The middle of April 2017 has been marked by a new aggravation on the Korean Peninsula and a high probability of a US preemptive strike on the facilities of the North Korean nuclear missile program. However, amidst the exchanges, it soon became clear that, contrary to earlier statements by Donald Trump and representatives of the US administration, instead of advancing straight to Korea, the strike group led by the carrier Carl Vinson went on patrol several thousand kilometers away from the region. Although this relatively-calm incident has allowed many to conclude that this time, everything was fine, in reality, everything was far from over.
Let us think about this for a minute: it is now a known fact that the Carl Vinson is currently headed for Korea, and further commands on the next plan of action will be relayed late April. At the same time, the US and South Korean armies have also continued carrying out joint exercises, with the active phase of the Max Thunder air exercises, which saw about a hundred airplanes of the Seventh Air Force (7 AF) of the United States and the South Korean Air Force taking part, having taken place on April 20. “Actions in the event of provocations”, which include strategic bombing using high-precision weapons and countering enemy air defense systems, were worked out. While this was brewing, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea and the United States conducted three rounds of joint exercises to deploy ground-based Patriot PAC-3 missile systems on the Korean Peninsula.
Against this background, North Korean officials have made harsh statements on an all-out preemptive strike, the possibility of a war beginning at any time or the impossibility of negotiating peace with America. On the other hand, in an interview with TMJ4, US President Donald Trump has pointed out that US citizens have every reason to fear a nuclear war with the DPRK. During the visit of US Vice-President Mike Pence to Seoul, the entire set of tough statements that were earlier spoken by Trump, Tillerson, Mattis and other US military officials was spouted out again: with the policy of strategic patience having been entirely exhausted, from now on, provocation will be met with a tough response. Under such a scenario, China must either be instrumental in solving the North Korean problem as we envisage, or let itself become the object of “additional sanction measures.”
While some Korea experts believe that all this is nothing more than the usual rhetoric, and that we can all “give sighs of relief” and calm down, the author is not as convinced that this is the case. The trends that usually lead to an aggravation and may influence the US into sliding down the dreaded path of finally resorting to a military solution are still there.
Earlier, before the arrival of Mr. Trump onto the political scene, we touched on these issues. We can thus recall that, against the backdrop of the rapid successes of the North Korean nuclear missile program and the flunking of the attempt to strangle the country with sanctions, Washington has two options of approaching this time bomb. The standoff can be resolved either by the use of force, or through negotiations, an option that will undoubtedly be perceived by the American public opinion and mass media as “succumbing to the demand of the terrorist regime” or, if more strongly worded, a “deal with the devil”, with corresponding reputational and internal political losses. In his current state, Trump views such losses as especially unacceptable.
All this is compounded by the situation in the administration, which is not yet fully formed. On the one hand, the current administration has enough sensible military officers who are quite experienced at making good assessments of the risks. On the other hand, the situation with the country’s experts, or how much Trump trusts the information he receives from the special services, is still unclear. Even if we choose to lay the conspiracy theories surrounding Trump’s dependence on his inner circle aside, the probability of him making voluntarist decisions without and outside of sufficient expert backing remains very high. There is also a certain dependence on information from South Korea, despite the fact that, for a number of reasons, South Korean “analysts” have repeatedly tried diligently to depict the North Korean regime as a colossus on clay feet, quite easily capable of falling apart after a successful one-time “preventive disarming strike.” If we imagine how such an image of North Korea, which has little relevance to the modern DPRK, is common in the inner circle of Trump, the likelihood of the US administration adopting a force option suddenly increases.
In addition, even the reasonably-thinking military officers face an unpleasant dilemma: if, after some time, North Korea actually reaches the level of deterrence in which an attack on it will be unambiguously accompanied by a non-proportional, nuclear response, this will rule out the option of using force. But what will happen next? The US will definitely be forced to back down. But most importantly, how will Pyongyang behave after finally beginning to “feel its impunity”?
