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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Insurance

If you were a tiny secretive country, with a wrecked economy run by semi-slaves, and no influence whatsoever beyond your disputed south borders with your far richer nemesis, how would you keep up with the mighty pressure of the most powerful country (and military) the world has ever seen?

Well, you buy insurance, and a nuclear one at that. Kim Jon-un, though relatively young, witnessed in his lifetime what happened to Iraq, Libya and Syria after they gave up their nuclear ambitions. So, contrary to the assumptions in part of the media (‘crazy fat boy’) covering the North Korea imbroglio, Mr. Kim is acting, up to now, as a very rational player.

China, confronted by Mr. Trump to provide a solution on North Korea (NK) - i.e. going against a State it sees as a buffer and ally - while at the same time being challenged over its South China Sea expansionism by the USA, is also acting as a rational player, and doing not much beyond theatrical concessions. 

The USA, apparently, is the only country ignoring basic game theory and asking for denuclearization of North Korea as a pre-condition to any further talks, which the chance of happening is the same as hell freezing over. 

From the point of view of Mr. Kim, the most pressing objective is to maximize its insurance policy. Not only against the USA and South Korea (SK), but also from any possible betray by China.

In this context, I offer the speculative idea that Kim’s ballistic display of force is not only a theater for foreign and internal observers, but also a ruse. 

Kim knows that, when push comes to shove, his atomic arsenal means the chances of a powerful nuclear attack wiping NK out of the map is, now, much higher. The fact that his conventional force is also a great threat to South Korea, given the proximity of Seoul to the border, only adds to the chance of an overwhelming attack, of Fire and Fury, being mandatory if any escalation ever happens. 

What’s a small dog going to do in such a big league fight? 

Kim knows that every surveillance satellite, stealth wing (drone or airplane) and spy is mapping out the main sites to be nullified in the event of war. I don’t think he hopes to ever deliver any ICBM he may have, as well as a good deal of his conventional arsenal. 

So Mr. Kim, if a rational player, can only expect his insurance to hold if he can assuredly deliver a blow even if he is killed by bombs or a China backed coup, and if his weapons and territory are neutered. And that asks for more cunning strategies. 

I place at a high probability that, by now, Kim may have smuggled, by land or sea, a few of his former weaker bombs (in the range of 5-10 kilotons) to hideouts in South Korea, a task far easier than building reliable ICBMs. That, and a few elite agents with trucks, is all he needs to make the threat of nuclear retaliation credible, even after his complete defeat.

A surface detonation of a couple of 10kt bombs, in the middle of Seoul, may instantly claim 100.000 lives, possibly 2 or 3 times that after a few days, and economic devastation of a very rich metropolis. 

There is nothing new in such strategy, as the nuclear-armed B-52 continual flights the US kept up in the 60’s (in order to assure mutual destruction to the USSR before better ICBMs were in place) tell us. The difference being that, in the Koren case with contiguous borders, it makes all the sense NK should have nukes implanted inside SK.

Maybe a few of those showy missile tests were aimed at covering for a submarine/ship landing in a far away and lonely shore of SK, with a precious load to deliver to a small truck driving out of the shadows.

3 comments:

Bret said...

Maybe.

The problem I see with the smuggled bomb scenario is that I'm pretty sure South Korea and the US have probably thought of that too and are on high alert to try and detect it. While Kim might be likely to succeed in that smuggling, there's a realistic chance he'd be caught somewhere in the process of getting it into a major population area. Remember, atomic bombs are huge - thousands of kilograms and an enormous volume. If he were caught, that'd probably be the end for him - either we'd force China to take care of the problem or we would take care of the problem with immediate and massive force.

So basically, that sort of insurance is really risky and he'd need insurance for his insurance.

Bret said...

A second problem is the knowledge issue, sort of like the movie Dr. Strangelove where the Russians hadn't got around to telling us they had a doomsday weapon. If Kim plants a nuke and doesn't tell anyone it's not much of a deterrent because nobody knows about it. If he does tell someone, he's dead in short order. He might kill hundreds of thousands but it's the end of the line for him in any case.

He might try hinting at it, but he doesn't actually need to have succeeded in smuggling in the bomb to do that - it only needs to be vaguely plausible. But he hasn't done that and I think that's evidence for that part of the game not working.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret,

A few thousands of kilograms is just what trucks are made for. A 10kt bomb is not that big, the nucleus of the first bomb ever detonated, at the Trinity site, was taken there in the back of Philip Morrison's Dodge sedan.

And ignorance of the whereabouts of his nukes - including their smuggling - is central to every calculation of risks for SK and the US. So you are right he doesn't need to actually carry the smuggling out.

Except for two other things: his own inner circle, and China. He needs to carry the smuggling plan so he is insured against them. If they fear that killing Kim will set a bomb up, which in turn will set NK's anihilation, they will think thrice before acting.

It is far from certain he did so, but in his position, I would. It is a very asymmetric war and they need desperate measures.