Smoke and mirrors?

The recent historic first meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un produced little of substance, as Dr Simon Bennett reports


The commitments made in the summit’s 403-word communiqué are so vague as to be meaningless. North Korea vowed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”. Against what timescale? Ten years? Twenty years? Will North Korea expect the United States to reciprocate by eliminating its own weapons? Unilateral nuclear disarmament is a big ask for North Korea. Trump stated: “We will be stopping the wargames.” Really? Without exercises, the American military’s capacity to deter and, if necessary, fight is diminished. Is the US President prepared to risk the lives of patriotic Americans? Trump’s jingoism suggests not. Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an analyst at the Japan Institute for International Affairs, has described regional military exercises as “crucial elements of alliance deterrence”.

The United States has been outmanoeuvred by North Korea for decades. In 2006, Pyongyang broke a 1999 moratorium on missile launches. In 2012, it broke an agreement on missile development by reclassifying long-range missile tests as space launches. In the rosy afterglow of the Singapore summit Trump Tweeted “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” In another Tweet he invited Americans to “sleep well tonight!” North Korea’s neighbours are wary. During the Winter Olympics, Japan’s Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, remarked: “I am aware that some people argue now that [because] North Korea is engaging in inter- Korea dialogue, we should reward them …I believe North Korea wants to buy some time.

…we should not be blinded by North Korea’s charm off ensive.” The Japanese government’s Japan-US security coordinator remarked: “Kim Jong-un intends to finish his nuclear project.”

A US Air Force F-22 Raptor flanked by an F-16C Fighting Falcon and a Republic of Korea Air Force F-15 Slam Eagle at Osan Air Base following a 12-aircraft formation show of force. SSgt Amber Grimm/US Air Force

How Little Boy and Fat Man shape geopolitics

Despite, or perhaps because of, the Singapore summit, fear stalks the Asia- Pacific region. In concrete terms the summit changed nothing. North Korea remains a nuclear power with missiles. Countries allied with the United States fear they might be attacked or dragged into a conflict. The overflight of Japan on August 29, 2017, by a North Korean missile might, with some justification, be framed as an attack. North Korea fears it might be attacked. The Korean Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953, did not so much end hostilities as put them on ice. In absence of a peace treaty, a state of war exists between the South and the North. The Korean War is a perpetual war, similar to the Arab- Israeli conflict or the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

An F-15K Slam Eagle from the Republic of Korea Air Force approaches a US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker for aerial refuelling during Exercise Red Flag Alaska.
SSgt Jim Araos/US Air Force
Four US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons and four Republic of Korea Air Force F-15K Slam Eagles prepare to take off from Daegu Air Base for a joint training mission. Senior Airman Divine Cox/US Air Force

Last year, think-tanks considered how a war with North Korea might unfold. In September 2017, the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published Preparing for War in Korea. The report’s author, Professor Malcolm Chalmers, warned: “[The United States] faces a period of, at most, only two or three years …before it reaches a point at which military action can no longer be taken without unacceptable risk of nuclear retaliation against its own territory.” Even a limited strike on the continental United States would cause significant loss and suffering. Those not atomised would face a lingering death. The US economy would shrink. The political consequences could range from a resurgence of American isolationism to a more aggressive foreign policy (with more direct and proxy conflicts). According to the RUSI, America’s options include surgical strikes and a land invasion.

Surgical strikes

Using cruise missiles launched from bomber aircraft, submarines, and 30,000lb Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs, the United States and South Korea could target North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. However, even if most of the infrastructure was destroyed, Kim Jong-un, determined to secure the Kim dynasty, would resurrect the programme – whatever the social and economic cost. Despots are not easily diverted from their ambitions. Kim is a survivalist.

Churchill famously remarked that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. During World War Two, the Royal Air Force made a determined effort to neutralise the threat posed by the V1 flying bomb. Despite Operation Crossbow’s successes, it was not until northern Europe was saturated with Allied troops that the rocket threat was neutralised. Wars are won by gaining and holding territory, by boots on the ground. Recall how operations Rolling Thunder and Menu failed to save South Vietnam from defeat. Vietnam saw the world’s most advanced military defeated by rice-fuelled, bicycle-riding, tunnelling insurgents.

