Rex Tillerson: North Korea Threat Is Imminent, Strategic Patience Is Over

All options are on the table—including South Korea and Japan becoming nuclear powers

North Korea's new missile test ended in failure on Wednesday after it exploded a few minutes after its launch, according to South Korea's military. The launch attempt was made from Wonsan, a city on North Korea's east coast. It remains unclear what type of missile it was, as the South Korean defense ministry conducts analysis to obtain further details. The increased frequency of missile tests carried out in the country has sparked concern on how to respond to the state. The test comes only a few days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went on an Asia trip to discuss North Korea.

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The dire threat North Korea presents to peace in East Asia starts with this fact: The Korean War never really ended.

It may shock some mainstream media minds to discover that Donald Trump is already a Korean War president, but so was Barack “Nobel Peace Prize” Obama, and every other American president since Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Truman was president in 1950 when, with the backing of Soviet Russia, North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung launched a surprise invasion of South Korea. The war Kim the First (Kim 1) began would eventually involve the U.S. and Communist China.

The Military Demarcation Line dividing the United Nations’ “truce village” of Panmunjom doesn’t legally demarcate the political boundary between North Korea and South Korea. It simply splits a demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating two warring armies ostensibly observing the fragile ceasefire the 1953 armistice established. The DMZ more or less reflects the final positions of the dug-in Free World and Communist armies.

Unfinished historical business? The Korean War isn’t the past. It’s a complex geo-political nightmare of the present. North Korea’s now-dynastic “Kim family” Communist regime creates the nightmare—and economically and politically exploits the fears it incites. The Kim dictatorship apparently believes that perpetuating the threat of another massively destructive conventional war with South Korea and its allies is essential.

History demonstrates that the North Korean regime is responsible for the ceasefire’s fragility. Since 1953, Pyongyang has repeatedly shattered the ceasefire, waging in belligerent fits and spasms a calculated, contained, yet always deadly war of aggression against South Korea. The March 26, 2010 attack on the corvette Cheonan is a particularly bloody example. Forty-six South Korean sailors died when a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. It was the highest death toll from a single North Korean attack since the 1960s.

The Kim dynasty also employs assassination and terror to kill its enemies (real and imagined) throughout the world.

East Asia is one of the world’s most economically productive regions. Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai confirm that. The Kim dynasty’s “contained war” implicitly threatens damage (to various degrees) to these multi-trillion dollar contributors to global GDP. (Damage Shanghai? China believes a conventional war on the Korean peninsula could drive millions of refugees into northern China.)

The “contained war” willfully risks igniting a devastating, uncontained multi-polar war that could spread far beyond East Asia.

Why? The explanation links two dynastic goals. Pyongyang’s paranoid Communists still believe that they can ultimately obtain their key 1950 war objective: a Korea unified under Korean Communist control. They have also concluded that, in order to maintain control of the North Korean state, they must maintain a perpetual state of war. Both Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il (Kim 2), and his successor, current dictator Kim Jong Un (Kim 3) have pursued these goals.

The Kims don’t threaten to die fighting; they are already fighting. For a price, paid in aid or cash or food or fuel, their regime will restrain itself and end its latest belligerent fit. It may also tone down its violent rhetoric—until the next time. This summarizes the regime’s script for rattling its enemies and extorting bribes.

Time—time passes. Time has passed. There have been dozens of next times.

Now, North Korea’s next times routinely involve ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.

In 2011, North Korea began an accelerated ballistic missile test program. Since then, it has conducted over 30 live-fire tests. Still, the tests tended to follow the script. North Korea would issue rhetorical threats then fire a missile.

A missile test launch in August 2016 demonstrated improved capabilities. After traveling 1,000 kilometers, the missile splashed into the Sea of Japan but inside Japan’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Missile tracking data confirmed the strike location. A threat? No, a North Korean missile had physically violated Japanese sovereignty.

North Korea’s first nuclear test, conducted in 2006, was a fizzle, with a yield of about 0.7 kilotons. But a decade makes a difference. On September 9, 2016, North Korea claimed that it tested a nuclear warhead. Warhead or not, the device was nuclear and powerful. Monitors estimated its yield at 20 to 30 kilotons (about twice the size of the Hiroshima bomb).

