Trump, China, and the Politics of Nuclear Weapons

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 July 8, 2017|
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Before leaving for the G20 Summit in Germany, President Trump said the era of strategic patience is over. This comes after the return of the imprisoned American, Otto Warmbier, who died in the arms of his family after being tortured by the North Koreans, followed by yet another ballistic missile test over the Sea of Japan. We may not be on the brink of war, but China and North Korea are playing a dangerous game. Understanding this relationship is therefore central.

It begins with the recognition that North Korea and China are joined geographically, economically, and ideologically. On a strategic level, they are as much eastern China as North Korea. North Korea depends on China for food and energy, and 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with the Chinese. It is inconceivable that President Xi Jinping could not stop Kim Jong-Un’s missile testing and nuclear program if he so desired. It is then a matter of high government policy that he does not.

Consider the latest belligerence. What is different about the North Korean nuclear program in these first six months of the Trump Administration and last fall when Barack Obama was still president? Has their nuclear or missile technology advanced to new levels of sophistication? Has the strategic landscape in Asia changed? Has the North Korean economic situation deteriorated beyond the third world basket case it already was? The answer to all these is no. This would mean Kim’s show of force—from missile tests, nuclear tests, or a military parade in Pyongyang—is political theatre meant to shape American political judgments. Make no mistake, such weapons are deadly but they can also be used for different ends.

The recent launch of the North Korean missile into space and then into the Sea of Japan serves two purposes: first, to give leverage to North Korea’s Communist Chinese masters in economic and financial negotiations with the United States; and second, to remind anyone in America who cares, that the United States remains vulnerable to North Korean, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian ballistic missiles.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the Chinese have helped the North Koreans with their ballistic missile program and have had every interest in doing so. This affords them tremendous political leverage with the United States, as China—the neighboring superpower—plays the role of reasonable intermediary, interceding on behalf of the United States and the world to check the nuclear ambitions of their North Korean brothers. But this intercession comes at a cost. China would be happy to help the United States, but Beijing couldn’t possibly do that and be pressured over its own failure to abide by international standards when it comes to trade and finance, including currency manipulation. This is a game the Chinese have played successfully for decades. Consider it the Chinese Art of the Deal.

Respecting our vulnerability to ballistic missiles, it should be a national scandal that North Korea’s belligerence is in the news at all. It is made possible only because of the fecklessness of successive U.S. administrations to build a national missile defense capable of stopping a nuclear attack. Although we possess the technology and technical know-how—from missile interceptors based on land, sea, or in space—to make North Korea’s arsenal completely irrelevant, we choose instead to leave the American people vulnerable to such an attack. This is a relic of the absurd Cold War mentality that missile defense was “destabilizing” and that we were somehow safer if we let the U.S. population remain held hostage to nuclear attack.

Everyday Americans support the building of missile defenses and indeed are outraged and confused that we do not have one sufficient to defend the United States. Thankfully, no U.S. president can make the argument in public that, as a matter of principle, we should be vulnerable to such awful weapons. Recall President Obama telling Russian President Medvedev in 2012 that he would have more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election. Medvedev assured Obama he would relay the message to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This would be conveyed because Russia, like China, likes living in a world where the United States remains vulnerable to their nuclear weapons and the political leverage such nuclear blackmail affords them.

To understand what Obama meant by “flexibility,” one need only examine the state of our missile defenses that President Trump inherited. We have purposely built a “limited” missile defense—meaning one that was openly designed not to stop Russian and Chinese missiles—to deal instead with the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. Failed missile interceptor tests, like the one on June 22 in Hawaii, are a remnant of the Obama Administration’s intentional underinvestment in research, development and operational testing. In reality, even this limited missile defense system is inadequate to stop the North Korean or Iranian threat. The sole purpose of our current missile defense system is to give the illusion that we are defended.

Obama, long an opponent of missile defense, nuclear weapons, and a robust American military, was a master at such deception. To the American people he seemed interested in keeping the country safe from nuclear attack. To the Russians and Chinese, however, he made clear that we would not build defenses to stop their nuclear arsenals. They saw what was being built and saw that the U.S. defenses were meaningless. This while the Russians and Chinese develop and perfect their own missile defense systems against the United States.

