Tensions between the United States and North Korea are now so high that war is “a real possibility” that Britain must prepare for, a respected defence think tank has warned.
Such a conflict would result in “hundreds of thousands” of casualties, severely disrupt the global economy, and have profound implications for the political and diplomatic landscape of East Asia, the report for the Royal United Services Institute said.
US bombers accompanied by fighter jets flew off the east coast of North Korea on September 23, in a show of force
“This report is not saying that war is likely. But the probability of war is an uncomfortably real prospect,” said Professor Malcolm Chalmers, who authored the report.
Tensions between North Korea and the US have escalated over the past year as Pyongyang pursues a nuclear weapons programme that it says is intended to achieve a “balance of power” with the US and deter an American-led regime change operation of the kind that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
A series of missile and nuclear tests this year have left US officials concerned that Pyongyang is closer than previously thought to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting America.
Donald Trump, the US president, has threatened to use military force to halt Kim Jong-un’s weapons programme.
Other senior US officials have made clear that Washington would not accept a North Korean nuclear deterrent similar to that possessed by Russia or China and that all options, including military force, would be considered to prevent it.
On Thursday, China ordered all North Korean businesses and ventures operating on its territory to close within 120 days, after the United Nations imposed fresh sanctions against Pyongyang.
China is North Korea’s main trading partner and North Korean firms operating there provide the country with a crucial source of foreign currency.
Adam Smith, a former staffer on Barack Obama’s National Security Council, warned Thursday that the US had “reached the end of its diplomatic tether” and that this round of sanctions may be the last.
“We can only hope, then, that the economic ramifications for North Korea of these sanctions will be sufficient enough to help avoid an otherwise globally destabilising conflict,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
Professor Chalmers said he believed a “deterrent relationship” between the US and North Korea remained the most likely outcome of the crisis, despite the rhetoric.
But he warned war could erupt as the result of a limited preemptive US attack aimed at disrupting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, or a North Korean attack on South Korea, Japan, or the US.
Either scenario would likely escalate to a full-scale war culminating in a US invasion of North Korea, accompanied by a massive cyber and air campaign to destroy and disrupt communications and command and control, the report says.
What analysts believe may be a North Korean Hwasong 12 missile was seen during a military parade in Pyongyang in April
North Korea would likely launch a barrage of artillery and tactical missiles in the direction of Seoul, the South Korean capital, resulting in high civilian casualties.
Technologically superior US and South Korean forces would probably defeat North Korea’s “million men” army in pitched battle, and North’s generals would likely resort to partisan-style “asymmetric” tactics and possibly use nuclear weapons to counter that imbalance of power, the report says.
Professor Chalmers called on the British government to urge the US against considering a preventive first strike against North Korea and to consult with regional allies, including South Korea, Japan, and Australia, about how best to handle the crisis.
The warning came as North Korea escalated a war of words with the US by calling Donald Trump an “old lunatic.” In a statement, North Korea’s foreign ministry accused Mr Trump of “slander” and exploiting the memory of the dead after he said an American student who died after being held in North Korea for over a year had been tortured.
Otto Warmbier, who was arrested and imprisoned for stealing a propaganda poster while visiting the North as a tourist in January 2016, died in June this year days after he was released from custody and sent home in a mysterious coma.
Warmbier’s parents said in a television interview on Wednesday that their son was returned to the US blind, deaf, and that it looked like “someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth”.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier died after more than a year in North Korean custody
Mr Trump tweeted afterwards: “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea.”
North Korea has denied torturing Mr Warmbier and said it provided him with medical care.
“The fact that the old lunatic Trump and his riff-raff slandered the sacred dignity of our supreme leadership, using bogus data full of falsehood and fabrications, only serves to redouble the surging hatred of our army and people towards the U.S.,” the ministry said in a statement issued by the KCNA news agency yesterday.
An Ohio coroner on Wednesday said her office was unable to determine what caused the brain damage that led to Warmbier’s death, other than it stemmed from oxygen deprivation more than a year before his death.
“Could that have been torture at the time? We don’t know,” Dr Lakshmi Sammarco said.