducted an even deeper analysis of a simulated terrorist attack on the Port of Long Beach with a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, which is well within the yield of North Korea’s current weapons. Among the plausible outcomes it described:
–“Sixty thousand people might die instantly from the blast itself or quickly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
–“One-hundred-fifty thousand more might be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactive water and sediment from the port, requiring emergency medical treatment.
— “The blast and subsequent fires might completely destroy the entire infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and the adjoining Port of Los Angeles.
— “Six million people might try to evacuate the Los Angeles region.
— “Two to three million people might need relocation because fallout will have contaminated a 500-km2 area.
— “Gasoline supplies might run critically short across the entire region because of the loss of Long Beach’s refineries — responsible for one-third of the gas west of the Rockies.
— “The early costs of the Long Beach scenario could exceed $1 trillion, driven by outlay(s) for medical care, insurance claims, workers’ compensation, evacuation, and construction.”
And that’s only the beginning. Insurers might stop writing commercial policies. Workers at other ports might flee to avoid a similar attack.
“Given these conditions, all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack,” the report noted. “This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country.”
Bottom line: a preemptive attack on North Korea’s real WMD would make the Bush administration’s disastrous attack on Iraq’s non-existent WMD look like a cake walk. Millions of people would almost certainly die in South Korea and Japan. Millions more Americans might die from nuclear retaliation against U.S. port cities and infrastructure. Every American would suffer the staggering economic and moral consequences.
The Trump administration appears to hope that stepping up economic sanctions, and bullying China, will miraculously convince North Korea to disarm. But strong-arm measures, which reinforce Pyongyang’s conviction that Washington wants nothing less than regime change, will ensure that war becomes not just one of many options on the table, but the only option.
Someday soon, the only question left may be whether it is North Korea or the United States that initiates all-out war in an insanely reckless attempt at self-preservation.