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George Friedman, founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, has a worldwide reputation for strategic forecasting. At his home near Austin, I asked him to assess U.S.-Korea relations. Here are edited excerpts.
We often hear that Kim Jong Un is crazy. The people who say he’s crazy never cite what he’s crazy about. He has values and interests different from ours. The first assumption Americans often have regarding a Saddam Hussein or a Muammar Qaddafi is: He’s crazy. The second assumption: If we just get rid of him, it will be cool because he’ll be gone. That never turns out to be the case. We get something worse. We are too ready to declare the other side crazy.
So how do you view Kim? The No. 1 underestimated man over the past year. He has played an absolutely brilliant game. He has simultaneously held the United States at bay, while opening a relationship with South Korea, while threatening and building nuclear weapons and just stopping at the right point before actually delivering a nuclear weapon.
Stopping at the right point? He has nuclear bombs. But they need a missile to deliver a bomb. They need a guidance system so the missile will enter the atmosphere precisely at the right angle and not burn up. In the last test the guidance system failed—the missile came in at the wrong angle—so there is a lot of work to be done, and you can’t do that in secret. You’ve got to fire the missile to test it.
If another test comes and the guidance system works, how long would it take North Korea to have numerous nuclear missiles ready to go? There would have to be a time for construction, installation, testing, and so on. It’s one of those few things you can’t do in secret. It would take a lot longer to install than it takes for us to go to war. We are in Guam. We are in South Korea. We are in Japan. We are in position.
[‘Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis] and his staff are gaming over and over again what the options are.’
So you don’t think the failure of the guidance system was a real setback for Kim? I wonder very much if he didn’t want us to see it fail. We were uncertain whether they had the guidance system. He let us know he didn’t. It’s a beautiful move on his part. He doesn’t want a war. He wants to move the United States into a position where the U.S. scares South Korea to death.
So that’s what we’re doing? The American policy on Korea remains unchanged. We will not tolerate a nuclear weapon in his hands that can reach the United States. But Kim has avoided that. He wants to convince the South Koreans to diminish or break the relation with the United States. That’s a huge win for North Korea, and a win for South Korea because there’s nothing destroyed. It undermines the American position in the Western Pacific, which is also a win for the Chinese.
Wouldn’t the South Koreans be worried about North Korea eventually taking over and turning it dark? They have a series of worries. One worry: A war breaks out and their capital city and industrial heartland are destroyed. But North Korea, a Third World country, could really use a relationship with South Korea, an industrial giant. If the exchange were: We will respect your regime in the North. We will trade with you. You will reduce your military presence along the border. We will limit our relationship with the United States.
South Korea will make that deal? If you’re South Korean, you say we’ve been divided for a long time. The United States is prepared to destroy Seoul to protect Los Angeles. North and South are far better off working together.
What if North Korea launches another missile and the test guidance system works? Then we would have to make a very rapid decision. I suspect that decision has already been made: We would carry out an attack. I may be confident that Kim Jong Un doesn’t want to attack us, but the president of the United States is responsible for the American people. How much of a risk can you take—10 percent, 20 percent?
How much of a risk would Kim take by showing he has a workable guidance system? He knows if he crosses that line he risks the one thing that he doesn’t want, an American attack—because even if he can destroy Seoul, he loses. We’ve been very careful to make clear that we are putting drones into place that are designed to kill the leadership. We are letting him know that if he moves to that level he doesn’t live through it.
If he dies, do others carry on? The issue is how much intelligence we have on the command and control system in the south. If we cut communications, are generals authorized to fire on their own? Is there a point we could strike in the DMZ or just north of it that would cripple their tactical communication so they couldn’t talk to each other? What are their orders under those circumstances?
Do we know where all of North Korea’s missile facilities are, and how many of them are fakes? We can bomb anything, but we don’t know what we’ve hit. What’s inside that building? What’s inside that cave? It’s difficult to imagine that we, from aerial or satellite surveillance, would know what’s there.
We would have to send Special Forces on the ground to inspect the damage and call in additional strikes.
How long would combat last? If everything goes right (which it never does), it would be over in a week. It’s an unpredictable thing and we hate unpredictable wars, even though we get into them. This is what is being calculated right now in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ office. He and his staff are gaming over and over again what the options are. He’s made it very clear he doesn’t want to go, but if forced into it and it’s the president’s decision, he stands ready.
So you have confidence in Mattis? I have a great deal of confidence in him because when Barack Obama wanted to do something in Iran, it was Mattis who was asking the hard questions: What are they going to do here? He didn’t like the unknowns and the no-other-options —and Obama fired him. He preferred being fired to letting his guys under his command take a mission that wouldn’t work. There are very few senior officers who would do that.
Do you think Trump would greenlight an attack? Would he be willing to be the president who allowed North Korea to have a first strike at buildings in the United States? He took his oath to protect the United States. I suspect he would do what presidents constantly do and what they’re paid to do: make an awe-inspiring decision.
But you don’t think it will come to that. It might turn out that Kim never really wanted the nuclear weapon—he simply wanted to put South Korea in a position that it had to consider what was going on. If it’s just luck, it’s amazing.
—For more of George Friedman's thinking, go to geopoliticalfutures.com