A Republic of South Korea Air Force KF-16 from Seosan Air Base takes off during Exercise Buddy Wing, a training event designed to improve interoperability between US Air Force and RoKAF fighter squadrons. Senior Airman Taylor Curry/US Air Force
B-29 Superfortress 44-69972 ‘Doc’ on its post-restoration maiden flight from McConnell Air Force Base Kansas on July 17, 2016. Since its final service flight in 1956, Doc was used for weapons system training in the Mojave Desert. Doc is a similar type to B-29 44-86292 ‘Enola Gay’ which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Airman Erin McClellan/US Air Force

Land invasion

Unlike diplomatic counterproliferation measures such as sanctions, military initiatives – even if they incur zero collateral damage – are likely to provoke retaliation. According to the RUSI, North Korea’s order of battle includes:

• A land army of up to 950,000 personnel;

• Around 10,000 well-defended artillery pieces pointing at the South Korean capital and its environs;

• Up to 600 battlefield missiles with conventional warheads;

• Up to 5,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons including, according to Preparing for War, “anthrax, smallpox and, possibly, sarin nerve agent”;

• A handful of nuclear missiles (although the missiles’ reliability and activation timescales are hard to gauge).

The United States and its allies have the capacity to mount a successful invasion of North Korea. The key question is whether the West would be prepared to bear the human, social, economic and political costs of invading and politically detoxifying the country. The chaos that followed the occupation of Iraq provides a lesson. Over time, Iraq’s cities and towns became ungovernable. British troops were picked off in Basra, and American troops in Fallujah.

In Preparing for War, Malcolm Chalmers describes the dangers of a land invasion: “During [the] first phase of the war, heavy casualties – both military and civilian – would be expected on both sides. Tens – and perhaps hundreds – of thousands would be killed by the end of the [first] week, and many more wounded and traumatised. Large parts of both North Korea and South Korea would become scenes of carnage, with millions of refugees seeking shelter in areas spared from the initial destruction, and many of these attempting to flee to neighbouring countries. If nuclear weapons were used, the damage could be much greater. A single nuclear weapon used on Seoul could lead to hundreds of thousands of additional fatalities within a week, and many more injured and sick.”

In an inter-service table-top exercise held in Hawaii at the end of February 2018, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and head of Special Operations Command General Tony Thomas evaluated invasion scenarios. According to one report, the exercise suggested there could be approximately 10,000 US casualties within the first few days of an invasion. According to The New York Times, General Milley remarked: “The brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier.” Considering the mayhem of the Iraq war, which during the second battle of Fallujah between November 7 and December 23, 2004, saw US soldiers sucked into a vicious urban conflict, General Milley’s comment is noteworthy.

To understand the psychology of today’s Korean Peninsula crisis it is necessary to view it through the prism of the two most significant events of the last century: the August 1945 dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any move by the West that provoked the use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest of scales, would create both a humanitarian and, because of what happened in August 1945, a diplomatic disaster.

End game

Japan was far from beaten in 1945. As the noose tightened around Japan’s Home Islands, resistance stiffened. Struggling to bring their campaign to an end, the Allies needed to do something extraordinary. Japan had lost most of its surface fleet and, thanks to the genius of General Curtis LeMay, the capabilities of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the resilience of US Army Air Force crewmen, raids on the Home Islands were inflicting serious losses. For example, according to Thomas Siefring, author of The US Army Air Force in World War Two, the March 9-10, 1945, B-29 raid on Tokyo killed 84,000 and wounded 40,000. Siefring writes: “The worst attack on a city during the war, and the worst of all time, was the Tokyo Fire Raid of 9-10 March …A force of 520 B-29s dropped 4,000 tons of incendiary clusters on a sector encompassing eleven square miles …The majority …died from asphyxiation.”

