The Problem of North Korea

On Saturday morning New Zealand time, North Korea carried out its latest missile test – a modified mobile Scud which it launched towards the Sea of Japan. The test was a failure – the missile blew up over North Korean territory. The fact there was a test, and the type of missile, is highly significant. It came a day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lead the UN Security Council in a debate on what to do about North Korea, including demanding that they stop testing. Also, the missile’s design purpose is for use against targets like the aircraft super-carrier USS Carl Vinson which is now in striking range of North Korea.

By Sunday (30 April) the THAAD missile defence system was up and running in South Korea according to Reuters. There is a caveat that no wartime test has ever been done on the system, so it may be that the a major attack from North Korea could overwhelm the system. North Korea certainly has enough weapons to make that a possibility. Further, most of the weaponry that North Korea could use against South Korea is artillery that the defence system couldn’t stop. Therefore, the people of South Korea, especially the 25 million in the greater Seoul region, are still in significant danger. (See below for more information about THAAD.)

The issue of North Korea, or more specifically her leader Kim Jong-un, is becoming more serious by the day. Everyone knows there’s a problem, but what to do about it is another matter. Anyone who thinks they have the answer probably doesn’t understand the question. Until recently, it felt like this is what was going on:



In recent days, briefings from US generals and other advisors, as well as input from President Xi, have meant that President Trump is finally starting to understand how difficult the North Korea Problem will be to resolve. He still manages to mess things up though, such as when he indicated the US was going to break an earlier agreement on which parts of THAAD the US would pay for, and which parts South Korea would pay for. Lieutenant General HR McMaster, the White House National Security Advisor, had to intervene to reassure the South Korea government that the US would honour their commitments.

Suffice to say, it is an extremely complex situation with multiple variables. However, it is currently significantly more dangerous than it has ever been for three main reasons:

1. The leader of North Korea not only lacks experience, he appears to be excessively paranoid. It is difficult to know whether we can be confident he is rational.

2. The new president of the US, Donald Trump, is also a neophyte. He has a tendency to think there is a simple answer to all questions, and the only reason a problem remains is that he wasn’t on the job. Until very recently he did not grasp the complexity of the North Korea situation, and damage has been done, and continues to be done, by his multiple ill-advised comments.

3. North Korea appears close to developing long-range missile technology so they achieve their dream of having a weapon capable of reaching the US.

4. North Korea has nuclear technology and are continually working on miniaturizing a bomb to enable the mounting of a nuclear warhead on missiles.

It may actually be that North Korea already has long-range missile technology; perhaps the only reason their missiles continue to explode after launch is due to hacking by the US or another power. There has, of course, been no confirmation either way that this is the case.

Wall Street Journal

This is the Wall Street Journal‘s summary from early April, from this article.

This is the same article that is the origin of the story about President Xi of China schooling President Trump about North Korea. It states:

Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”


China sees the Asia-Pacific as their sphere of influence and resent any encroachment in the region by the US. One of the main reasons President Obama had for supporting TPP was that it was a counterweight to growing Chinese economic power in the region. TPP would have moved economic power away from China and back to the US. China is very happy Trump has taken the US out of TPP.

On the other hand, China is unhappy about the US military being in what they see as their seas, especially around South Korea and Japan. China also opposes the installation of THAAD in South Korea. They see these and other moves as potentially threatening to their status and future as a superpower.

At the moment China can’t challenge the US economically or  militarily, but they are working hard to change that. Their economy has been one of the fastest growing in the world this century. This has seen them surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Much of the extra money has been put into growing their military.

China and North Korea

There are four main reasons China wants to maintain the status quo with North Korea. (All are inter-woven in some way, so these divisions are somewhat arbitrary.)

1. Currently, they have the most influence in North Korea. They naturally want to maintain that position of power.

2. War, or indeed any major unrest, would see millions of North Koreans pouring over the northern border into China. China naturally does not want to deal with that. Their economy is strengthening, but could not handle that, and it would set them back.

