Fresh off his election victory, Japanese Prime Minister Kobe as well as several of his cabinet members and top party officials, visited the Yasukuni Shrine outside Tokyo. As usual, reaction across Asia was hostile to the PM’s visit to a shrine that honored Class A war criminals that had been part of an Imperial Japanese war machine that had slaughtered and enslaved millions in the run up to and throughout World War II. Nowhere was the anger more sharply felt than in Korea, whose 1100 years as an independent kingdom had been brutally ended by the Japanese in 1910, followed by a harsh occupation until the end of World War II.
This time reaction was even more strident than usual, probably aggravated by the fact that the new Japanese PM had been speaking ominously about Japan taking a more aggressive military stance and their recent joint military maneuvers with the US, South Korea and Australia had been the largest ever seen in the North Pacific. The heated rhetoric from Pyongyang had been dismissed as the ranting of their crackpot leader and the heightened military readiness and missile tests he had ordered had caused the normal condemnations from the US and it allies but little real alarm.
At 5 am three days after the PM’s visit, North Korea launched three Taepodong-2 missiles at the Yasukuni site. All the missiles struck their targets and their high explosive warheads totally demolished the Yasukuni Shrine. Without waiting to organize a joint response with its US ally, Japan immediately launched a missile counter-strike on the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, as well as at the nuclear power plant at Yongbyon. The reactor was seriously damaged and a massive radiation leak ensued…there were serious doubts as to whether a complete nuclear meltdown could be avoided.
Meanwhile, the South Koreans sank two North Korean submarines that it claimed were trying to sneak special forces into its territories and the US placed all its forces in the region on high alert and ordered the Sixth Fleet aircraft carrier group to sail directly towards North Korea.
Then it happened! North Korea launched three more missiles that detonated 25km over Japan, including one near Okinawa, home to massive US bases. These were nuclear-tipped and the resulting electro-magnetic pulses had the effect of shutting down most of the Japanese electrical grid, caused extensive damage to the electronic infrastructure and, more importantly, degraded radar, defense and surveillance systems.
Within seconds of the atmospheric detonation of these missiles, twelve nuclear missiles were launched at Japan. Half of them were aimed at US bases in Okinawa and the others at Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto as well as Fukushima and two other nuclear power plants. Shorter range Rodong-1 nuclear-armed missiles were fired at Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon and the nuclear power plants at Hanul, Wolseong and Hanbit. Both Japan and South Korea were left with their countries’ major population and industrial centers devastated, a crippled electrical grid and a massive nuclear contamination problem.
Simultaneously, another attack was launched on the US Sixth Fleet involving five nuclear armed Taepodong-2 missile used in air burst mode. The first two detonated 60km from the carrier group to blind and degrade the defense systems and the others managed to get over the middle of the fleet before detonating at an elevation of 2 km. The carrier survived but was incapacitated and most of its supporting surface ships were sunk or badly damaged.
The North Koreans had used the majority of its entire nuclear arsenal in a decisive, preemptive attack against its arch-enemies; thereby unleashing a series of cataclysmic events that would rearrange power arrangements in the region at the price of its own demise as a state. All its major population centers and military installations were soon obliterated by US nuclear and conventional missiles and bombs, but not before launching a devastating swan song second-strike!
Long range Hwasong-14 missiles were fired from their launch pads in the North Pyongan mountains at Hawaii, Alaska, the US North-West and the Darwin naval base in Australia. The new solid-fuel rockets had been test fired and achieved an altitude in excess of 2,800 kilometers. Western analysts had calculated that they had the range to reach the US West Coast but they had not realized that several of the new missiles were already operational and armed with nuclear warheads. One of the missiles, which had been aimed at Silicon valley, was shot down by the US missile defenses but Pearl Harbor, Anchorage, Seattle and Portland were hit, in addition to Darwin. The warheads were only in the 30 kiloton range but casualties exceeded 700,000.
But perhaps the greatest surprise was delivered by a “Suicide Trawler” that launched 4 Taepodong-2 missiles from 550 kilometers off the California coast at San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, whose massive naval base received two strikes. The civilian and military casualties exceeded a million deaths and several times that number of injured. The fact that the trawler was almost immediately sunk proved to be of little consolation to the victims and their families.
With over ten million North Korean casualties, millions of survivors flooded into China and the Chinese government virtually annexed a buffer zone extending 100 kilometers into North Korean territory and took the lead in the relief efforts and the reconstruction of the parts of North Korea not badly affected by radiation.
The actions of the North Korean regime would come to be known as the Yasukuni Gambit because of the incident that had triggered this critical chain of events, with its enormous geopolitical consequences. In hindsight, the North Korean situation had been a powder keg that could have been set off by any number of events, including the frequent simulated attacks on the country by the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia.
Japan was finished as a regional power and indeed as an industrial power. Few tears were shed for her in a region that had suffered greatly under Japanese occupation up to and including World War II. South Korea similarly lay in ruins, a shattered shell of its former self. The American public were shocked that a third rate power like North Korea could cause so much damage to the US homeland as well as the destruction of an aircraft carrier group. The US voting public lost a great deal of its appetite for their politicians’ belligerence towards Russia and China.
Australians also reacted with shock and their outrage was soon channeled towards the ruling party that had been so enthusiastic about following the US in threatening North Korea. The subsequent election saw them resoundingly defeated. The Taiwanese people voted overwhelmingly for association with Mainland China under a One Country, Two Systems arrangement, similar to Hong Kong and Macau. Other countries in the region became more reticent about hosting US forces and antagonizing China, not wanting to suffer South Korea’s fate as a nuclear battleground.
The US tried to find some strategic advantage from the situation; but with its two biggest regional allies, Japan and South Korea in ruins, its Pivot to Asia had suffered a serious setback. It would try to get the Philippines to take over the role of leading US Asian ally by promoting a color revolution against President Duterte, but with its much smaller and less sophisticated economic base and geographic location being so far south, the Philippines proved a poor replacement for the loss of Japan and South Korea. The result was that Russia and China, in tandem, came to clearly dominate the North Pacific.
Ironically, it was China that would benefit most by leading the rising Asian manufacturing states in making up for the lost industrial capacity of Japan and South Korea. The US, wounded by the loss or extensive damage to several of its cities and the smashing of the aura of invincibility of their naval power, was beset by a wave of populist movements that saw a large number of isolationists elected to the Congress and Senate. On the bright side, the decontamination and rebuilding efforts on the west coast stimulated the American domestic, non-military industry and created millions of jobs.
Another blessing to emerge from the tragedy was that the reality of a nuclear exchange and the resultant tremendous loss of life and property spurred the major powers to get back to the negotiating table to pursue arms control treaties that would prevent any repetition of the tragedy. This was supported by the fact that with the clear weakening of the United States and out of fear of suffering the fate of South Korea and Japan, a number of countries passed legislation to expel US military bases or to limit the number of military personnel and types of armaments that could be kept on their territories..
It had been a painful transition but a Multi-Polar international order eventually emerged from the Asian tragedy.