By Ameen Izzadeen
A world without nuclear weapons is a possibility and that day is not far from us. Thanks to North Korea and its provocative behaviour, such optimism is not the wild imagination of a fiction writer. The United States is developing a smart bomb to deactivate all electronic devices, including missile and nuclear systems in the enemy territory.
It is only a matter of time before other technologically advanced nations will also produce such smart weapons, because in digital technology, the gap between the inventor and the imitator is fast closed up due to the competence of Information Technology experts in every big power.
If rival nuclear powers possess such smart weapons, their nuclear arsenals will become a liability. An enemy state can hack into a weapons system and change the direction of a missile that is being prepared to hit a target elsewhere. Of course, we have seen missile system manipulations in movies such as The Spy Who Loved Me. There will be utter chaos. Nay, just as the saying goes that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, those who live by wielding nuclear weapons will be perished by the same weapons.
The US says its smart weapons are part of a plan to deal with North Korea. Perceiving North Korea as the most dangerous state on the Earth, the then US President Barack Obama in 2014, instructed the Pentagon to develop a cyber-weapons programme to sabotage Pyongyang’s missiles before launch or just as they lift off. Obama even warned Donald Trump that North Korea would likely be the most urgent problem he would have to deal with. In response to North Korea’s announcement in January that it would test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US west coast, Trump famously tweeted, “It won’t happen.”
Last Saturday, the AFP quoted the New York Times as reporting that the US cyber war programme, had only limited success so far.
Advocates of the programme said they believed they had delayed for years North Korea’s ability to mount a nuclear weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and threaten a US city.
Sceptics, however, said the programme suffers from shoddy manufacturing, disgruntled insiders and simple incompetence.
Whatever it is, the fact remains that cyber warfare is a reality and a race to develop cutting-edge cyber weapons is already on.
On Tuesday, the whistleblowing website Wikileaks published thousands of secret files about CIA hacking tools that were used to break into computers, mobile phones and even smart TVs from companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung.
China and Russia know that US cyber warfare is not exclusively for the sabotage of North Korea’s missile and nuclear systems. They feel they too are being targeted.
It is no secret that Russia and China have their own cyber weapon programmes. Russia’s cyber warriors are the prime suspects in the email hacking drama that jolted the United States and changed its destiny at the November 8 presidential election. US analysts believe that Tuesday’s Wikileaks exposure of CIA hacking tools is also the work of Russian hackers.
In 2015, the US accused China of hacking into the massive data base of the Office of Personnel Management, thought to be cyber impregnable.
China’s dependence on cyber weapons has only increased this week, with the United States moving in THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles to South Korea to protect it from any North Korean attack. The deployment took place hours after North Korea’s missile launches that put not only South Korea, but also Japan and the US military base in Guam on notice. It happened despite China’s strong opposition. Beijing believes that the real aim of the THAAD missile deployment is not to counter North Korea’s missile threat but to deal with China’s missiles. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressing a rare media conference on Wednesday warned the US that the missile deployment could trigger a dangerous nuclear race in the region.
The installation of THAAD missiles in South Korea has dealt a blow to China’s military superiority in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The X-ban radar system installed in the THAAD anti-missile system can detect any missile launch from any part of China and quickly fire a missile to intercept the oncoming missile.
Warning that the US and North Korea were on a collision course, Wang said China would never allow hard-won stability in the South China Sea to be disturbed or undermined again.
Apart from the THAAD missiles in South Korea, China sees the recent navigation of a US aircraft carrier in what China regards as its territorial waters as a major security threat.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warned on Tuesday that Beijing would “take necessary measures to defend our security interests and the consequences will be shouldered by the United States and South Korea.”
Chinese analysts feel that the THAAD deployment means that Seoul has become Washington’s strategic tool to monitor and contain Beijing and Moscow.
Russia also condemned the THAAD installation. Victor Ozerov, head of Russia’s Federal Defence and Security Committee, described the development as another provocation against Russia to “besiege it from the west and the east.”
Chinese analysts fear that after the THAAD missiles, the United States could even deploy tactical nuclear missiles in South Korea. This again will be an existential threat to China.
Given this situation, it won’t be a surprise if China works out a regime change in North Korea, its only strategic ally in the region, and oust Kim Jong-un who, Beijing finds, is increasingly becoming uncontrollable. Two weeks ago, China stopped buying North Korean coal, but the maverick North Korean leader continued to play his dangerous missile games regardless.
Or in the alternative, Beijing is likely to push for the resurrection of the six-party talks that collapsed in 2009. The talks began at a time when the then US President George W. Bush was preparing for a war against Iraq. He spoke about an axis of evil comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, because they possessed or were pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Bush invaded Iraq and spared North Korea. Probably the US feared that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons, but others say the war against North Korea did not happen because it had no oil.
To deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme, the Bush administration instead pursued half-hearted diplomacy which led to the so-called six-party talks involving, apart from the United States, China, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia. But the talks collapsed because both the United States and North Korea did not stick to their part of the bargain but adopted more hostile attitudes towards each other.
North Korea is fast emerging as a flashpoint that could trigger a catastrophic conflict in East Asia, which has in recent months seen unprecedented level of defence buildups and military activities by China, the US, Japan and the two Koreas amid tension over territorial disputes that defy diplomacy.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of March 10, 2017)