South Korea has claimed that the U.S. had reaffirmed it will shoulder the cost of deploying the THAAD anti-missile system, after an unsuccessful ballistic missile test by North Korea on Saturday.
A few days prior, U.S. President Donald Trump said South Korea should pay for the $1 billion defense system, reports Reuters, but in a telephone call on Sunday, Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reassured his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, that the U.S. alliance with South Korea was its top priority in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trump spoke to the prime ministers of Thailand and Singapore in separate phone calls on Sunday. He also talked to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday. A week ago, he spoke with the leaders of China and Japan.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group began exercises with the South Korean navy on Saturday, about 12 hours after the failed launch.
The missile blew up over land in North Korean territory. After the failure, it has been speculated that the U.S. was hacking North Korea's weapons systems, a suggestion that Trump refused to confirm or deny in a media interview.
Trump, asked about his message to North Korea after the latest missile test, told reporters: "You'll soon find out," but did not elaborate. He has previously said that a major conflict is possible.
North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program and tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and in 2016. North Korea is also believed to possess biological and chemical weapons programs.
In April, Frank Aum, a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told the Nuclear Threat Initiative that North Korea is considered to have an advanced and comprehensive nuclear program, with over 100 nuclear-related facilities. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, and the last one, in September 2016, had an estimated yield of 20 to 30 kilotons. “Experts assess that North Korea currently has enough fissile material and weapons inventory for approximately 25-50 nuclear weapons, and in a worst case scenario, could have up to 100 weapons by 2020.”
We have bad and worse options, says Aum. “Let me go through some of the options that the Trump administration has reportedly considered:
“On one end of the spectrum is conducting military strikes, either on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities to degrade its programs or as part of an attempt at regime change. There are many problems with a military strike, whether done preventatively or preemptively in self-defense, he says.
First, is the fact that North Korea has over 100 related nuclear facilities and perhaps many more in its network of underground facilities. It also has mobile missile launchers that can be dispersed from garrisons and hidden quickly.
“So, it would be nearly impossible to take out its nuclear and missile programs in a clean and comprehensive way, which allows for the possibility of nuclear retaliation. There is also a strong likelihood that North Korea would retaliate using conventional means, including the hundreds of artillery shells that could reach Seoul easily, or even using chemical and biological weapons.
“Another complicating factor is that if we are considering a risky strike, we would need to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens from Seoul beforehand, which also tips off North Korea and China about impending danger.
“This is why most experts believe that a military strike is not realistic.”
Another option might be covert action to degrade North Korea’s facilities, with many of the same risks.
“On the other end of the spectrum is to tacitly accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state and shift the focus to counter-proliferation, sanctions, deterrence, and missile defense,” says Aum. “The problem here is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons still remain, as does Pyongyang’s propensity to proliferate material and technology. Also, there is the concern that Kim Jong-un may escalate conventional provocations against South Korea, believing that his nuclear program will deter U.S. intervention.
“Furthermore, accepting North Korea’s nuclear status may erode South Korea and Japan’s forbearance, causing them to develop their own indigenous nuclear weapons to provide strategic balance in the region. This also has negative implications for the global non-proliferation regime.”
In terms of deterrence, some have suggested that the U.S. should deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. “But we already provide extended deterrence through our conventional forces on the Peninsula as well as extended nuclear deterrence from off-Peninsula. There may be some messaging or bartering value by deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea, particularly with regard to China, but this would be at the cost of undermining the U.S. and South Korean goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.