3. China fears that a collapse of the North Korean regime would see South Korea taking over leadership of the entire peninsula. South Korea, of course, has closer ties with the US than with China. Therefore, South Korea taking over the peninsula would mean a US ally on the Chinese border. This makes China uncomfortable, which is understandable even if you don’t agree they have justification for this fear.

4.  This third reason has become of greater importance since the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam. He was under the protection of China and his main residence with his wife was there. China saw him as someone they could install as a puppet leader in the event Kim Jong-un lost power (whether by accident or design).

Also, China is discovering they have less control over Kim Jong-un than they did his father. Kim Jong-nam’s death has left China without an obvious candidate to rule North Korea instead of Kim Jong-Un. Thus, they need to find a way to bring Kim-Jong-un into line. He is their only option now.

China has always publicly said that they agree with the international position on the Korean peninsula: that it be nuclear free. In the past they have done nothing to advance that cause though.

Kim Jong-nam

Kim Jong-nam was the older half-brother of Kim Jong-un. He was the eldest son of the former leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and his mistress Song Hye-rim, a popular actress.

In February, Kim Jong-nam’s death in the Kuala Lumpur international airport made headlines worldwide mostly because of who his brother is. The Malaysian authorities soon made the discovery that Kim Jong-nam was the victim of a complex murder plot by North Korea.

Kim Jong-nam himself was not an attractive personality. He had a wife and two mistresses. His wife and one of his mistresses had children with him. He spent his time flying between them in China and Malaysia, and the gaming tables of Macau, where the second mistress had her home.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un had his brother killed so China wouldn’t try to put him in his place. He may not have got quite the freedom he was after though.

Kim Jong-un is now China’s best option, so I think they will try harder to get control of him than ever before. I think this the main reason China is now cooperating with the US and the United Nations in a way they haven’t before.

There have been heavy and steadily increasing UN sanctions against North Korea for some time. China frequently took little notice of them. In the last few months though they have been acting more collaboratively. Their recent action in turning back a coal shipment from North Korea gets frequent mention by the talking heads.

Reuters reports:

A fleet of North Korean cargo ships is heading home to the port of Nampo, the majority of it fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal from the isolated country, shipping data shows.

Following repeated missile tests that drew international criticism, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country’s most important export product.

To curb coal traffic between the two countries, China’s customs department issued an official order on April 7 telling trading companies to return their North Korean coal cargoes, said three trading sources with direct knowledge of the order.


With the exception of the US president, the US Administration appears to be handling the North Korea situation well. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are keeping in constant contact. Tillerson states neither makes a move without speaking to the other, which is encouraging. The National Security Advisor, HR McMaster is also cooperating with them, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley appears to be doing a good job so far too.

Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster have given their president good talking points, and when he uses the words they gave him things look okay. When he goes off script, things get dicey. Just yesterday we got this example: President Trump said to Bloomberg

If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would – absolutely. I would be honoured to do it.

That’s fine, because the comment includes the caveat, “if it would be appropriate”. It keeps the diplomatic option open. Those who are criticizing this are, in my opinion, only doing it because it was Trump who said it. Of course, there would be all sorts of negotiations behind the scene before such a meeting could possibly occur. Trump does have a good national security team (now that Mike Flynn and Steve Bannon aren’t part of it) and they would make sure everything was done properly.

The day before though, Trump was calling Kim Jong-un a “smart cookie” and praising the way he had his own uncle killed. He also continues to Tweet as the mood takes him. He doesn’t see to appreciate how dangerous that could be.

World War III probably won’t break out over North Korea. There’s even a chance all the parties could get together and negotiate a nuclear weapons free Korean peninsula. If something goes wrong it will be because someone makes a mistake, and someone else overreacts.

The problem is, one of the most important players has a tendency to make mistakes, and another has a tendency to overreact.