Vulnerabilities Then and Now
In today’s political rhetoric, Obama colluded with the Russians
and the Chinese to undermine the U.S. strategic position in the world. The only thing that excuses Obama is that he was continuing the policy of strategic vulnerability to missile attack, no different than Bush and Clinton before him. Unlike his predecessors, President Trump is not willing to leave the citizens of the United States to the tender mercies of dictators. He has committed to building a national missile defense and checking the military ambitions of the Chinese and the Russians.

The stakes could not be higher. Although the U.S. intelligence community acts as if the North Koreans do not yet possess adequate nuclear technology, there can be no absolute certainty that they do not already possess ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads capable of being launched from North Korean territory or from a ship or submarine off the coast of the United States. To believe so is to continue the self-deception that the Chinese and the North Koreans are working independent of one another. There is nothing stopping the Chinese from providing the North Koreans with lighter, smaller, and just as lethal nuclear warheads. Indeed, why would they not?

If the purpose of North Korea is to play the role of angry aggressor against the United States, they might as well be capable of carrying through. But if nuclear attack does come it will not be an angry strike by the seemingly volatile Kim Jung-Un, though it may appear that way. It will have been from a cold calculation by China’s Xi Jinping and the Communist politburo that they no longer wished to live with the perceived hyper power of the United States. The destruction of the United States would afford China—with its population, industrial capacity, and massive economy—global military dominance. It may not make short-term economic sense but history is replete with actions that do not make immediate sense. It is incumbent upon President Trump to make clear to President Xi that a North Korean strike on the United States will be seen as a strike by the People’s Republic. President Xi and his successors may not make such a gross strategic error but, absent a national missile defense, such mistakes are possible.

To remedy our strategic vulnerability President Trump should do the following three things:

First, the United States must engage in a missile defense program with the seriousness with which we fought World War II and fostered the Manhattan Project and the space program of the 1960s. Teams of engineers should be working around the clock, seven days a week, to build a missile defense that is space-based, land-based and sea-based that defends the United States from any possible nuclear ballistic missile attack. We have treated missile defense as if our civilization was not worth defending. That must end.

Second, as a practical matter, the North Koreans and Iranians should be told that any satellite launch or missile test where we do not inspect the payload will not be allowed into orbit. Any unauthorized launch will be intercepted, if we are able, or will be destroyed in space. Theoretically, the present North Korean satellites could possess nuclear warheads. Since at least two traverse the orbit of the United States they should be destroyed, too. A state cannot be permitted to launch missiles while at the same time declaring they wish to destroy the United States. That we have allowed this condition to persist as long as we have is unconscionable.

Third, because the payload of a missile or satellite may carry a nuclear warhead capable of producing an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that could destroy the electric infrastructure of the country, there should be a crash program to harden the electric grid of the United States. The cost of this critical fix is in the tens of billions but it is an embarrassingly small amount to ensure the viability of a 19 trillion dollar economy and the lives of 320 million Americans, the vast majority of whom would die for lack of food, water, and medicine made possible by our electrical grid.

Hardening the grid would have the added benefit of protecting the country’s power infrastructure from a little known atmospheric phenomenon: a Carrington-level solar storm. Although we are told regularly of the dangers of global warming, a massive solar storm, where a large plasma discharge from the sun sends an extraordinarily large magnetic pulse at the atmosphere of the earth, is the most serious natural disaster we face. The last Carrington-level event occurred in 1859 before electricity was used in homes and businesses, and they appear according to scientists to occur about every 150 to 300 years. If one were to occur today the massive solar flare would, like a nuclear weapon, destroy the large transformers that distribute power through the United States. With little notice, a natural event could destroy the power grid of the United States and our civilization could be lost. Even if someone doubts the likelihood of nuclear war and an EMP attack, we know with certainty that a massive solar flare could destroy the electric grid. Hardening against that is an immediate obligation of our government.

An America-First Response
After the return and death of Otto Warmbier there was much talk of retaliation against the North Koreans. Other than economic sanctions, the United States has few good military options. North Korea’s conventional weapons could devastate South Korea and precipitate much greater hostilities. If the PRC does indeed see North Korea as eastern China they will not let such an attack occur with impunity.

