With an historic 6.3-magnitude jolt this past Sunday, North Korea announced to the world that its nuclear arms program had graduated from relatively rudimentary atomic devices to a new and advanced thermonuclear phase. North Korea, in short, has a grown-up nuclear arsenal.
A few days later, the international community still seems to be adjusting to the reality of life in a world where North Korea poses an existential global threat. On Tuesday, China ran missile defense drills near the North Korean border, signaling their readiness to ward off a surprise attack. That came within hours of China and Russia jointly rebuking the United States for sanctioning the hermit kingdom. "They'll eat grass, but they won't abandon their program unless they feel secure," Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press from a summit in China.
The United States, meanwhile, has stayed firmly on the beaten path. Ambassador Nikki Haley said at a Security Council meeting Monday that the US would continue to pursue, and indeed strengthen, sanctions, because Kim was "begging for war." And while he has offered little in the way of formal action, Donald Trump has continued to fire off bellicose tweets. To North Korea, the president tweeted that their "words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States." Somewhat puzzlingly, Trump has also seemed to throw other countries under the bus this week, criticizing the diplomatic efforts of his ally South Korea as "appeasement." (That country's president Moon Jae-In has been openly pursuing talks with North Korea since he was elected in May.) Adding to the frenetic scene in the region, on Thursday, the US military is set to complete the installation of its THAAD missile defense system inside South Korea, despite vehement opposition from the local population.
The scale of the rift between Trump and the international community was perhaps most apparent last Sunday, when he went so far as to threaten a trade war against "any country doing business with North Korea"—a list that includes China, India, Russia, the Philippines, and others. (Trump is also apparently mulling a pullout from the 2012 US-Korea Free Trade agreement, which wouldn't exactly bolster relations with Seoul.)
The trend is clear: North Korea's neighbors question the wisdom of continuing to isolate North Korea, but the US seems unwilling to consider anything but isolation. To find out what this means to the international community, I talked to Rodger Baker who leads Asia Pacific research at the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. I've had many fascinating conversations with Baker in the past, and in this one, he gave me the distinct impression that if the US wants to be taken seriously, Donald Trump needs to revisit his idea to sit down for hamburgers with Kim Jong-Un.
VICE: When it comes to the international community's understanding of how North Korea needs to be dealt with, how significant was last week's nuclear test?
Rodger Baker: It actually is tremendously significant because it means a couple of things. Number one: that the overall size of the warhead is substantially smaller, if this is a hydrogen device, than the equivalent size of a warhead if this were an atomic device. In other words, they have a greater ability to throw a much more devastating strike against the United States than they would had they not perfected a hydrogen weapon.
Do we have any reasons to doubt that they have any of the capabilities they now claim to have—namely a staged, thermonuclear warhead small enough to fit on an ICBM capable of hitting the US?
There's always going to be reason to doubt. The question is whether it is prudent at this stage to simply let doubts overwhelm other aspects. Nobody has seen the actual device outside of the North Koreans. Nobody can be sure that they've made one that's small enough, or that their warheads are rugged enough to be able to survive reentry. All those are still outstanding questions. But in many ways the only way that the North Koreans would be able to prove without a shadow of a doubt those realities would be to fire a nuclear-tipped missile from North Korea halfway out into the Pacific and detonate it over the ocean. One would hope that the North Koreans are wise enough not to do that.
Some have speculated that a kind of dramatic test is coming this weekend in time for Founding Day, which is a major national holiday. Do you think that could be a full missile to detonation test?
I think there's likely more missile tests coming, certainly. Whether they're ready to try and detonate a nuclear device over the ocean somewhere, I'm not entirely sure, because I don't know if they're fully confident in their missiles' abilities yet. Remember, the flight the other week was the first one that they're done on a standard trajectory, rather than the lofted trajectory.
Right. Before that, they were launching missiles in patterns that send the missile up as high as possible, and then calling it a successful test, because on paper it could have traveled a long distance. What does it mean that they're using these more—I guess—realistic angles, lately?
When the US is testing its ballistic missiles, it launches them from California, and has them land on an island out in the middle of the Pacific. They have a lot more space. [North Korea] makes the same argument with their nuclear devices. Geology-wise, and geography-wise they don't have a big desert in [Nevada] to test in. So [there was] a lot of room for doubt.
So that missile launch over Japan a couple weeks ago was basically them saying, "Expect us to treat sea East of Japan like our own Nevada if we feel like it"?
I think that's the message they're sending, and if you saw their reports, they came flat out and said this is only the first of what's going to be more tests in the Pacific.
What data do you get from these tests if you're North Korea?
It would seem that they're determined now that in the final stages of doing things like checking your targeting capabilities, and testing your reentry capabilities, and things of that sort, they want to do these on the standard trajectory, rather than on the lofted trajectory. More "real-world conditions," in other words.