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Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)

According to Wikipedia, THAAD is a

… United States Army anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach. … The missile carries no warhead, but relies on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy the incoming missile. A kinetic energy hit minimizes the risk of exploding conventional warhead ballistic missiles, and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles will not detonate upon a kinetic energy hit.

The design is by Lockhead Martin, who also manufacture it for the US government.


(Click pic to go to source.)

There was a test of THAAD at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in June 2008:




21 Responses to “The Problem of North Korea”

  1. Ben Goren says:

    About the only reason I see for optimism in all this is that China is a very old country — old enough to have had its fair share of insane power-hungry idiots at the helm over the course of time.

    It’s frightening that Mr. Xi should be the adult in the room…but at least there is an adult in the room. I just hope he has enough wisdom for all three nations, and the compassion to share it.

    And, no. I don’t think any part of this catastrophe is desirable. Yes, I think there’s an excellent chance that the US is going to get screwed royally thanks to Drumpf’s incompetent arrogance. I’m just expressing a bit of hope that, maybe, none of the crises in this mess will turn out to be existential — along with no small bit of horror that that hope is founded primarily, if not solely, on the strength and mercy of the Chinese leadership.

    See, Republicans? This is what you get when “the situation is so intolerable that something must be done” and than you go ahead with “something” without any concern for whether or not “something” is better or worse than the situation that’s got you in a panic in the first place. Next time, can we maybe think things through a bit more carefully?

    Oh, who am I kidding….



    • You are so right Ben. The inability of so many of those who are supposed to be looking out for the interests of all to think deeply and critically, and about someone other than themselves, is a constant concern.

  2. nicky says:

    North Korea is a monarchical slave state, basically a feudal state. It will collapse, we just don’t know when: it might be less than a year or decades.
    We also don’t know how. It might be a China-like change (not really a collapse then), a peaceful South African type of revolution, a Russian/USSR-like upheaval or even a nuclear armageddon. If the US and their local allies keep their nerve, and remain stoic, the latter is improbable (immo).
    I also think the ‘Aircraft Carrier Navy’ (or surface ship navy as a whole) is obsolete. A (Chinese) Dong Feng 21 ballistic missile , eg., will take an aircraft carrier (or cruiser) out in less than 15 minutes after launch, even if thousands of miles away. aircraft carriers have no defense, they won’t, can’t, see it coming. And if they do, somewhere in it’t tracks, it is too late anyway. Rusty iron at best. I have serious, as in serious, doubts the THAAD will change that fact.

    • nicky says:

      Let us compare it to using cavalry (aircraft carriers) against machine guns (‘intelligent’ ballistic missiles). Slaughter.

    • Ben Goren says:

      All governments have a limited shelf life; ours is no exception. For that matter, there’s the heat death of the Universe in some hundreds of trillions of years….

      Regardless, feudalism lasted a looooooong time in history; modern democracies are in their infancy in comparison. Noting the feudalistic nature of North Korea is accurate, but it tells us nothing whatsoever about how long it’ll endure. It may well outlast the US — especially considering the rampant corruption in our own political system, corruption that was already bad in Nixon’s administration and has only gotten much, much worse since. The stink is overwhelming with the current administration, but, even so, it’s unclear how much inertia remains in the American experiment.

      I also think the ‘Aircraft Carrier Navy’ (or surface ship navy as a whole) is obsolete. A (Chinese) Dong Feng 21 ballistic missile , eg., will take an aircraft carrier (or cruiser) out in less than 15 minutes after launch, even if thousands of miles away.

      …and…20 minutes after the carrier has been vaporized, Beijing gets MIRVed.

      Soldiers still carry knives into battle, even though the longbow ostensibly rendered even swords obsolete.

      A carrier group is, of course, utterly useless in a global thermonuclear war.

      But a single carrier group, at the same time, can utterly annihilate the entire military of any non-nuclear nation in all of human history — and we’ve got dozens of carrier groups. Had the US’s goal been to defeat the Iraqi or Afghan or Syrian or other militaries without regard to other consequences, those nations would have long since been subdued.