In this regard, several independent experts believe that the “red line” for Washington will be the appearance of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking US bases not in Japan or South Korea, but in the US territory itself. However, according to the author, the “red line” lies closer, near us. This is because while it is one thing to deal with the DPRK, which already has such a missile (and, therefore, there is some chance that it may launch it), it is entirely another thing to deal with the DPRK at a stage when it still does not have such a weapon.
Therefore, the actuality is that the “red line” shall not be drawn at a moment when a rocket appears in the North, but at a moment when “we know for sure that a rocket is about to be created.” Meanwhile, in 2016, the northerners demonstrated that in developing their nuclear missile program, they have moved in many respects “ahead of schedule,” and where cautious expert assessments gave them several years to complete certain technical tasks, they spent only half, or even a third, of the time. This means that if we adhere to alarmist assessments (which are more prevalent and sought-after in times of crises) instead of cautious ones, the appearance of the North Korean ICBM may prove to be a matter of the near future: if not this year, then next year.
Of course, a force-based response can take many forms. For example, the US may try to knock down a North Korean ICBM during tests, doing this in a neutral airspace. This option leaves less room for escalation than a strike directly aimed at facilities linked to the nuclear missile program. However, one must understand that the North Korean regime is an ideocracy, and like Trump, Kim Jong-un also has no other option than to save his own face.
Can an exacerbation be averted? Here, it is necessary to distinguish between the immediate goal and the ultimate goal. The former is aimed at freezing the situation and stopping it from slipping into the abyss of a total crisis. The latter is related to an attempt to unwind the trends described above. Of course, the author does hope that the events of 2017 will be akin to the Caribbean crisis. After closely approaching the abyss and peering into it, the two sides involved will tremble in horror, and create a space for regional detente. However, for this to happen, the road to hell must be descended even further than it has been today, despite the fact that the risk of its getting out of control, respectively, will increase.
As for the idea of freezing the confrontation, we cannot fail to note the proposal forwarded by the Chinese leadership, which is basically a kind of double moratorium: the northerners freeze the development of their nuclear missile program, and the US and South Korea stop their large-scale military maneuvers, which they perform several times a year (often near the border) in preparation for an offensive war with the North. Note that this is originally the proposal that the North Koreans have had on the table for several years. According to some reports, the Chinese leader passed on this idea to the US President during the summit. Nevertheless, there still has not been any official reaction.
The Chinese side has also openly hinted that, in case of the sixth nuclear test going ahead as planned, China’s response will be very tough, to the extent of fully supporting US sanctions and the cessation of supplies of any energy carriers to the DPRK. This is understandable, since, judging by the statements voiced by US military officials during the recent crisis, the act of conducting the sixth nuclear test or actively preparing for it could be the ultimate match that will light the fire on a “force option”.
Amidst this entire quandary, it should be noted that both the nuclear tests and the ICBM test as missiles exclusively for military purposes would unequivocally provoke a negative reaction from both China and Russia. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, these two global powers cannot but condemn actions that openly confront their status quo, for if the launch of satellites can still be justified by the right to peaceful space, the ICBM test has no such justification.
However, the North Koreans have neither denied nor confirmed anything. If their position can be summarized, it boils down to the fact that “we will blow up what we have to only on receiving such instruction from the leadership.” And this can mean a wide variety of time intervals. Instead of finalizing, there is an ambiguous pause.
It is against this background that the author believes that the current actions by Russia and China can indeed reduce the number of reasons for exacerbation. Nevertheless, it is quite understandable that the trends will be much more difficult to reverse.
In addition, it is necessary to take into account not only the “sliding into the abyss” described above, but also the growing probability of conflict due to stress, misinformation or other such errors, as well as the chance of spiking provocations that will ultimately benefit political forces in the region that always stand to capitalize on inter-Korean aggravations.
In considering all this, the author is forced to repeat what he has earlier written for New Eastern Outlook. While the likelihood of conflict may not be of primary importance, tensions are already too high to let the situation go unquenched in the belief that “they are bluffing again.” We must not forget that the struggle for peace is a difficult process that must be intensified by all those who do not want to later find themselves in a position of having to describe the devastating aftermath of a regional catastrophe.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”