Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, October 12, 2022
How can President Biden talk about “Armageddon” in Ukraine after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin boasts of Russia’s nuclear strength without also mentioning North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s threats to use nuclear weapons?
That question does not seem to have come up while John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, carefully qualified Biden’s comment by saying there had been no change either in whatever Russia is doing or in the U.S. response. The fact is, however, it’s just as easy to imagine Kim ordering a nuclear strike on his enemies — the U.S., South Korea and Japan — as it is to see Putin making good on his own hints about what he might do in Ukraine.
“Tactical nuclear weapons” is the phrase that Kim, following Putin’s example, sprinkled throughout a lengthy statement he issued on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, the 77th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, of which Kim, of course, is general secretary.
Both these leaders — Putin, with about 6,000 warheads at his disposal and Kim, with maybe 60 of them — are equally dangerous and unpredictable. We might like to believe that neither would be so foolish as to nuke his enemies, considering the holy hell that would descend in retaliation, but no one knows for sure.
As retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told veteran correspondent Martha Raddatz on “ABC This Week,” the odds of Putin deciding that a strike by a tactical nuke would be just what’s needed to bring Ukraine to its knees are higher now than they were five years ago.
The eagerness with which Kim has boasted of his tactical nukes reflects his growing admiration for Putin. It’s as though Kim has taken his cue from the Russian leader as he links his nuclear program directly to all those missiles — more than 40 now — that he has test-fired this year.
While paying obeisance to Putin, supporting him totally in Ukraine and reportedly offering to send thousands of troops to fight for the Russians, Kim is now linking his missile tests directly to his nuclear program. The idea, said Kim, was to test the North’s “war deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability.” Each case, the North’s Korean Central News Agency elaborated, was by way of “simulation of loading tactical nuclear warheads.”
North Korea has often boasted of its nuclear prowess, but Kim, in his first public appearance in a month, had not been so open about the relationship between test-firing missiles in order to assess their ability to stage a tactical nuclear strike — that is, to attack a well-defined target in a relatively small area as opposed to a “strategic strike” that could wipe out an entire city or region. Previously, the North had justified missile launches as tests of their power and accuracy.
Just to spice up the show, the North also released scary photos of missiles roaring off launch pads.
North Korea began using the N-word — “n” for nuclear — as the Americans and South Koreans were winding down a massive exercise off the South’s east coast revolving around the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. Warplanes and helicopters roared off the decks of the carrier in tandem with the maneuvering of a flotilla of destroyers, supply vessels, patrol boats, and submarines, too, both American and South Korean, in nearby waters.
The exercise came more than a week after North Korea fired a hypersonic intermediate-range missile over Japan, inspiring the Americans and South Koreans initially to bombard a rocky islet off the South’s west coast near North Korea. The Ronald Reagan suddenly was ordered back into action again; it had just starred in war games played by thousands of American and Korean troops from all services — army, marines, air and navy.
Biden, however, is clearly much more worried about the war in Ukraine than about Kim’s hinting that he’s really planning nuclear strikes against the South. It’s as though Biden has shoved Korea to a distinctly secondary position, as if he would rather not face up to the danger of having to wage war on both sides of the globe.
He has committed the U.S. to the defense of South Korea on numerous occasions but gives the impression he would rather not have to think too closely about the dreaded prospect of a second Korean War. Kim, meanwhile, seems confident that Putin would support North Korea, as it did in the first Korean War, with heavy arms and ammunition, as well as air power.
In that spirit, after talking tough about Ukraine, John Kirby fell back on the usual cliches of what the U.S. might do about North Korea. The Americans were ready to talk to the North Koreans any time, he said, and the United States still clings to its familiar demand for North Korea’s “denuclearization.”
Such talk is totally useless and meaningless for two basic reasons. First, as Kim has said repeatedly, he’s not going to engage in “dialogue with the enemies.” Second, as everyone knows, North Korea is nowhere near to considering all-too-familiar American demands for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” How would North Korea possibly agree to talks on the topic when it has just enacted a law authorizing a nuclear strike on the South any time it feels threatened?
Surely no senior American official could possibly believe there’s a chance of getting anywhere in negotiations with North Korea, but how close are we to an actual war? After South Korea scrambled F-35s into the air in response to the latest North Korean missile shots, 150 planes took off from bases in the North in response — the biggest such display in North Korean history.
So, what if Kim loses patience and decides a tactical nuke is just what’s needed to assert his power and show he’s a real strongman — strong enough to frighten his enemies? It’s still not likely he’ll be the one to open a nuclear war, but the possibility is more acute than ever. It may be just a question of who goes first: Putin in Ukraine or Kim in Korea.