It’s 2017. Kim Jong Un possesses ballistic missiles with near-intercontinental range. His regime has nuclear devices and, over time, intends to produce nuclear weapons. On March 6, 2017 his forces launched a volley of four ballistic missiles. This time, three landed in Japanese waters. The next day, Pyongyang announced that the missile launches were “practice” for targeting U.S. bases in Japan.

Practice for a first strike in a regional war? Yes.

North Korean extended-range missiles can already threaten Guam and parts of Alaska. Some analysts think the Hawaiian Islands are in range.

North Korea has declared that it will soon deploy long range missiles that can target the continental U.S. In March 2013, North Korea revealed that Austin, Texas (where South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. has a manufacturing facility) is a potential target. Washington, D.C. appeared on the target list.

On February 12, 2017 the regime tested a new intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), the Pukgukson-2 (Polaris-2). Solid fuel propels the missile, so Kim Jong Un’s troops can launch it on short notice. A tracked transporter erector-launcher (TEL) fired the missile, so the new missile is mobile. North Korea has few paved roads; a tracked TEL isn’t road bound. Moreover, the Pukgukson-2 was cold-launched—expelled from the TEL before main booster ignition. Missile experts say that indicates that a submarine can launch it.

The bottom line is that over the last eight months the regime has conducted weapons tests that demonstrate that it’s acquiring the operational military capabilities required to launch a very uncontained nuclear war.

The North Korean regime’s “contained war” strategy has exploited two policies that have been more or less strategic constants since 1953. The first is Communist China’s tacit long-term support for North Korea’s Communist dictatorship.

Beijing’s support for Pyongyang circa 2017 may not be as iron-clad as its support circa 1997, but that support remains.

The second policy, “contained war,” exploited the policy of “strategic patience” followed by South Korea, Japan and the U.S. It was part of the U.S. Cold War strategy of “containment.” South Korea and its allies would militarily contain North Korea. South Korea would pursue economic development and political liberalization. Over time, the North Korean regime might “mellow,” to appropriate George Kennan’s word for diminishing Soviet belligerence.

Until that change occurred, South Korea would absorb small attacks, no matter how vicious and provocative, in order to prevent a confrontation escalating to all-out war. Seoul’s northern suburbs are still within range of North Korea tube and rocket artillery. Even a short conventional war might kill tens of thousands of civilians. South Korea would definitely suffer severe economic loss.

“Soft power” appeals might solicit North Korean cooperation and eventually reduce its aggressiveness. So South Korea, Japan and the U.S. tried soft power—and did they ever.

The Clinton Administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework gave Kim Il Sung heavy fuel oil and technical assistance if his regime would shut down the nuclear reactors it used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The U.S. would even help North Korea acquire light water nuclear reactors for electrical generation if it permitted International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and complied with other IAEA safeguards. In 2002, the U.S. determined that North Korea had violated the Agreed Framework and had an ongoing uranium enrichment program. Indeed, it did.

In 2000 South Korea began its Sunshine Policy—soft power on steroids. South Korea would reward North Korea with “economic incentives” in exchange for political cooperation. Seoul’s goal was eventual détente and peace.

Then, North Korea conducted its 2006 nuclear test. The test was supposed to scare South Korea, and it did. Pyongyang refused Seoul’s demand that it halt its nuclear weapons program.

In 2008, the South Korean government decided that Sunshine would diminish as long as the North sought nuclear weapons. Current incentive programs would continue, but there would be no new endeavors until North Korea ended its nuclear quest. North Korea conducted another nuclear test in 2009. The Cheonan incident solidified opposition to the Sunshine Policy. In November 2010, South Korea’s Unification Ministry terminated the program.

The Sunshine Policy’s “soft power” failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. UN sanctions may have hindered it, but they haven’t stopped it, either. The “Panama Papers” scandal revealed that the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, helped a financial firm fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to investigators, the firm’s owners were based in Pyongyang. The Kim regime knows how to evade sanctions by hiring the skillfully incurious.

By 2010, South Korea and Japan had concluded that “strategic patience” had failed. President Barack Obama said “strategic patience” still guided U.S. policy, but he also approved the deployment of a U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery to South Korea. The battery arrived this February.

In Seoul on March 17, after visiting the DMZ, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson succinctly sketched America’s evolving position: “Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.”

All options included the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by South Korea and Japan. Japan and South Korea are already investing in improved ballistic missile defense systems.

