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North Korea could launch its own nuclear ‘Pearl Harbor’ attacking the US, potentially killing millions

After the Japanese attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii exactly 76 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously stated: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Could we be headed for another surprise attack – this time a nuclear one, from North Korea?

For a clue, mark your calendar for this date: Dec. 17, 2017. Yes, just a few days away.

Why, you ask? That is when I predict North Korea will once again test its new long-range missile, the Hwasong-15, to commemorate the death of North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il on Dec.17, 2011. His son, the equally ruthless dictator Kim Jong Un, now rules North Korea.

If I’m right and Kim Jong Un tests this powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) a few days from now, Washington and Pyongyang could very well be placed on a path toward war. This is a war that Kim could very well start first – with nuclear weapons being his favorite killer of choice – in a surprise strike that would make Pearl Harbor look like child’s play.

I would argue that if you can look past President Trump’s “fire and fury” comments threatening to attack North Korea, his gut tells him to try and find another path that avoids war.

The steps needed to get from a tension-filled but peaceful Northeast Asia to a potential war that could see the first time nations freely sling nuclear weapons at each other are not hard to imagine.

When Kim test fires his missile, the world will once again collectively shriek with fear and dread. And like clockwork, the normal chorus of talking heads will once again call for using the “military option.”

The hawks will argue, with very little specifics or anything approaching a concrete plan of action, that we are “running out of time” to stop Kim from attaining a nuclear weapon that can hit the U.S. homeland and that a war “over there” is better than here on our own soil.

President Trump will be in the worst of binds. While he might talk tough, the president has shown during the campaign and as commander-in-chief to have a pragmatic – dare I call it realist – mindset.

I would argue that if you can look past President Trump’s “fire and fury” comments threatening to attack North Korea, his gut tells him to try and find another path that avoids war.

President Trump would need to convey a sense of toughness that makes clear the era of strategic patience is truly over and that he is taking a harder line than President Obama. But he would need to find a way to reassure South Korea and Japan, while also sending a tough message to Kim.

This is where things get tricky. President Trump could very well order a large-scale U.S. military build-up around North Korea – something on the surface that does not seem provocative, but would reassure allies and put Pyongyang on notice.

For example, the president could authorize an increase in the number of ground troops permanently stationed to South Korea, additional armor and intelligence assets. He could increase the number of F-22 and F-35 jets that operate on a rotational basis there as well as pushing South Korea to accept more THAAD missile defense batteries.

President Trump could also seek to base additional THAAD batteries in Japan. He could also  deploy additional armor and air assets to Tokyo to ensure that if war did break-out, military assets would be forward-deployed and ready to go, just in case. 

But there is a problem with all of this, if you put yourself in North Korea’s shoes. A plan like the one I describe above – while probably seeming defensive in nature to the average American – is a nightmare for North Korea.

Kim Jong Un could very well interpret this military build-up as an indication that President  Trump is really massing forces for an attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs or something worse – preparation for a U.S. invasion to overthrow Kim and his government.’

Kim would then be in his own bind. He could wait out such a move, and see if American forces halt their build-up at levels that would not allow America to attack his nuclear or missile force or potentially invade.

Or, Kim could follow through to prevent what his officials have stated time and time again he will not allow: losing his position and his life, as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi did when they were overthrown.

In that case, Kim would have only one choice: to launch a massive surprise attack with the full-range of his military arsenal before America has any chances of destroying it. That means a full nuclear, chemical and biological attack to badly damage his enemies and blunt any coming military strike or invasion that he thinks is coming.

What such a war would look like I have detailed in these digital pages on several occasions.

Imagine a surprise strike by Kim where he launches nuclear weapons at not only Seoul and Tokyo – two of the most populated cities on Earth – but also strikes U.S. and allied bases all over Northeast Asia.

Kim could also launch short and medium-range missiles armed with chemical and biological weapons at targets all over Asia, spreading death and carnage throughout the region. This would be nothing like the wars of recent past. The level of devastation would resemble something like the bombed-out cities of World War II, or worse.

And then there is the possibility of a strike on the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon – and not far off into the future, but right now.

Many experts doubt Kim has mastered the technology to allow an atomic warhead the ability to pass through Earth’s atmosphere. Recent reports concerning his most recent test claim the warhead broke up or exploded in some format during reentry, so we have every reason to be skeptical of his abilities to pull off a nuclear strike.

Thanks to a report in The Diplomat this past August, we know that U.S. intelligence officials believe that if fired in a normal trajectory – not in a lofted, more up-and-down manner like the last test, which is more stressful on the warhead – North Korea’s missiles could surprise us.

According to the report, such missiles would “likely perform adequately if flown on a normal trajectory to continental U.S. targets.” That means North Korea, today, could have the ability to drop a nuclear weapon on New York, Washington or anywhere in the U.S. – with millions of Americans dead thanks to Kim’s very own nuclear Pearl Harbor.      

Thankfully the above scenario is fictional and does not need to be our future. Clearly. there is only one off-ramp for America and North Korea – to sit down and negotiate.

Despite what many conservatives seem to think, numerous U.S. presidents have tried to talk to North Korea. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are all recent examples. And to be fair, those efforts have been a very mixed bag, with many success and many failures.

However, any rational person can read the tea leaves and see that the chance of a war – indeed, a nuclear war where millions of people could lose their lives – is now a very real possibility.

We owe it to future generations, indeed all of humanity, to work to deescalate this crisis. If we don’t, we might just be doomed to a conflict that for generations will be considered one of the worst in history – with the recognition that it was completely avoidable.  

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.