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.
Today’s events in Barcelona serve as a grim reminder that the problems Europe faced in 2016 are still alive and well in 2017 despite individual and collective efforts by EU member-states to create the illusion of improving conditions across the continent. Since President Trump was inaugurated in January he has served as a scapegoat for all ailments European. In the aftermath of the populist tsunami last year, EU leaders have countered by portraying Trump and his seemingly anti-EU positions as the common enemy to be challenged. The true challenges facing Europe like terror, and the renewed refugee influx, have been minimized by pro-EU politicians and the media. Non-starter issues such as the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Trump’s tweets, and European diplomatic forays into non-European matters have replaced them.
Although the number of refugees arriving in southern Europe is increasing once again, little is mentioned of it by pro-EU politicians and the European media. The same held true for terrorism until today. Apparent terror incidents in Germany are systematically ruled to be otherwise with astonishing speed. The same European media outlets which covered last year’s incidents with intense focus have downgraded their level of coverage, as was seen with the most recent car attack in Paris. Then came today’s Barcelona attack. As of the time of writing, thirteen deaths and over 80 wounded bystanders have been confirmed. Two men are in custody and a manhunt is underway across Spain for a third man, as anti-terror operations take place at various points around the country.
As much as the EU, and many Europeans try to pretend otherwise, terrorism is no less of a problem today compared to last year. If anything, terror is becoming an even greater security threat. ISIS and other Islamic terror organizations have an infinite pool of potential attackers to select from, and the EU, for fear of appearing politically incorrect for lack of a better term, is dragging its heels in monitoring the people who are potentially serious threats.
Today should serve as a wakeup call for Europe. The threats and problems which the EU have tried to keep hidden in the background still remain front and center. The responsibility for the Barcelona attack falls at least partly on Brussels which prefers to keep the collective EU head buried in the sand rather than confront terror as the danger that it is.
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.
Vladimir Putin is not taking the possibility of fresh US sanctions lightly. With sanctions legislation aimed at Russia about to land on President Trump’s desk, the Russian leader understands perfectly well that Trump is not going to veto the bill and send it back to the House. The legislation will be signed and a new round of US sanctions against Russia will be set in place. Putin has opted to retaliate before the legislation is even signed, and to do so in a fashion which guarantees a US response.
On Sunday Putin announced that the US diplomatic mission to Russia will have to reduce its staff by 755 personnel by 1 September. The reduction in US staff had been announced on Friday, however, today’s announcement was the first to include concrete numbers. Russia also made it known that it would seize two US diplomatic properties in Russia, a move similar to action the US took against Russian properties in America this past December. Putin also added, somewhat ominously, that further retaliation will come if the sanctions are passed.
Since January, the Trump administration and its Russian counterparts had been hoping for an improvement in US-Russia relations. It was not to be following accusations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. The accusations have contributed directly to the creation of sanctions and a straining of the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Now, the tit-for-tat exchange is on the verge of escalating. President Trump could very well decide to let these sanctions act as the US response to Sunday’s announcement by Putin. Yet, if further action is taken by Russia, it will result in a proportionate response by the US. If this keeps up into the fall, the United States and Russia might find themselves in a nasty diplomatic scrap, with very few exit options.
*Author’s note: Regrettably, Today’s Dirt will not be posting Part II of the ‘The Case For Military Action Against North Korea.’ My employer has requested that I refrain from writing and posting any articles centered on North Korea and potential US military action against it for a period of time given what is happening right now. I understand the reasons for my employer to ask this of me, and have agreed. After Labor Day, we will revisit the issue and hopefully can work something out. I apologize. *