Despite the attrition, Japan’s armed forces retained significant capacity. As Stephen Ambrose explains in Rise to Globalism:

A B-2 Spirit assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri – the modern incarnation of the 509th Composite Group that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - after landing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on January 8,2018. According to the US Air Force more than 200 airmen and three B-2 Spirits deployed to Andersen in support of US Pacific Command’s Bomber Assurance and Deterrence mission. During the deployment, the B-2s conducted local and regional training sorties so the crews maintain a high state of readiness and proficiency. Airman 1st Class Gerald Willis/US Air Force
A US Air Force B-1B Lancer takes off at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam for the first mission of its kind involving all three of Air Force Global Strike Command’s strategic bomber aircraft as part of US Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence mission. TSgt Richard Ebensberger/US Air Force

American Foreign Policy Since 1938: “[In 1945, Japan] retained control of much of China, most of Southeast Asia, and all of Korea and Manchuria. Her army was more or less intact, and her air force – based on the kamikazes – was a major threat. Japan had an army estimated at up to two million men in Manchuria available for the defence of the Home Islands, with some 5,350 kamikaze planes ready for use, with 7,000 more in storage”. Writing in the May 30, 2013, edition of Foreign Policy, Ward Wilson notes: “[There] was …concern in US military circles that the casualties in an invasion would be prohibitive.”

Regardless of whether or not the use of the bomb brought Japan to the negotiating table, one can be certain of two things. First, America’s possession of nuclear weapons and of a reliable delivery system (the B-29 Superfortress) established it as the preeminent world power. Second, Little Boy and Fat Man (the 9,700lb gun-type and 10,800lb implosion-type atomic bombs dropped from B-29s 44-86292 ‘Enola Gay’ and 44-27297 ‘Bockscar’ on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively) transformed geopolitics. The United States’ demonstration on August 6, 1945, of the practicability and efficacy of the atom bomb obliged Stalin to look at the world through a new prism.

Déjà vu

There are similarities between the 1945 Asia- Pacific crisis (how to bring World War Two to a successful conclusion without incurring huge losses) and the 2018 Asia-Pacific crisis (how to diffuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula). Similarities include:

- A determination not to lose face. Japan’s insistence that Emperor Hirohito (whom the Japanese people regarded as divine) remain as Head of State delayed its arrival at the negotiating table. Kim Jong-un wishes to appear strong. Nuclear weapons make him appear strong. The Trump meeting could be interpreted as Kim’s reward for pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

- The likelihood that an invasion will incur significant losses. In April 1945, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that in the first 90 days of an invasion of Japan’s Home Islands, the US Sixth Army could be expected to sustain 514,000 casualties (including 134,000 dead and missing). According to the RUSI, invading North Korea might cost hundreds of thousands of lives (both civilian and military). If Kim Jong-un, thinking he had nothing left to lose, launched his missiles (probably at South Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii), the death toll would be higher.

- An asymmetry of warfighting capacity and technology. During World War Two, the United States made itself the arsenal of democracy. American invention and industry gave the Allies the Liberty Ship, the Jeep, napalm, the P-51 Mustang fighter, C-47 Dakota transport and the B-29 Superfortress bomber. The B-29 represented a new paradigm in bomber design. Armed with 12 0.50-calibre M2 electrically-operated machine guns in remote-controlled turrets, and one 20mm cannon in its tail turret, the pressurised aircraft could carry up to 20,000lb (9,100kg) of bombs. The B-29 had a service ceiling of 31,800ft (9,695m). Britain’s unpressurised Lancaster could carry 7,000lb (3,175kg) of bombs 2,530 miles (4,071km), or a single 22,000lb (9,980kg) Grand Slam bomb over a shorter range. The Lancaster had a service ceiling of 24,500ft (7,468m). While North Korea may have a sizeable land army, there is no doubting the technological superiority of US and South Korean forces (which, in a war, would be under US strategic control). Consider, for example, the capabilities of the contemporary incarnations of the B-29 – the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit – and the contemporary incarnation of the P-51 Mustang – the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

