War with North Korea is now 'a real possibility'

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a weapon in North Korea. (AP)

War with North Korea could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and is now ‘a real possibility’, according to the UK’s leading defence think tank.

The latest report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) found that the likelihood of war has increased markedly, thanks to the rapid nuclear advances achieved by Kim Jong-un’s regime, coupled with the Trump administration’s position that ‘classical deterrence theory’ is no longer working.

If war were to break out then ‘high casualties’ numbering hundreds of thousands can be expected, even without the use of nuclear weapons, says the report, titled ‘Preparing for War in Korea’.

The possibility of war

In the last few years North Korea has greatly increased its nuclear capability and the threat it poses to the United States in particular.

The rogue state may already have the capability to strike Guam and Alaska with nuclear weapons, as well as the closer targets of South Korea and Japan.

The Pentagon predicts that North Korea will have a ‘reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile’ programme by the end of 2018.

Pyongyang is also exercising other elements of its military so that it is ‘ready to use them rapidly in a crisis’, increasing the threat posed to its immediate neighbours.

Tensions between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have reached unprecedented levels

The Trump administration has responded to these advances outright threats of military violence.

The President told the UN he is prepared to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if the country does not halt its nuclear programme, calling Kim Jong-un a ‘rocket man on a suicide mission’.


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Top members of the US administration have echoed this sentiment: Trump’s most senior military adviser told a security conference that ‘it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability’, and National Security Advisor General H R McMaster said that ‘the President has said that he is not going to tolerate this regime threatening the United States and our citizens with a nuclear weapon’.

This all points to the fact that America has not ruled out preventative strikes – despite the knowledge that this could result in war.

A North Korean flag flutters at a guard post near the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea (Reuters)

And time is not on the side of the U.S.

As North Korea expands its military capabilities – nuclear and otherwise – the risk of a devastating retaliation increases. A strike by the U.S. could soon be answered by a nuclear attack capable of reaching America.

This, according to the RUSI report, gives Trump a ‘powerful military imperative for acting sooner rather than later.’

‘War is now a real possibility’, it adds.

‘America faces a period of, at most, only two or three years – and perhaps much less, given the rapidity of North Korean technical progress – before it reaches a point at which military action can no longer be taken without unacceptable risk of nuclear retaliation against its own territory.

‘Given this stark choice, there is a real possibility that Trump, with the support of some of his most senior advisers, will decide to resolve the North Korea issue sooner rather than later.’

How would war with North Korea unfold?

War could start in a number of ways, the think-tank proposes, one of which would involve North Korea striking first if it believed that the US were moving towards a surprise attack.

‘This scenario could play out if, as a signal of resolve, the U.S. reinforced its forward military presence, thereby convincing Pyongyang that war had become inevitable and that it should strike first,’ the report says.

‘Alternatively, a U.S. attack could be triggered by North Korea demonstrating new capabilities, for example through test missiles hitting the ocean near Guam or California, which might precipitate a ‘now or never’ decision by Trump.

‘The U.S. might then launch a preventive attack against North Korea. This could be limited in scope, targeting certain nuclear- and missile-related facilities, but would more likely take the form of a large-scale offensive.’

Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

No matter the inception, war ‘will not be surgical or short’.

RUSI warns: ‘While the broader political and economic effects of such a conflict are highly unpredictable, they are likely to be global in nature, dwarfing the effects of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq.

‘For the two Koreas, casualties could run into the hundreds of thousands.

‘China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, could face severe disruption to their societies, especially if nuclear weapons were used or if a conventional war were to last for several months.

‘U.S. leaders also know that a war could put 60,000 American troops based in the region at risk, along with many tens of thousands of American civilians.’

If the U.S. launched a military strike, South Korea and Japan ‘would have no alternative but to provide strong military and logistical support to their ally once a war had begun.’

What should the UK do?

If Trump launched an attack against Kim Jong-un, he would likely ‘telephone 10 Downing Street within an hour of the start of an attack asking for support.’

The UK therefore needs to be ready to make clear its stance on the biggest military shock in the post-Cold War era, and would have ‘no time for multiple consultations and deliberations’ before taking a position.

The think tank urges Theresa May to ‘refuse to rush into unconditional support for U.S. action’ and to ‘urge the U.S. to work closely with China to establish a mechanism for negotiating shared post-war objectives.’

Overall, the report concludes that there is ‘no easy military option that can destroy North Korean nuclear capabilities.’

While the Trump administration continues to be unwilling rely on a policy of deterrence, there remains a possibility that America ‘will decide to resolve the North Korea issue sooner rather than later.’