Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

An Attack on Guam?

Posted by butalidnl on 14 August 2017

On 9 August 2017, General Kim Rok Gyon, head of North Korean Strategic Forces, announced that they were planning to fire 4 medium-range missiles at Guam. These missiles will be set to hit the waters around Guam – about 30 kilometers away from it. He said that the plan will be presented to Kim Jung Un by the middle of August. In response, the US declared that it will defend its territory (Guam is a part of the US), and that North Korea will be sorry if it attacked Guam.

Does this mean that nuclear war is about to break out? Or, will there be war on the Korean peninsula? Perhaps; but I don’t think so. Not even if North Korea does indeed fire missiles towards Guam.

Kim Jung Un may calculate that the US could not afford to retaliate against ‘enveloping’ Guam with missile strikes on water – after all, this would merely be another test. But he would then be ignoring two big changes in the strategic situation. First, that the US believes NKorea has the capability to load nuclear warheads on its missiles. And second, that China has changed its stance towards the NKorea – US conflict: by announcing that if NKorea initiates a conflict, it will remain neutral; but if the US seeks to attack and occupy NKorea, it will move to stop it.  These make up for a changed situation vis-a-vis a possible NKorean missile launch against Guam.

What could happen?
US-SKorea joint military exercises will start in a few days. This could be the time (judging from past experience) that Kim Jung-Un would order the launching of missiles towards Guam.
Right after missiles are launched towards Guam (and after the US radar has confirmed this to be so), the US could declare that NKorea has attacked America. This would then mean that, since the US would only be responding, China will remain neutral in any eventual confrontation. The US will almost surely shoot down the NKorean missiles way before it nears Guam.
Immediately after the missiles are launched, warplanes will take off from US aircraft carriers, airfields in SKorea, Japan and Guam, and military moved out of bases in the region (dispersal in case of nuclear war). The US would have to assume that the missiles have nuclear warheads, and respond accordingly.
A ‘minimum’ response would be for the US to attack one or more NKorean missile and/or nuclear sites with cruise missiles. The damage such a strike would cause will probably be minimal, but the political effect will be substantial.  Given China’s neutrality, Kim Jung Un could not order a retaliatory strike against South Korea; because it will mean that NKorea will be hit by overwhelming US firepower. Besides, why end his regime (as a result of a nuclear war) because of US strikes that did minimal damage? So, he will declare that the US attack had not really hurt his country, and that he had won. Other countries will celebrate the fact that war had been averted.
But Kim would not have won, because the US would have established a precedent – it had attacked NKorea without a substantial response. It could follow-up by declaring that it would shoot down any NKorean missiles it chooses to shoot down. And it could get away with shooting down NKorea’s missiles, because of the precedent of the cruise missile strikes.  After doing this, the US will effectively prevent NKorea from continuing with its testing of missles – meaning that it would not be able to develop an ICBM that could strike the US.

If NKorea is no longer able to test launch its missiles, after a suitable period, the US could initiate a dialogue with its leaders. They could demand a freeze on the development of its nuclear and missile technology, and since that would be what actually would already be in place,  NKorea may then agree.  A package of economic benefits could be thrown in to make the agreement palatable to the NKoreans.

What if something else  happens?
The above scenario is why I think that Kim Jung Un will do something else.  He is probably intellligent enough not to risk loss of face if he loses a confrontation with the US. So, he could do two things:
First, he does nothing for a long while. This would be good, since tensions would cool as months go by. It also means that China will be under pressure to really implement the sanctions against it. With time, the NKorean economy will suffer, and perhaps Kim’s political grip will weaken.
Second, he will do something else.  Kim could simply order new missile tests that do not head toward Guam. Or he could have a nuclear test (I suspect that Chinese pressure had kept him from doing so recently).  The US could (should?) try to shoot down these missiles, even if they were set to splash in international waters. The NKoreans will be trying to perfect re-entry and targetting capacities of its missiles – and if they are shot in mid-flight, NKorean scientists will not learn anything from such tests.

Whichever scenario unfolds, NKorea will continue with their inflammatory rhetoric. But,  if this is not accompanied by steady progress in its missile technology, they will be just whiffs of hot air.

And Guam will be safe from future attacks from NKorea.



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