      Rather, what is increasingly becoming obsolete is the notion that destructive military force can be a positively constructive humanitarian power. People, including American citizens, want much less to HULK SMASH KILL people abroad — and the big pivot was around that photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running screaming from the American napalm attack. HULK SMASH KILL isn’t seen as such a wise choice, after all.

      Maybe someday we’ll finally grow up and understand that there’s a more prudent course of action than HULK SMASH KILL. Alas, the current Resident has all the intellectual capacity and wisdom of a ten-year-old meth addict in withdrawal, so national maturity is still some ways away….



      • nicky says:

        And 20 minutes later Beijing gets MIRVed? I’m not so sure:
        1- the ballistic missile need not be nuclear. Will the ‘West’ start going nuclear? It seriously risks to come second best there at any rate.
        2- China is not the only state with ballistic missiles at present,
        and in context: NK is working hard on it. It is not rocket science (?), so, why Beijing?
        3- even the military brass have come to the conclusion that MAD only works as posturing.
        4- it hints at the notion that the military efficiency of a carrier group compares to that of a city.

        Yes, a carrier group can annihilate (etc)…, like cavalry can annihilate a tribe armed with wood & flint clubs. (cf. the just post-Columbian history of the ‘New World’).

        You maybe right about the napalm girl. It definitely opened many eyes and raised questions about what (and how) we were doing there.

        I can fully agree with your last paragraph.

    • Add to that the North Koreans, like the Iranians, have put their nuclear sites in places that even bunker buster bombs can’t get them. All those wanting to just bomb the programs before they’re complete don’t get it’s literally impossible, even if such a move was desirable. They’re either too deep underground, or underwater. The US isn’t the only one who learned that trick.

      • Ben Goren says:

        Alas, I’m sure Drumpf would be far too quick to (correctly) realize that no bunker is “safe,” in practical terms, from a surface detonation of a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb. After the dust settles, you’ve got a half-kilometer-wide crater at the center of a firestorm an hundred kilometers across. Wether or not there’s a functioning bomb buried beneath such a literal hellhole is something of a moot point. And if you really don’t think a single blast is enough, we’ve got single ICBMs that could deliver a dozen such bombs in any pattern desired…and hundreds such ICBMs….

        Of course, obviously, such an action on our part would escalate, in a matter of hours at the absolute most, into an unlimited global thermonuclear war.

        But, here’s the catch.

        Even a single US drone strike such as we routinely use against ISIS targets, even one that resulted in zero North Korean casualties and damaged nothing other than missile or bomb hardware…

        …even something that “trivial” would result in the North unleashing a devastating conventional artillery attack on Seoul that would represent the opening moves in the resumption of the Korean War.

        Our military is perfectly incapable of doing anything constructive in North Korea, and anything it might attempt would result in disaster of literally cataclysmic proportions.

        If there is to be a solution, it’ll be one in which no shots are fired. Indeed, it’ll be one in which no shots are even seriously considered.



        • Just to make it clear, I was saying that bombing is a bad idea, even if it were possible.

        • nicky says:

          That is what I meant by ‘keeping their cool and remain stoic.’
          Do not, repeat do not, strike, by drone or otherwise. NĶ is a mentally ill patient that should not be provoked.
          It would be better to devise ways to inobtrusively get some information into the country.
          (Like about the US ‘Civil Forfeiture’, something quite intelligible in a feudal state. The NĶ regime might even like it)/s

  3. Randy schenck says:

    Good coverage of the situation, however there are a few other details that certainly come into play here. One is the importance of South Korea in all of this and they must be heard, listened to by our new 5 year old president. Elections are just around the corner in the south and the likely person to win is not happy with comments coming from our 5 year old. Many in South Korea are not happy with the missiles we have forced on them. Everyone seems to carry on with this entire subject as if it were something just concerning the U.S., China and North Korea. That is simply not the case and South Korea must be involved as well as Japan.

