The annual joint US-Republic of Korea military exercises antagonize North Korea to no end. For as long as they’ve been held, the exercises have been a thorn in North’s side. Every year, events follow a similar pattern. In the weeks leading up to the start of the exercises, Pyongyang voices complaints. Gradually, the complaints become threats, and eventually stern warnings to the US and South Korea. The North Koreans have long held the position that the exercises serve as a mask for invasion preparations, despite the fact that there has not been a military incursion into its territory since the Korean War.
Given the current state of tensions on the Korean peninsula, it comes as no surprise that North Korea is rattling its saber mightily as the exercises prepare to begin tomorrow. The official state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun warns that the US-ROK exercises will ‘worsen the state’ of the region, and lead to an ‘uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.’ Pyongyang also warned that it has Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland in the crosshairs of its nuclear weapons and promised the US would be unable to dodge a ‘merciless strike.’
The US is closely watching North Korea for signs that a missile test could be in the works. In the past, these joint exercises have provoked responses from Pyongyang such as missile firings. In the current environment this would be the worst possible move Kim Jong Un could make. Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Following Kim’s threats against Guam, even a single ballistic missile test runs the risk of enflaming a situation that is already a potential powder keg.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump have spoken frequently in recent weeks regarding the crisis. Moon was recently quoted as saying his nation’s North Korea policy is in line with America’s own. There has been some speculation about whether or not Trump would seek Moon’s blessing prior to possible US military action against North Korea. The answer depends on a number of political and operational variables. In short, it would be beneficial and wise for Trump to have the support of the South Korean and Japanese leaders, but it is not a necessity should the time come when the US has to take action against the North.
North Korea’s abrupt walk back from its plan to bracket Guam with ballistic missile is being viewed by some foreign policy analysts and diplomats as a positive step in the continuing US-North Korea standoff. Respectively, the collective hope is that Kim Jong Un’s move will present an opportunity for the US, Japan, and South Korea to explore a diplomatic avenue and lower the temperature on what is still a volatile situation. In an outward sense, the pause is a constructive step as it offers a cooling period for Washington and Pyongyang following last week’s exchange of heated rhetoric. What becomes of it remains to be seen, though it is not reasonable to assume North Korea will use the opportunity to defuse the situation.
There is concern that Kim’s about face could be a calculated move to lower the scrutiny and pressure his regime is contending with. Every tool that he used on the Obama administration with considerable success has failed to budge the Trump administration from its position. Threats of launching a missile strike directly on the United States never provoked anything more than a bomber flyover, and a call for strategic patience during the later years of Obama’s presidency. From the time Kim Jong Un took power until Barack Obama left the White House the United States did not take any decisive action against North Korea either diplomatically, militarily, or on the sanctions front. Things have been different with President Trump, to say the least.
Perhaps Kim needs time to conjure up a new strategy that will put North Korea back in a position of strength. Or, more ominously, maybe he is deliberately lowering tensions as he prepares to lash out at the United States in another form. There is growing speculation in US military and intelligence circles that the North could choose to launch a cyberattack rather than a volley of ballistic missiles. North Korea is one of the most notorious cyber villains in the world and has been behind cyberattacks on US companies before. It could use a cyberattack to harm not only individual US companies or government agencies, but the US economy as a whole.
At any rate, North Korea’s announcement today changes little for the moment. Pyongyang’s intentions with regards to Guam have been altered, but it still possesses nuclear weapons, and long range ballistic missiles able to reach US territory. That is the core of the standoff with the United States. Threats to launch missiles in the vicinity of Guam, and sardonic rhetoric are nothing more than window dressing for the moment.
Although the People’s Republic of China has a sizable stake in the US-North Korea standoff, it is maintaining a low public profile this week. Aside from repeated calls for restraint, China has made no official statements on the crisis. There is some speculation that the prolonged border crisis with India is consuming Beijing’s focus at the moment, even as the North Korean situation continues to simmer. With two major crises on its borders right now, China appears to have opted to contend with them individually instead of resorting to diplomatic multitasking. The Doklam standoff is the more urgent situation for the moment with Indian troops still sitting on a piece of ground that Beijing considers to be Chinese territory. China’s distraction from North Korea is understandable, however, it could possibly be missing its window of opportunity to directly influence the crisis and bring it to an end before it escalates out of control.
It is no secret that Beijing has a great deal of influence with the North Korean regime. The PRC is North Korea’s closest ally, and in many regards its only sincere friend on the global stage. It has stood by the North through thick, and thin, propping the regime up when it was necessary and vital to China’s national interests. North Korea’s location is crucial to Chinese security concerns. The country acts as a thick layer of insulation that keeps the influence and military power of South Korea, and the United States at a safe distance. Losing that insulation is not an acceptable outcome for Beijing, as was made apparent in 1950 when China intervened in the Korean War.
