by J. Tortorici
Saber rattling is a time-honored tradition among competing states. The most common outcome is the conflicting parties will pull away from open war and take a seat at the conference table. The figurative swords have gotten bigger and more deadly. The consequences of an open nuclear exchange, though frightening to consider, have little chance of actually taking place. The stakes are too high for all parties involved.
Initially, we must consider some revealing numbers. The entire Korean peninsula measures just over eighty-five thousand square miles and is packed with seventy-five million people. Both capitols, Seoul (twenty-five million residents) and Pyonyang (three and a half million residents), are close enough to consider an artillery or rocket barrage of conventional weapons a real deterrent. A tactical fission weapon of seven to fifteen kilotons (comparable with the Hiroshima bomb) would have a devastating effect on both the aggressor and the target. In either case, a million people would die. A thermonuclear device of megaton yield (a Hydrogen bomb) detonated anywhere on the peninsula would effectively deliver the entire culture to the stone-age.
In the winter months, a prevailing westerly flow in the atmosphere would spread radioactive contamination across the Japanese Islands. The accident at Fukushima would pale by comparison to the destruction caused by a detonation to the west of Japan’s landmass. During the summer monsoon season, a southerly flow would carry radioactive fallout to mainland China’s three large Northern provinces, and approximately one-hundred million people would be at risk.
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
– Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
In the event of a nuclear conflagration on or around the crowded Korean peninsula, deaths and casualties would number far greater than a million. Any thoughts of survivability are mythical.
The largest standing army in the world belongs to North Korea. Fully twenty-five percent of the country’s population, approximately six million soldiers, sailors, and airmen can be put in the field on short notice. The South Korean military counts six-hundred twenty-five thousand active personnel, and approximately four million in reserve. The presence of the United States is measly by comparison with a scant twenty-eight thousand troops in country. A sum of eleven million troops are facing each other across two and a half miles of a de-militarized border.
The Human Factor
The potential of North Korea’s ballistic missile development is worrisome, to be certain. Thus far, they exhibit a lack of technical skills needed for a missile arsenal of any significant reach. The fundamental fear, the seed of disaster, will manifest itself in the smallest way.
When aggressive, militaristic states become agitated, the odds of human error and unchecked reactions are greater. No matter the level of discipline and order, the foibles of human behavior or random chance surface at the most inconvenient times. Put aside ballistic missiles for a moment. Envision a minor skirmish between the guards at Panmunjom, on the thirty-eighth parallel, and shots are fired. Imagine an eighteen-year-old U.S. Army E2 misinterpreting an order or being faced with a life-or-death decision. Think of an automated early warning system that fails and generates a false attack alert. Each scenario could easily escalate into a self-inflating conflict, leading to war.
It is more likely a mistake will open the gates of hell in Korea, not a carrier strike-force or “live-fire” exercise. The United States military could be a bystander as North and South Korea finally vent decades of animosity upon each other. Though our military could not maintain a passive position for long. The Joint Chiefs have reams of proportional response scenarios in hand, waiting for the moment to initiate a code-word operation. It is at this juncture the most lucid control must be present in order to prevent a shooting war.
Kim Jong-Un’s crowds are far bigger than Trump’s, and without a hint of protest. Donald has the greatest war machine in history under his command; Kim’s missiles keep blowing up at launch. Kim can eliminate dissent in the most heinous ways and on demand. That must be galling to the egocentric Trump. Imagine, “firing squads on the south lawn!”
The peculiarities of Kim and Donald are well documented. They continue to prove themselves petty, venial thugs in both word and deed. Within their grandiose manifestations of power, lay dangerously capricious temperaments. Baiting an angry dog usually results in missing fingers and as these mongrels poke at each other, they set the stage for mutual public humiliation and the potential for mayhem escalates. What their pomposity perceives as strength is, in reality, the face of weak leadership. A steady hand of restraint is not the strong suit of either Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump.
Troubled guidance from the executive branch of our government is only one facet of the problem Americans face. Our international relations infrastructure is devoid of experienced career diplomats as a result of the administration’s State Department purges. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is treading water as he has no experience for the important task he is assigned. In the legislative branch, a continuing feckless and craven political machinery offers no sensible advice and consent, only partisan in-fighting.
In spite of the complexity of relations in this part of the world, the most hopeful solution to this conflict rests with China. Xi Jinping represents the one experienced leader at the table. He personifies the “new” China of assertive foreign policy and economic confidence. China’s economy is a powerhouse of productivity and will be so for at least the next decade. Since taking office he has exhibited a much harder line with North Korea and currently holds Kim’s economy in his hands. Therein lies the solution…leverage. Xi Jinping is in a position to engage as the peace-maker and hero of this international episode. Only time will tell if he seizes the initiative and elevates himself and China as a new super-power influence. It emerges as the best alternative to war.