While Washington dithers over Hunter Biden’s laptop, threatens impeaching this guy or that, whether to fund our military, social security or the rest of our government, North Korea fastens hypersonic warheads to its ballistic missiles and ups its relationships with China, Russia and Iran, in an “Axis of Authoritarianism.” For those who haven’t noticed, the world stage is full of despotic dictators with regional aspirations of conquest.
The Associated Press reported last week that North Korea said “Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his willingness to visit the North… as the countries continue to align in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the United States. The North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement published by state media that the two countries agreed to further strategic and tactical cooperation with Russia to establish a ‘new multi-polarized international order,’ a reference to their efforts to build a united front against Washington.”
Kim Jong-un announced last week that North Korea no longer sought peaceful reunification with South Korea, that the goal now was to subjugate the South, if necessary with nuclear weapons. How many Americans realize that North Korea now has ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States and a growing inventory of nuclear weapons. That cache was estimated a year ago to be between 40 and 60 weapons. How many nuclear weapons does our ally, South Korea have? Zero. Japan? Zero. That’s not an argument for more nukes, just an asymmetrical fact.
In 2020, General John Hyden, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stated that North Korea is “building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anybody on the planet.”
Ambassador Robert Gallucci served in the U.S. State Department in various capacities, but during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, Gallucci was the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea. In a recent article for the digital magazine The National Interest, Gallucci updated Hyden’s concerns: “(North Korea) has settled on steady, determined testing of long-range ballistic missiles to deter any attempt at regime change and acquiring fissile material for an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal to threaten ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict.”
It’s “in the event of a conflict,” and Gallucci’s expanded narrative that motivated me to do this column. Let me explain and allow me in doing so to venture into the domain of plausibility.
China’s 75-year insistence that Taiwan is a province of mainland China comes with a promise that they will repatriate the island by force if necessary. Their resolve has only intensified with President Biden’s declaration that if attacked the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid. Add in the ramped up tensions resulting from Putin’s war with Ukraine, instability in the Middle East, and the enhanced alliance among these despotic nations, and you have the kind of opportunistic environment China could act on to try to claim Taiwan as Putin claims Ukraine and North Korea claims to do to South Korea.
It begs the obvious to point out that China’s weakened economy would get a huge boost by acquiring Taiwan. The same goes for the weakened Russian economy by acquiring Ukraine, and North Korea by overrunning South Korea.
Here’s a scenario that comes to mind. China decides to move on Taiwan. It’s entirely plausible. Leadership in Washington is so overdone with partisan vanity that these authoritarian leaders believe the U.S. is too disjointed and unprepared. We try to respond but are caught off guard with dysfunction in Washington and other neglected global situations.
North Korea now becomes the chess piece that no one has paid attention to. It’s the pawn that has made its way across the chess board to qualify as a queen, a difference maker because it declares its support for China and threatens that it will use its ballistic arsenal against the U.S. and South Korea if the U.S. tries to defend Taiwan. Checkmate. Ambassador Gallucci plays this scenario out.
“How could that happen? Let’s count the ways. First, there’s everybody’s favorite crisis, the Taiwan contingency. Imagine a Beijing perceived Taiwanese provocation leading Chinese moves and prompting U.S. countermoves, with neither side certain how far the other is prepared to go. Yet both sides intend to signal their determination not to back down. This is U.S. policy. In this scenario, North Korea, with or without encouragement from China, acts to support China by issuing nuclear threats against U.S. assets and allies in Northeast Asia, posing for the United States the prospect of facing two nuclear weapons states in one theater — unless Russia chooses to make it three… This scenario requires serious thought because nation-states can be as opportunistic as their leaders.”
Ambassador Gallucci goes on to suggest that North Korean denuclearization is basically off the table now due to what he calls, too many years of diplomatic “benign neglect” during the Bush and Obama administrations, followed by the Trump years of “a sharp rise in tensions, exchanges in threats and insults, marked by expressions of warm feelings.” Therefore, “Before reaching the unhappy conclusion that, since the prerequisites for diplomacy seem absent, we should expect more of the same in the coming year, it might be prudent to consider the possibility that we may not be so lucky. We should at least entertain the thought that nuclear war could break out in Northeast Asia in 2024.”
Encouraging news? The current administration was successful this August in effecting an American, Japanese, South Korean trilateral pact, the JAROKUS Security Pact, strengthening the alliances of these nations and their military collaboration.
My point here remains. Foolish shenanigans in Washington detract from some of the most critical and existential domestic and global situations, which definitely require a greater sense of urgency.
North Korea is more than a mischief-maker. It’s a bonafide nuclear threat run by a power-hungry dictator who would like nothing better than to create mayhem in the rest of the world. Mischief makers are opportunists.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.