- The necessity of rebuilding the defeated nation. Thwarting Soviet ambitions in the Far East required the rapid social, economic and political stabilisation of Japan. As demonstrated by events in the South China Sea, China is an expansionist state. Thwarting Chinese ambitions will require the rapid social, economic and political stabilisation of the Korean Peninsula. This may prove difficult. As Malcolm Chalmers explains in Preparing for War: “[An] insurgency campaign against occupying forces …[could ensnare] US and South Korean occupying forces in an extended war of attrition …Preparations would …need to be made for the possibility that, with significant US support, large contingents of South Korean troops could be fighting against resistance forces …for some time.” There are echoes here of the Vietnam War (a quagmire that cost over 58,000 American lives and provoked a political crisis), Afghanistan (which drained the Soviets in the 1980s and today is testing the West) and Iraq (a frozen conflict). Reunification will be costly. As the RUSI’s Justin Bronk explained to the BBC in September 2017: “North Korea has existed in an unparalleled state of psychological manipulation, chronic economic hardship and isolation for over 60 years. The monumental task of reintegrating East Germany after the Cold War pales in comparison.”

A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, takes off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on a mission in support of US Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence. Capable of carrying the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory, the multi-mission B-1B is the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force. Airman 1st Class Gerald R. Willis/US Air Force


For obvious reasons, nuclear weapons are a sensitive issue across the Pacific. They are a sensitive issue in the United States because, to date, only the United States has used them in anger. It has been argued by some that Curtis LeMay’s perfection of carpet bombing made their use unnecessary. As Ward Wilson explains: “The US use of nuclear weapons …has long been a subject of emotional debate. Initially, few questioned President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs …But, in 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz argued that, although the bombs did force an immediate end to the war, Japan’s leaders had wanted to surrender anyway, and likely would have done…before the American invasion planned for November 1 [1945]. Their use was, therefore, unnecessary. Obviously, if the bombings weren’t necessary to win the war, then bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong.”

They are a sensitive issue in Japan because Japan is the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons. They are a sensitive issue in South Korea because that country is in the line of fire. They are a sensitive issue in North Korea because that country’s leader considers them the ultimate dynastic insurance policy.

Nuclear weapons represent different things to different people. To Kim Jong-un, they represent a means of bringing Trump to the negotiating table. To the Japanese, they represent a security guarantee (through the United States’ nuclear umbrella), a security threat (Japan is in North Korea’s sights) and a dark episode in the nation’s history (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). To the Americans, they represent a means of influencing affairs and of defending the homeland. During the Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction – the fact that a nuclear first strike would, by triggering a retaliatory strike, lead to mutual annihilation – kept the peace for over four decades.

Tensions were high before the Singapore summit. According to the BBC, some Hawaiians were panicked by the erroneous January 13, 2018, missile-attack warning: “Mobile phone users received the message …‘Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill’ …[How] did people react? For some it was panic, a dash to a protective bathtub or hiding under manholes …For others, a resigned acceptance.”

Despite the Trump-Kim rhetoric and tweets, informed opinion holds that the summit was a damp squib. Sung-Yoon Lee, professor in Korean Studies at Tufts University, Massachusetts, commented: “Previous administrations have been played by North Korea. I don’t see any supporting evidence to point to the contrary in the case of President Trump himself.” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, commented: “Trump’s words that the process of denuclearisation …will start ‘very, very soon’ is more of a wish than a fact.” Steven Schmidt, campaign manager for Republican Senator John McCain, commented: “Claims of achievements from this summit are nonsensical. Trump got nothing except empty promises. Kim Jong-un achieved global standing for his evil regime.” Richard Haass, head of the Council of Foreign Relations and a Washington insider, commented: “The Singapore summit statement is essentially aspirational: no definitions of denuclearisation, no timelines, no details as to verification.” The most damning assessment came from Bruce Klingner, one-time chief of the CIA’s Korea division: “This is very disappointing. Each of the four main points was in previous documents with North Korea, some in a stronger, more encompassing way. The de-nuke bullet is weaker than the Six Party Talks language.” Running between 2003 and 2006, the six-party talks, attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States, aimed to shut down North Korea’s nuclear programme. The manner of the ending of the 1945 Asia-Pacific crisis reverberates through history. The manner of the ending of the 2018 Asia-Pacific crisis is still under discussion. The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman described Trump and Kim as “famously unpredictable”. Peace cannot be guaranteed.

A B-52H Stratofortress at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam prior to take-off on the historic integrated bomber mission flown jointly with B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers on August 17, 2016. TSgt Richard Ebensberger/US Air Force