Tensions have intensified in the Korean Peninsula following President Donald Trump’s warning to North Korea that it would face “fire and fury” if it threatens Washington, prompting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong un, to warn that he would retaliate by striking Guam, a US military base.
Such threatening language used by Trump brings him at a par with the North Korean dictator and does not behove the leader of the world’s only superpower. Reports suggest that a military strike at Guam could happen as early as within a fortnight.
Are we heading towards a regional conflict that could inevitably escalate into a global conflict, a la World War III in the making, as the conflict between the US and North Korea would quickly draw in other participants? As if to ratchet up his “fire and fury” rhetoric, Trump also remarked that his threat was not strong enough, suggesting that invoking the pre-emptive strike option remains the only recourse.
The US President is irked by repeated provocations by Pyongyang, indeed its nuclear pursuits in the face of US and international sanctions. He claims his tough talk on North Korea is fully backed by the US military and other countries as well.
The potentially deadly exchanges between Trump and Kim Jong-un were followed by an equally bellicose observation by the US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, who has said that North Korea risked annihilation if it started a war and has therefore urged the Kim regime to end its pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
How important is Guam for US security and how does it impact on the security of the region? American military bases on the US Pacific island territory are thought to hold the largest US arsenal of nuclear weapons outside the continental US.
The Pacific island of Guam hosts the Anderson Air Force Base and the Naval Base Guam in Apra Harbour. Pyongyang claims it is “carefully considering” how and when to strike Guam. North Korea is angered that in a unanimous decision, the UN Security Council imposed fresh sanctions, thus preventing it from conducting further nuclear and missile tests.
The new sanctions are intended to reduce Pyongyang’s income from exported goods and labour by at least $1 billion ~ one-third of its current annual earnings ~ and thus to force an end to its nuclear weapons development. Pyongyang has never acknowledged these sanctions.
The “fire and fury” adage followed by “wasn’t tough enough” remarks by Trump have sparked worldwide fears of a potential nuclear conflict.
If Guam is attacked, the US President would consider it an attack on the mainland, precipitating a conflagration. He has said that if North Korea launched an attack, “things will happen to them that they never thought possible”.
But Trump should never ignore the high cost to the world such recourse would entail. Though the decision to impose fresh sanctions was supported by both China and Russia, traditional allies of Pyongyang, the world knows that China would never abandon North Korea and leave it at the mercy of the US.
It has its own strategic compulsions and would dread millions of refugees crossing the border in case of turmoil in North Korea, and also bringing US soldiers close to its border.
If Trump does not understand this reality, he would have only exposed his own credulity. Does it mean that Trump would be prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea in response to the latter’s threat of launching two medium-range missiles into the exclusive economic zone off the coast of Guam? What remains unclear is: who provokes whom as both Trump and Kim Jong-un have gone bellicose? And who makes the first move? The world dreads such a scenario which could suddenly unfold with all its fury.
Kim Jong-un is said to be finalising plans to simultaneously launch four non-nuclear Hwasong-12 rockets over Japan, which are expected to land as close as 18 miles near the US territory of Guam. The US maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea and 54,000 in Japan and Guam is an important base in America’s defence strategy in the Pacific. Guam is a small island in the western Pacific with around 163,000 inhabitants, but it is an important US military base.
It includes a submarine squadron, an air base and a Coast Guard group. Located about 3,000 km to the south-east of North Korea, it is within range of even the medium-range ballistic missile and thus highly vulnerable. To assure Guam’s security, the US deployed two B- 1 bombers to fly from Guam over the Korean Peninsula as part of its “continuous bomber presence”. Trump is alarmed by a new analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency which concluded that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear device capable of being mounted on a long-range missile.
The US also calculated that Kim Jong-un now controls up to 60 nuclear weapons. The series of provocations are not only a threat to the US but a challenge to the world. On 8 August, Japan released its Defence White Paper which stated that North Korea could have developed the technology for production of a miniaturised nuclear warhead to arm its missiles.
The immediate impact of a conflict erupting between the US and North Korea would be felt in Japan and South Korea, though China would be drawn into it in quick time.
The new Defence Minister of Japan, Itsunori Onodera, claims Japan can legally intercept any missile from North Korea headed towards Guam if it posed as an existential threat. Onodera said Japan would quickly respond and “never tolerate” provocations from the reclusive state. If North Korea launches missiles towards Guam, these would overfly the Japanese prefectures of Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi and can have a flight time of 17 minutes 45 seconds and travel 3,356.7 km (2,086 miles).
Though Japanese fighters conducted joint drills with US supersonic bombers in Japanese skies close to the Korean Peninsula, there are doubts if Japan has the capability to shoot down any missile, if it flies over Japan. If North Korea fires at the Guam Island, over-flying Japan and hits the US bases, Japan would consider the North Korean action as constituting a “survival-threatening situation” enabling it to exercise its right of collective self-defence, a concept its Prime Minister has been vigorously promoting.
Like Japan, in a departure from his earlier peace overtures, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also called for urgent enhancement of defence capabilities. The situation has become grave. Closer home the SinoIndian tensions over Doklam coupled with escalation of the war of words between the US and North Korea has led to a sudden rise in geopolitical tensions that could threaten economic prospects across nations.
The North Korean operation will reportedly be finalised by midAugust and submitted to the supreme leader for the final launch order. The disclosure of this specific plan has posed a specific threat to the US, Japan and South Korea. Given the precarious situation that is unfolding, is there any room left for diplomacy? Even diehard optimists would have second thoughts.
(The writer is currently the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University in Japan. The views expressed here are his own and not of ICCR or the Government of India. He may be reached at [email protected])