In any case, the American response should not be, given the makeup of our strategic offenses and defenses, an attack on the people of North Korea. That does not make us better off, however satisfying it may seem. The goal should be to improve our strategic position in the world. President Trump should carry through on his campaign pledge and accelerate the building of a national missile defense to negate the North Korean, Chinese, Russian and Iranian nuclear arsenals.

This would be putting America first and doing what no U.S. president has yet to do: ensure that no enemy could threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear destruction. If there is a single policy that will help make America great again it is this.

(Editor’s note: We’ve updated the piece to more accurately reflect the geographic location of North Korea in relation to China.)

About the Author:

Brian T. Kennedy
Brian T. Kennedy is president of the American Strategy Group, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, and a member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense.
  • Robert Curry

    Thank you! This is foreign policy common sense realism at its best.

  • Bill Robbins

    Why not offer a massive Marshall Plan for North Korea predicated upon the North Korean People eliminating Fat Boy? “Live on the edge of fatal starvation or enjoy endless buffets. All you need to do is off Fat Boy.”

  • Roy_Lofquist

    I think that the fact that Obama had to convey his flexibility in that forum demonstrates an unbelievable level of incompetence. Did he not have a trusted channel to Moscow? Could not his ambassador or Secretary of State deliver the message?

  • BanBait

    You forgot a couple, Mr. Kennedy. 1. Tell the ChiComms that if they don’t curb their dog, we’ll be greenlighting-nay, encouraging-the South Koreans and the Japanese to build and deploy nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. 2. Also tell the ChiComms that every time the fat little murdering lunatic fires a ballistic missile or tests a nuke, tariffs will go up by 5%, across the board, on every single Chinese import.

    • Warren Dew

      Japan was our enemy in WWII, and our economic adversary a few decades ago, and arguably is still an economic adversary. Why would we want them to have nuclear weapons?

  • DisgustedwithElitism

    Had it not been for the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, and the Democrats’ foolish pursuit of the PPACA in ’10, BHO’s plan to disarm America would have gotten much further along than he was able to push it.

  • ron.brock

    Another opinion with the same end result, wait and see, wait and see, wait and see. We’ve had that program for the past 24 years and it’s worse now than ever. Its time to tell the South to prepare for WAR, move all civilians as far away from the 38th parallel as possible, harden all areas that can be hardened. Start the buildup of Japanese military along with providing missiles and nukes to both countries. In parallel have the U.S. Military develop plans for multiple pronged attacks of the NORKs. Tell the Chinese they have a very limited time to deal with their lapdog so the problem goes away to never return. Notify all American manufacturers to make plans to abandoning facilities in China when ordered by the American government. Set a time frame in the very near future for all events to come together. If China hasn’t dealt with the problem when all events are ready, remove all Americans and manufacturing from there and make the preemptive strike on the NORKs.

    • You have a very interesting concept of what you can order other people to do. And no concept of why key players are doing the things they’re doing.

      You’re not going to get South Korea to evacuate Seoul – whose main threat is NOT North Korea’s nukes, but its artillery. Which would kill hundreds of thousands in minutes, with no reasonable defense (including an offensive “prevent defense”) possible.

      Going into absolute la-la land re: telling all American firms to abandon Chinese manufacturing short of a wartime situation means you not only fail to understand how South Korea work – you don’t understand how America works.

      • ron.brock

        As my father would have said you might grow up if you live long enough. 5 MOABS along with massive carpet bombing followed by napalm dropped in sequence will take out thousands of artillery guns in less than 10 minutes. Multiple cruise missile attacks on all known nuke areas also followed by carpet bombing while Seals enter pyongyang to bring fat boy to room temperature with air cover provided by the navy and marines. Coordination and timing are the key.
        That’s just one scenario others can be developed in a short period of time. Just for argument sake which is better a nuke delivered to Honolulu, Nome or Seattle versus a first strike to remove fat boy?

  • Warren Dew

    Looks like the author is a coward who doesn’t want to do what it takes to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, supporting his craven position with conspiracy theories.

