Washington and Pyongyang are going head-to-head, lobbing threats across the Pacific as a result of missile tests and nuclear bluster from North Korea. Will President Donald Trump’s rhetoric frighten “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un into submission, or quite the opposite? With half of the planet Googling what to do in the event of nuclear war, we sat down with OZY senior columnist and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin to discuss the latest twists and turns. This interview has been edited for clarity.
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How likely is it that North Korea has developed an intercontinental ballistic missile and a miniaturized warhead?
John McLaughlin: We cannot be sure. Recent unsubstantiated press leaks allege that at least some parts of the intelligence community think North Korea can now miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit on an ICBM. Private experts, including a prominent scientist formally associated with one of America’s nuclear laboratories, are more cautious in their estimates. Some government experts reportedly think the North has as many as 60 nuclear warheads, but most private sector experts put the number lower. Bottom line? The North has clearly made progress and, if left unimpeded, will definitely get to a nuclear armed intercontinental missile eventually. In the face of uncertainty, it is prudent to assume for planning purposes that they are there, rather than thinking we can confidently predict the exact moment they attain the capability.
There’s bluff in both sides’ positions at this point — but plenty of room for miscalculation.
Is North Korea bluffing? Is the United States?
McLaughlin: Seems to me there’s bluff in both sides’ positions at this point — but plenty of room for miscalculation. Radical threats from the North, on which they seldom act, are standard practice for them. By promising the North “fire and fury” as President Trump has, we are playing their game and giving them importance beyond what they deserve. The U.S. president should listen to this recording of JFK during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as he tries to control the message and avoid escalation.
There is still time to move this away from escalation. Defense Secretary [James] Mattis has helpfully said that diplomacy is in the lead on the U.S. side — a good thing — and the Chinese, via official media, have cautioned Pyongyang that they are alone if they get in a fight with the U.S. There are also reports that the U.S. is talking to the North via back channels, probably through the North Korean U.N. ambassador. In short, the situation is starting to develop a different feel — shifting more into a diplomatic gear. North Korea has threatened Guam often in the past and has never followed through. If I had to bet, I’d say they will not this time either. If that is the case, prepare for President Trump to claim credit and attribute it to his tough talk, even though the more likely reason is that the North’s rhetoric is once again outstripping its capability.
Why would Kim Jong-un target Guam, and what would be the required U.S. response?
McLaughlin: I think Kim is probably already looking for some plausible excuse to back down. So it’s a mistake for President Trump to essentially dare him to do it. We should look quietly for a face-saving way for Kim to back away from his threat, rather than playing rhetorical chicken. It has a kind of schoolyard sound to it, and if we must duel rhetorically with Kim, it should be someone other than the president throwing the verbal punches. You always want to hold the commander in chief in reserve, rather than getting him boxed in right away. If you don’t, who’s left to change the dynamic when situations escalate?
As for Guam, Kim is probably highlighting it because it’s a base for American strategic bombers, U.S. nuclear submarines and missile defense capabilities against ICBMs. I believe he understands that an actual attack on Guam would be suicidal.
Why would China allow such escalation?
McLaughlin: I’m certain China hates this posturing by the two sides. The last thing Beijing wants is war on the Korean Peninsula. Although it would be bloody and disastrous for all sides, South Korea and the United States would win, and China would then be facing a united peninsula likely allied with the U.S. China favors a resumption of talks with the North, and we should be working to get Beijing to use its influence to facilitate that. Despite Beijing’s caution to Pyongyang, we cannot rule out that Beijing would join in if it saw Pyongyang going down. That is the nightmare scenario.
Some have suggested that Kim Jong-un’s Swiss education means he understands that he can’t leave his country impoverished. Do you agree his Western experience could make any difference?
McLaughlin: No American leader has met Kim, so our ability to assess the effect of his Swiss education is limited. I would go so far as to say, however, that it almost certainly gave him an understanding of the outside world and of how backward his country really is — and perhaps a desire to change that. His time in Western education is also a reason why I think he is not irrational — impulsive maybe, but not irrational.
Should we assassinate Kim Jong-un?
McLaughlin: No! Assassination of foreign leaders is forbidden under U.S. executive order 12333, and for good reason. This would be a dangerous path to pursue. Where would it end?
Do we have spies in North Korea? How hard is it to gain solid intel there?
McLaughlin: I can’t discuss whether we have spies in North Korea or how we gather intelligence on it. What I can say is that it is a difficult intelligence target because of the regime’s firm policy of keeping information out and its people in. There are few, if any, organized external opposition groups, which are often the source of insights into closed societies, and the United States has no official diplomatic representation there.
How many are in line who could press the button if Kim Jong-un is taken out?
McLaughlin: The North Korean power structure centers entirely on the Kim family and the military and political elites that it cultivates and supports — and who, in turn, support it. Kim could go in a variety of ways, ranging from natural death to an internal coup by the military. There would probably be substantial chaos because the Kim family has enjoyed uninterrupted rule since 1948. We could see anything from a military junta to violent factional infighting in which it would be difficult to assess who would come out on top. For the United States and its allies, the key questions would be: Where are the nuclear weapons, and who is in control of them? Meanwhile, we would probably witness a massive humanitarian crisis as refugees sought to escape north into China or south into South Korea.
It would be an ugly and dangerous time, and it is to our advantage to begin thinking now about how to ensure a “soft landing” when this country — a throwback to a lost era — begins to crumble.