A day later in a sit-down interview with the Independent Journal Review, Tillerson insisted, “Our objective is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. A denuclearized Korean peninsula negates any thought or need for Japan to have nuclear weapons. We say all options are on the table, but we cannot predict the future. So we do think it’s important that everyone in the region has a clear understanding that circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that. But as I said yesterday, there are a lot of… there’s a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that.”

When the interviewer pressed him about how to “get ahead” of North Korea, Tillerson added, “We’re not sure if we can get ahead of them. If they just continue, you know, we’re headed to a place no one wants to be… if they continue with their testing and continue the development of both their weapons and their delivery systems, then we’re going to find ourselves in a place that’s even more dangerous than we are today.”

The Independent Journal Review’s interview transcript indicates that Tillerson used the word “imminent” at least four times—“imminent circumstances” and “imminent threat.” “Imminent” is a politically flammable term and, in regards to Iraq, still incites bitter argument. The Bush administration never used the word “imminent” to describe Saddam Hussein’s potential use of weapons of mass destruction. However, it definitely portrayed the threat Saddam posed as dire and urgent.

Saddam had a WMD record. His forces had used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish rebels. WMD was certainly part of Saddam’s “threat profile.”

“Imminent” is an important word. In 2002, the Bush administration argued that 9/11 demanded the international legal concept of “imminent threat” be revised to deal with 21st century adversaries.

Inaction, particularly when an adversary has WMD, entails risk. Inaction when an adversary is a terrorist with WMD may entail unacceptable risks.

Unlike the Bush administration, the Trump administration has deliberately and emphatically used the word “imminent.” Secretary of State Tillerson repeated it. Diplomats know he was sending a message.

On February 13, the day after the Pukgukson-2 launch, assassins in Malaysia murdered Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. The hit team killed him at the Kuala Lumpur airport in front of a closed circuit television camera.

Korean media report that North Korean defectors repeatedly asked Jong Nam to politically challenge Jong Un. One defector group in Europe even asked him to lead a government in exile. Jong Nam rejected the proposal. Though he said he supported reform in North Korea, Jong Nam also said he supported his younger brother.

Yet, Kim Jong Un decided his brother presented a growing threat to his regime, so had his brother killed. The assassins apparently sprayed Jong Nam’s face with liquid nerve agent VX. When delivered with missile warheads or artillery shells, VX is a weapon of mass destruction, “the most deadly chemical weapon ever produced.”

Is war with North Korea a “trip wire” conflict? Yes. It has been since Kim Il Sung’s surprise attack in 1950. With Kim Jong Un in charge any “incident of escalation” could lead to conflagration.

The Trump administration is clearly pressuring China. I guarantee Beijing gulped when Tillerson suggested that South Korea and Japan might acquire nuclear weapons—and it was supposed to. China has regarded the presence of U.S. forces in Japan as a brake on a revival of Japanese militarism. In the mid-1980s, I attended a U.S. Army War College reception for a Chinese military officer who had given a talk to War College students. The Chinese officer wore his uniform; most of the American student officers wore business suits. I overheard a part of a conversation the Chinese officer was having with a group of students. The subject was the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Japan and specifically the stationing of U.S. Navy ships in Japan. The Chinese officer smiled. “The U.S. Navy in Yokahama…in China we think this is very good.” His eyes twinkled. I doubt they’re twinkling now.

Japan doesn’t really want nuclear weapons, and China definitely doesn’t want Japan to acquire nuclear weapons.

But the Kim dynasty’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them continues unabated and the threat they pose is increasing.

China must bring decisive pressure on North Korea’s regime. By decisive, I mean pressure that terminates North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Perhaps China can produce a diplomatic miracle and convince Kim Jong Un that ending the program is the only way he and his regime will survive. This diplomatic miracle would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

China may have the covert wherewithal to induce the North Korean military to conduct “regime change from within.” I suspect this fear haunts Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam reportedly had numerous friends in China.

If China cannot bring decisive pressure, or refuses to do so, then the threat of a high-intensity war fought to determine the Kim dynasty’s fate will eventually become imminent. Should this last phase of the Korean War erupt, it won’t be confined to the peninsula. If nuclear weapons strike cities the casualties will be enormous.

Like Rex Tillerson said, “…we’re headed to a place no one wants to be.”

Austin Bay is a contributing editor at and adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His most recent book is a biography of Kemal Ataturk (Macmillan 2011). Bay is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel. 

Rex Tillerson: North Korea Threat Is Imminent, Strategic Patience Is Over