    The idea that China provides North Korea with energy security is false. North Korea is an energy exporter – in fact, North Korea’s main export – not import – is coal. The “food security” idea is equally nonsense; North Korea is now self sufficient in food thanks ironically to a program to allow farmers to keep more of their crop for private consumption or sale, and the North Korean government has at any rate permitted their people to starve over giving up their nuclear weapons program. The truth is, China has little more leverage over North Korea than the US has, and is much more vulnerable to North Korean nuclear extortion.

    While pursuing missile defense systems against China and Russia are a good idea, no missile defense system is 100% effective, and once North Korea gets the global range ballistic missiles they are already close to, even one warhead getting through means millions of Americans dead.

    What Trump must do is prepare direct attacks on the North Korean nuclear program. The North Korean plutonium production capability and their missile forces are vulnerable to conventional attack. That leaves the North Korean underground uranium enrichment program, which is likely vulnerable to conventional attacks on access points; however, if conventional weapons don’t succeed, nuclear weapons should be considered. Only through direct attack can the North Korean nuclear threat be eliminated.

  • Agreed: SDI and EMP protection are must haves.

    However: the NK problem, like the Iran problem, is probably best resolved by enabling the locals to revolt. With concentrated power comes concentrated vulnerability: one grenade in the right place at the right time, and mob action will do the rest.

  • Anarchus

    If it’s true that the Chinese have enough control over the North Koreans (voluntary or involuntary because of a complete cutoff of aid and trade) to stop the rogue nuclear and missile program, why don’t we begin providing nuclear arms to Japan and possibly Taiwan, and then trade those programs away in return for the North Koreans for stopping theirs?

  • cromicacid

    North Korea is a proxy state. Why is this very fact going over the head of everyone? Why would China ever allow its only proxy state to fall into the hands of South Korea and the UNited States? A unified Korea under south korean rule is something China since the time of Mao Zedong has never accepted. A unified Korea would affect China’s credibility and diminish its geopolitical ambitions in the region. Without a North Korea for China to use as a distractions, nations can now focus all their energy on the South China sea which China does not want. Is this so hard to understand? It’s so frustrating to see everyone ignoring this very fact and pretending China can be persuaded to act in favor of the US.

  • TheGipper

    I think we have the same problem we had back in the early 1950s. The only way to get rid of Kim and his evil empire is to conquer North Korea, and China doesn’t want us at or near their border, then, now, or ever. No one wants nuclear war, and a conventional war to take over all of Korea would be a bloodbath on a scale we haven’t seen since the world wars, with the Chinese able to throw almost unlimited ground troops at us, with a lot more artillery, air support, and everything else than the first time around. Throw in the huge number of civilian casualties on both sides of the DMZ, and we’re just in a no-win situation.

  • taxonomy101

    I had difficulty getting past the assertion that North Korea was Southern China.
    Has the author looked at a map recently?
    Eastern China I would believe.
    Southern Manchuria, would be dicey but OK.

    But Southern China?

    North Korea is due east of Beijing, and substantially to the North North East of Shanghai, hundreds of miles to the North and East and East Hong Kong.

    It is also North West of Tokyo and West South West of Hokkaido (Japan’s northern Island)
    North Korea does share a northern boarder Russia, being south of Vladivostok.

    The rest of the author’s points and policy recommendations seemed as murky as his inadequate geography.

    For the most populated country in the World, with a huge military and national security apparatus, for China to claim that it could not defend its boarder with North Korea is either incredulously absurd or an admission of massive weakness.

    If China decided that the Kim’s were not to their liking, nothing prevents them for a relatively surgical assassination, and appointment of a new puppet.

    The U.S. would no more respond to a Chinese military campaign against the North Korea leadership than it did to the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or the Russian invasions of Georgia or Ukraine. To do so would be to close off US hemispheric strategic invasions of the Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada, or its involvement in the internal affairs of Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, and elsewhere.

    North Korea the northern prong of China’s three pronged strategic play against the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and the South China Sea. threatening its ancient enemy (Japan), as well as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

    Unless and until China global currency activity and manufacturing markets are closed down, threatening the fundamental foundations of Chinese internal security as it is already economically struggling to appease the demands of a shrinking, aging population, there is little hope of any changes to its North Korean policy.

