China just offered United States a fig leaf by making it clear that if North Korea strikes the first blow, China will not interfere with plans for retaliation. However, China did draw a line at invasion, saying through a state-run newspaper, that if America ever tried to invade to change the geopolitical landscape of that region, it would step in to prevent it.
This, as we would say, is not our first rodeo. In fact, this has happened many, many, many times before. North Korea issues a threat, the United States counters. So how is the new threat by the rogue nation to strike Guam in August any different?
For one, they now have the capability to actually do it.
Since the signing of the 1953 armistice and the cementing of the Kim regime, North Korea has threatened destruction for the United States. A laughable proposition that became less funny as time went on. And although North Korea possesses nowhere near the amount of fire-power it would need to match the U.S. in a fair fight, the attempt would cause an international crisis, as Trump would say, “the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” or at least since WWII.
Secondly, China’s dual strategy, as far as I know, has never been revealed before. For decades the United States assumed that if a fight ever broke out with North Korea, China would remain neutral in that conflict to an expected degree. The details of that strategy of course remain classified. But basically what China just asserted, is, in effect, the best option the U.S. has at the moment. The chance to obliterate the small totalitarian regime, while China referees the conflict, only as long as N.K. attacks first. We are certain the alternate scenario, one in which the U.S. makes the first move, would have been untenable. Something the United States has considered in every single conflict-scheme ever conceived.
The third reason why the North Korean threat is different this time is simply Donald Trump. In Trump we find a predictably unpredictable character. Predictable in the way any president would act faced with the same threat. Unpredictable in that he’s a wild card, an unreliable actor who’s reliably uninformed about what his options are.
Critics of that assessment would make three proposals to counter. One is that crisis-time Trump is sly, an adaptable animal who knows which strategies to use to win. Two, that in this case unreliability is an asset. And three, that at the very least, we should take comfort in knowing that he’s surrounded by military professionals, by far one of his most competent decisions. To an extent, I would agree with all of that. Whether Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Trump are strategically disagreeing (as Trump publicly often does with his own staff), or whether they’re playing good cop-bad cop, there is a plan in place.
However, it’s been public knowledge that Trump cannot be trusted to keep a lid on the details. And embarrassingly, as reported, doesn’t have the attention span required to even learn them. Which makes whatever approach already in place vulnerable.
For years we’ve talked about North Korean aggression as a destabilizing force in the world. As it turns out, North Korea is just one more country in a short list of lost battles who’s found in nuclear power the only deterrent to an American invasion. The key differences between North Korea and all other American contenders to date, excluding Russia, are that unlike Iran or Libya, the North Koreans are not only backed by very powerful entities (China and Russia) but they have also never abandoned their nuclear plans in favor of concessions.
This myth is propagated by the frustration of an unbalanced Asian continent where the American doctrine–one which accepts Chinese and Russian spheres of influence to flourish due in part by their nuclear deterrents and in part by free-market Capitalism–cannot fully penetrate. It’s a historical thorn that the United States has not been able to pry out. The only solution so far has been to decry North Korean aggression, which is real, and act with a strange combination of soft-diplomacy and less-than-hard diplomacy.
The reality is that there were never good options on the table regarding North Korea. As a Chinese, and to a lesser degree Russian, protectorate, North Korea is a key player in that corner of the world. As a reckless partner, China has found the plausible deniability it needs to keep American militarism in check by way of South Korea and Japan. But by imposing the sanctions recommended by the rest of the security council, of which China has extraordinary veto power, China is telling the world that it will remain centered and neutral by not letting its dog off its leash.
This approach gives the impression that China can be pressured to comply with American wishes while having the added advantage of pushing back against the U.S. for the South China Sea dispute, by being willing to bring nuclear deterrence back on the table. It’s a way to maintain a leveled American influence while cooperating with its biggest trading partner. This strategy works in multiple levels until it doesn’t, for North Korea is now outside of China’s reach. Or eventually will be.
But even that is an illusion.
China’s significant trading partnership with North Korea is all that the small country has outside its few nuclear devices, the majority of which haven’t been adapted to their newly donned ICBMs, for protection. Besides that, it can only rely on the destruction of South Korea, and perhaps Guam, before it’s relegated to the stone age should it decide to provoke a war. That is something that even Russia could understand. The truth is that if China truly decided to rein in North Korea, it would have done so by decimating their partnership.
As for the options the U.S. has in dealing with N.K., that time has passed–if there was ever a time. Risking a war with China, and possibly Russia, the optimal time to attack North Korea would’ve been before they produced nuclear weapons. Something that past presidents, both Republicans and Democrats never seriously contemplated.
So why is this worrisome?
Well it isn’t. The myth of North Korean aggression follows a very standard pattern. Its trajectory starts when the regime is starved (quite literally) and usually ends with some kind of arrangement where the U.S. promises aid in exchange for a reduction, or discontinuance, of nuclear proliferation. The fact that the triumvirate (U.S., South Korea and Japan) are constantly conducting military exercises just outside North Korean waters, and the addition of the newly-developed THAAD system (which even South Korea doesn’t want), doesn’t help.
In Kim Jong Un we find someone who is much more despicable than Trump. The man has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in turning his entire country into a gulag through terror and starvation, an Orwellian dystopia where the state reigns supreme over everything and everyone. But the young dictator isn’t stupid. He’s well aware of the consequences of angering the United States to the point of war. He knows that if there is a confrontation, he would loose every time. So how much is Kim Jong Un willing to sacrifice to stay in power?
It’s certain that he would sacrifice his own population if it meant the continuation of his regime. But the real question is, would Trump sacrifice Seoul for the continuation of his government?
I’ve spoken before about how war (with anyone) would be advantageous to Trump. Not only would it provide him all the political capital he’s lost since the election by consolidating his power among all the different factions, but it would also force America’s allies to fulfill their duties should the conflict get out of hand. Not something overly reassuring since it would most certainly unleash a third world war.
To be sure, a conflict with North Korea would be a decisive, albeit difficult project. It would claim hundreds of thousands of lives–none of which are highly important to Trump–and it would detract enough attention to indefinitely postpone the, comparatively minor, crisis that is the Russian investigation.
But the question is, would a war with North Korea that threatens the instability of an entire region and a consequential one to the balance of world security between the world’s most powerful nations, be worth the political capital? The answer will tell us what kind of man Donald Trump really is– is he a showboat, a grandstander, a fraud or will he follow in the footsteps of previous presidents and do nothing; will he seek to advance his own agenda as previous presidents have also done or will he remain rational?
For the foreseeable future the only peaceful resolution is diplomacy. There’s no other way about it. Just as the world has done, it seems the United States will have to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that we have our hands tied and accept a nuclearized North Korea. The upside is that China has agreed to remain neutral in a conflict, which is good to say the least. As a nation, we must learn to have a more nuanced view of this particular situation and recognize the motivations of the players, and not their rhetoric. What do they intend to do given the opportunities afforded? In this case, if Trump can be persuaded by the professional opinions of the men he’s hired, then I’m confident the status quo is the best we can hope for. But if we are to rely on Trump’s decision-making alone, then I’m afraid the answer to those questions are very grim and worrisome indeed.