A pro-China faction exists in the North Korean regime. Now would be an excellent time for Beijing to ponder how it could best be used to prevent Kim Jong Un from dragging his country…and much of the region…. into the abyss. Regime change may be an unpalatable option, but it is one option that has to be scrutinized right now. Regime change undertaken by the US or South Korea would be a nonstarter, and guarantee a major war. If the pro-China elements inside of North Korea’s government, and military organize and move to overthrow Kim Jong Un, it could end the North Korean nuclear crisis once and for all. There would be no vacuum. A new North Korean government would be ready to take control immediately with the material and political support of the PRC backing it. Denuclearization of North Korea could follow shortly after, potentially opening the door to improved relations and foreign investment. On paper, it would be a win-win for all parties involved. For the US, a major threat is neutralized and stability returns to the region. Japan, and South Korea could likely accept a less belligerent North Korea and find common ground with it on many fronts. For the PRC, it maintains its buffer zone and creates a more stable, governable ally on its southeastern border.
China holds the key to ending the North Korean crisis permanently and favorably. However, Beijing does not appear to be ready to move from the sidelines for now. Unfortunately, given the current speed and instability of the situation, by the time China is ready to move the game could be over.
As expected, North Korea took the opportunity presented by the Day of the Sun celebration to make a statement to the United States and the rest of the world. However, it did not come in the form of an underground nuclear test as many experts and analysts around the world had expected. Kim Jong Un opted to present his message through a more traditional manner at the Day of the Sun military parade in Pyongyang. It was there that North Korea placed mock-ups of its newest and most powerful missiles on display for the world to see. One was an ICBM and another a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). Neither system is operational yet, however, their appearance is meant to be a warning to Washington that development is underway and progressing.
Un’s choice to showcase these missiles on the world stage is a calculated move that has the potential to produce benefits in the short term. On the surface, it sends out a snapshot which indicates a firm national commitment to advancing North Korea’s long-range missile programs without revealing clues about where they are in reality. For the time being, the decision to display missiles instead of going forward with another nuclear test gives North Korea some much needed breathing space. The recent US responses to North Korea’s fiery rhetoric, and the prospect of another nuclear test have been markedly different from how the previous US administration dealt with North Korea under similar circumstances.
Kim Jong Un appears to understand that the rules have changed and therefore his strategy needs to be altered in the face of increased US resistance and China’s willingness to press Pyongyang harder on the nuclear issue. He has bought some time for himself now, but how much time that will be remains to be seen. More importantly is the manner he chooses to use that time. Logic argues that Un’s best choice right now is to lay low and not say or do anything provocative. Additional nuclear and missile tests will only play into Washington’s hands and increase the political pressure on Pyongyang to curtail its ambitions.
The US appears to be just waiting for a reason to remove North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear programs through military force. Doing that holds the risk of touching off a larger war in the region, however, President Trump has clearly revamped the tone of US foreign policy over the last ten days and is not going to allow North Korea to pose a direct threat to the United States in any way.
The world is gradually coming around to the realization that this period of increased US-North Korean tension contrasts dangerously from those in the past eight years. President Trump is playing the game in a remarkably different manner than his predecessor did. Obama’s policy of Strategic Patience did not produce results, in large part because there was no incentive or deterrent for North Korea to change its attitude and behavior. North Korea conducted ballistic missile test launches without fear of reprisal from the United States or regional powers.
Trump’s approach has been very different and for better or worse it has produced visible results so far. How this translates to the big picture cannot be determined quite yet. Following last week’s meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping things began to happen though. The tone of the North Korean discussion changed dramatically from Washington to Beijing. China is rejecting North Korean coal shipments, depriving Pyongyang of a much needed infusion of money. The USS Carl Vinson and her battlegroup were ordered to the Sea of Japan. Jinping has agreed to work with the US to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Reports of Chinese forces massing on the PRC’s border with North Korea are increasing. Ostensibly, the troop movements are to deal with a potential surge of refugees crossing over if North Korea and the US find themselves at war.
What if that’s not the case at all? What if a move against Kim Jong Un is being prepared at the moment and the large number of troops China has in motion is not intended to deal with refugees, but to act as a stabilization force or sorts in the event North Korea’s leadership is decapitated and the nation is left rudderless? In light of the actions and movements since last Friday, the questions are rational.
Kim Jong Un has yet to come to the realization that the man he is contending with in Washington is not Barack Obama. Un’s bellicose rhetoric and borderline reckless actions are bringing North Korea closer to the proverbial point of no return. At this point in the game less is more. Unfortunately, Un’s actions are guided in great part by his ego, and limited understanding of the world beyond North Korea’s borders. He is singlehandedly placing his nation in a precarious position. Even China is reconsidering exactly how valuable its ally to the south truly is.
Today, rumors started to circulate about an upcoming North Korean nuclear test. US intelligence has picked up on an increasing amount of activity in and around North Korean nuclear sites. In Pyongyang, the government has advised foreign journalists to expect a ‘big and important’ event to occur on Thursday. At present, given the amount of activity and flow of events, I’ll venture to guess there is a 60% chance of a North Korean nuclear test taking place at some point in the next 18-36 hours.
Logically, testing a nuclear weapon in the midst of a deteriorating crisis is not the smartest move to make, logically speaking. Unfortunately, logic and North Korea rarely appear in the same sentence. Kim Jong Un is probably starting to feel cornered, thus he is resorting to a practice that has worked for him before. The difference now in 2017 is that the old game he is playing has new players and new rules.