  • olderwiser

    China props up the Kim regime because it is in China’s best interest to do so. Only if the price of supporting Kim exceeds its value will China consider withdrawing their support. The three actions proposed by Mr. Kennedy should absolutely be taken. A fourth action necessary is to disentangle the United States economy from the Chinese economy, starting with everything related to our strategic defense and military capabilities. We import massive amounts of consumer goods from China. We should systematically cultivate alternative sources, including bringing production back to the USA. American industries likewise must begin systematically taking China out of the supply chain. Finally, we need to stop the deficit spending that has resulted in China being a major investor in United States Federal Government debt. None of the proposed actions will be accomplished quickly or easily. Which only argues for getting started now.

  • JamesDrouin

    The only way to change bad behavior is to make the pain of continuing that bad behavior significantly more than the pain of not continuing that behavior.

    Recognizing that reality opens a whole host of options.

    For example, the US (via President Trump) could inform China and Russia, and any other North Korean trade partners, that they can trade with the US or North Korea, but not both. Or, they can bank with the US or NoKo, but not both. Or, that NoKo AND Japan and South Korea and Taiwan can have nuclear weapons, but not just NoKo. Or, or, or …

    I’ve never met President Trump, so cannot profess to know what he’s thinking, but I’m pretty sure he understands that more of the failed same, is NOT the solution to a problem.

  • 57nomad

    I often hear about how NK could obliterate Seoul with its artillery. I’m not so sure. Let’s say they really do have 10,000 artillery pieces arrayed north of the DMZ. The DMZ is 150 mile long. The amount of artillery that could hit
    Seoul is clustered in an area 20 miles east and west of Seoul. Artillery 50 miles away is out of range. Even so, if 5000 artillery pieces were clustered in the 50 mile ‘sweet spot’. That would give them 100 artillery pieces per mile.

    Just 4 subs, each carrying 154 cruise missiles, a total of 616. We have an array of cruisers and destroyers also carrying hundreds of cruise missiles each. We have 70 operational B-52 that carry 20 cruise missiles each, or 1,400 in total. So between the subs and the B-52 that is over 2000 cruise missiles, not counting the thousand or so the Navy could loft. That means we could put a missile down every 132 feet of the 50 mile range with just the subs and B-52s.

    As the attack against Syria showed, the missiles can be programmed to loiter until all the missiles have been launched and then attack their targets simultaneously. We can eliminate the artillery threat against Seoul in 30 minutes and wipe them out before they get a shot off. B1s and B2s can then attack with MOABs to clean up.

  • TheGipper

    I don’t know. Would China really want Kim, who has absolute power in North Korea, to have the ability to start a nuclear war with anyone at any time? If that happened, China would have a hard time staying out of it, as would every other major power. I just wonder if things are really as they appear to be in North Korea.

  • swek

    so far, trump has wined and dined china, blamed them for not doing enough, threatened a trade war with them, and then called them “great guys”

    why not just deal with them like a major power deserving of respect but not of deference.

  • barbaro70

    Wow! Well, the article is apparently a thorough analysis of the North Korea problem, and makes sense. The best part is this: “Unlike his predecessors, President Trump is not willing to leave the citizens of the United States to the tender mercies of dictators. He has committed to building a national missile defense and checking the military ambitions of the Chinese and the Russians.” We pray that Mr Kennedy is correct in saying this.

  • Kennedy actually gets what’s possible now, and if we focus his missile defense proposal a bit more (not Manhattan level, just a demand for an expectation of success vs. rogue states with limited arsenals) then his recommendations are both useful and can be implemented. That puts Kennedy well ahead of many other analysts I have read to date.

    BanBait’s suggestion that we encourage ROK/ Japanese nuclear weapon programs if China doesn’t rein in the Norks would work – but neither Japan nor ROK have any desire for such programs. Especially after the ROK’s recent election. I think this is a misjudgment on their part, but it isn’t going to change any time soon. In either country.

    As an ancillary measure, I would recommend that America find ways to consistently indicate support for “any defensive measures Japan or South Korea fell compelled to take in response to North Korea’s threats,” and see if that helps create more options later.