Putin called sanctions a "road to nowhere" this week, and started talking up his plan to team up with China and resolve this crisis. Is he just playing like he's the grown-up in the room, or is there reason to be optimistic about what Russia and China are doing?
I think when you look at the views out of the Russians, and when you look at the comments of the Chinese and others, there's the idea: Why do we need to get close to a war crisis here? Why not just sit down and have some kind of communication? Even if you ultimately don't stop the North Koreans from their long-term development, you don't necessarily have to go into war or conflict.
That's the rhetoric, sure. But is there anything else at work in the way Russia is approaching this?
Part of it is about [telling] the international community that it's the United States now that is being the most intransigent.
Trump said on Wednesday, "Certainly [war is] not a first choice, but we'll see what happens." If Trump never shifts to diplomacy, but also never goes to war, what are the outcomes he could achieve with the current strategy?
I think [a resolution] is extremely difficult if the entire plan is purely an isolation plan. Trying to somehow isolate North Korea into submission, you really end up with only two or three options.
Yeah, let's talk about those. What the first thing that can happen?
Remember in 1998 when they launched a space-launch vehicle, what were conditions like in North Korea? The worst famine and drought in decades. But they still put all their money into developing a rocket. So you cannot assume that this is a country that's going to say, OK, if you cut off my funds, then the people will complain, and I'll have to shift my resources away from my nuclear program. It doesn't work that way there! So you have, one, they accomplish it anyway. Then you're left with, OK I've isolated them, but they have this system anyway.
Then what happens if you still keep squeezing?
After they acquire the capability, or they're three quarters of the way there, you ultimately lead to such a humanitarian crisis, that it starts to spill over into the Chinese side of the border.
What's literally spilling over into China if that happens?
North Koreans. Maybe North Korean arms and weapons, as people try to sell them on the black market. If you get to the point of a destabilization of the population—which is going to happen before a destabilization of the regime—you're going to have a huge humanitarian crisis right there on the peninsula.
OK, and then what?
Let's say you somehow squeeze them long enough, and hard enough that the regime collapses. What does regime collapse look like in a North Korean context? Even if you assume that they never finished making the long-range nuclear-armed missile, they have nuclear weapons. They have short- and intermediate-range missiles. They have chemical weapons. They have a ton of conventional weapons. Is the assumption that a collapse of the regime somehow leads to a peaceful resolution that doesn't have any violence? Or does it lead to the unintended consequences of a strike on Seoul, or military action that escalates very quickly anyway?
That I think is the challenge in not having a regular communication channel. Even if you don't believe a communication channel is going to solve everything, in not having it, you don't have a good way to manage the ups and downs of a crisis, and then we've gotten into a giant war of hyperbole.
Yes, let's talk about hyperbole. On Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the administration had at least looked at the idea of "total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea." How does that work as an option, practically speaking?
If you get down to raw military capacity, and if you were to assume that there's no other concern for the United States, or the rest of the world, and it's just tender military might of the United States versus the entire military might of North Korea, we could effectively wipe North Korea off the map. If you look at the aftermath even of the Korean war, with conventional weapons, and the carpet bombing that we did—and what that is to their ability to have fuel, and things like that—it denuded the entire country of its forests. It stripped mountains. Effectively, the country was for lack of a better word, wiped off the map.
What does that process look like? It's not one big explosion and they're done, right?
You're talking about a month or two of steady warfare. And that's assuming it would only be from the air, and things of that sort.
OK—so given that "wiping North Korea off the map" would be this drawn-out massacre, why does the US keep bringing it up?
The point, when they play this hyperbole, is to [hint that], if the North Koreans ever try something, we will completely win.
I think everyone believes that. But why threaten in such hyperbolic terms in the first place? What's the strategic purpose?
That's supposed to be reassuring to US allies, even if there's a sense growing—maybe not in the administration, but certainly in the think tanks—that it may be that the US is simply going to have to adapt to a nuclear-armed North Korea. That changes the strategic outlook in the region by itself. [In that case] you have have ways to reassure your allies, because if you've quote-unquote "allowed" North Korea to become a nuclear power, how can they rely on you for their security?
Right. So in that case it's a little ironic that Trump tweeted on Tuesday that he wants Japan and South Korea to upgrade their militaries, right?
[In theory, to reassure your allies], you have to do things like lift the restrictions on additional high-end arms sales to South Korea and Japan. We're going to remove the barrier on the payload capacity of South Korean ballistic missiles. We're going to repeat the warning that if North Korea does anything to one of our allies that we'll wipe it off the map, and that's supposed to be strategic reassurance. But I think at this moment in time, in kinda comes across as destabilizing, rather than as long-term reassuring.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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