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Ticking Closer To Midnight: What Will Actually Happen In North Korea

Tim Marshall, bestselling author of Prisoners of Geography and former foreign and diplomatic editor of Sky News, reveals the three outcomes...

Donald Trump Kim Jong-un graffiti

Article by Tim Marshall, bestselling author of Prisoners of Geography and former foreign and diplomatic editor of Sky News

It's difficult to know the exact time in Pyongyang - but it's 'something to midnight'.

Midnight is one of three things:

A.    A nuclear-armed North Korea.

B.    A South Korea devastated by war but an utterly defeated North Korea. 

C.    A non-nuclear-armed, but well-rewarded North Korea.

Of these C is the least likely. This would mean that the outside powers had promised North Korea it would not be attacked, and that it would take on trust that Pyongyang had halted, or better still dismantled its nuclear programme, by not insisting on UN weapons inspectors gaining unfettered access to the country.

As icing on the cake, massive trade deals would be done as well as aid donations delivered. It's difficult to see the USA signing up for that.

So, the clocks ticks down to A or B and each time there is a nuclear test or missile launch we are one tick closer to midnight. 

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un is determined for North Korea to get 'the bomb'

North Korea shows no signs of stopping or slowing attempts to become a nuclear-armed power. It continues to call what might, or might not be, Washington's bluff. The country appears determined to get 'the bomb' as a guarantee of regime survival.

In August, Pyongyang fired a missile over Japanese airspace for the first time in years. It followed up with a nuclear test of what was probably a hydrogen bomb, and then another missile launch with a projectile capable of reaching the US territory of Guam.

The response? International condemnation and further UN sanctions.

Now what? More tests? A volley of missiles fired simultaneously? If so, the short-term response will be more condemnation, and more sanctions enacted against the background noise of another 'tick' and more military exercises, such as the show of force by US and South Korean war planes firing live rounds.

US F-35B North Korea show of force
A US F-35B taking off ahead of the 'show of force'

This shortly followed a warning by America's UN Ambassador Nikki Haley that if Pyongyang continues with what were called 'provocations' it risked being 'destroyed', adding that 'none of us want war... we're trying every other possibility that we have, but there's a whole lot of military options on the table."

Indeed, there are, but until we see a number of moves, that's where the options are staying for the moment.

A limited strike on North Korea seems unlikely. Instead, if President Trump takes the momentous decision to cross the Rubicon, a massive, sustained, military assault can be expected.

That would probably require extra US Air Force bombers and jets on Guam and South Korea, and perhaps a second aircraft carrier in the region. Another sign of potential imminent action would be if the non-essential staff at the US embassy in Seoul were to be evacuated from the South Korean capital. 

The latter move would be made because almost all military analysts believe that North Korea has the capability of firing tens of thousands of missiles into Seoul in the first few hours of conflict breaking out. All of the Japanese islands are in range as well, although there are fewer missiles available for that distance. 

No wonder the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took to the New York Times this week to warn that "The whole world confronts an unprecedented, grave and imminent threat... Pyongyang has shown its reach now extends to the United States and Europe."

He believes that "more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end" and firmly supports "the United States position that all options are on the table."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe believes "more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end"

That does not mean imminent action, with Abe stressing the importance of enforced sanctions. But it does signal that, as the clock ticks down, Japan is prepared to countenance scenario B – war.

There are nuances here often overlooked in reporting. For example: flying a missile over Japan is provocative, but North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un ordered it to go over the sparsely-populated Hokkaido.

That means far fewer Japanese had to race for the bomb shelters, and there was a much lower risk of civilian casualties if the rocket came down early (it plunged into the sea hundreds of miles from Japan).  

This suggests Kim is gambling that he can keep getting away with the provocations until the time comes to announce to the world that he has a nuclear weapon and the capability to deliver it as far as South Korea, Japan, and the United States. If his gamble is wrong, then just before this, there will be a massive pre-emptive military strike. 

Either way - at that point, it is midnight. 

Tim Marshall is the editor of International Relations blog thewhatandthewhy.com. You can find out more about his latest book 'Worth Dying For: The Power And Politics Of Flags' here.

Cover image © Bwag/Commons, of a work by graffiti artist Lush Sux.

More: Could Donald Trump Take The World To War?

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