    We are only there because South Korea and Japan want us there and that could change if they think the U.S. is just out there acting like the 5 year old. Japan and South Korea are the ones in the bulls-eye now and have been for many years. Also, to think anyone understands the North better than the experts in the South would be wrong.

    The idea going round that we must attack the North based on what they are doing or where they are in the process is wild thinking. It is the same kind of thing that could start a war.

    We are in South Korea because of what took place toward the end of WWII and the attack made on South Korea in 1950. It would be good for some, such as our 5 year old to take a little course on this history before shooting off his mouth.

    • All excellent points. Also, the party likely to win the South Korean election is less sympathetic to the US (especially now Trump is in charge) and more keen to have good relations with the north. We have to remember that huge numbers of families were split by the partition and many of those just want to find a way to have contact again.

    • David Coxill says:

      Hi ,i think South Korea and Japan would rather have all American bases closed down .

  4. Mark R. says:

    This was edifying, thanks Heather for another insightful post. With all of NK’s bluster, it is clear to me that China is surely the country in the region who should receive the most attention and scrutiny…and it surely does receive most of the attention, especially when Jong-un isn’t flinging missiles around.

    BTW, where is TPP now that the US pulled out? Going ahead more quickly, or did the move stall the implementation?

    Also, I stopped getting your emails dammit. This happened with WEIT two weeks ago. I had to unsubscribe, wait 24 hours and subscribe again. At least it worked! WordPress is glitchy. I just wanted to give you a head’s up unless others are having the same problem.

    • Everyone seems a lot less keen on TPP now the US is gone. Better access to their economy was a big drawcard. It’s very protected, despite what Trump thinks. I’m not really sure what’s going on at the moment.

      A few people have had problems, but unfortunately it’s not something I can fix. It’s a WordPress thing – as you say “it’s glitchy”.

  5. Ken Kukec says:

    The problem with Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim Jung-un stems from his statement that he’d “be honored to do it.”

    There may be solid pragmatic reasons for the U.S. president someday to meet with the leader of the world’s most-repressive regime, but there’d be no honor in it.

    • Ken Kukec says:


    • I agree. I see those words as diplomatic-speak though. The US is allies with Saudi Arabia, but no longer with New Zealand (since 1970s) because our anti-nuke stance is “unacceptable”. In joint war games with multiple countries in Hawaii, the NZ fleet had to use a port on a different island to most of the others just last year.

  6. Yakaru says:

    What worries me the most is the possibility that Trump will get edgy about the Russia investigation and start a war as a distraction. Normally I’d trust “the establishment” to make sure the president is shielded from such inquiries like they did with Reagan and Bush with Iran-Contra, but it is also possible that Trump got himself implicated in some way that was so stupid it can’t be covered up. Given the other things he doesn’t know, he might not have realized he was even doing anything wrong.

    Another thing that worries me is that he thinks he’s “the greatest negotiator in the history of humanity” (to quote one of his hideous spokesmen on CNN last year). He told John Meecham he could have averted the American Civil War. Who knows what that might make him want to try.

    • nicky says:

      Would he start a war as distraction? If so, I doubt he would choose NK. Their nuclear deterrent will probably work.
      He would rather go for ‘easier’ prey, i’d think.
      Note that the US already is in 2 wars.

  7. Randy schenck says:

    Nearly everything attached to a carrier force is there for protection of the carrier, including many of the planes and all the ships. We currently have ten of these with two more carriers under construction. There is also considerable air capability at Osan AFB, Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Misawa AFB in Japan and who knows where the nuclear subs might be. The idea that N. Korea has something that puts the carrier group at risk is very unlikely.

    By the way, it is highly unlikely that Trump could have avoided the Civil war when he apparently does not know what caused it. It has only been 150 years so may he will still find out some day.

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