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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?

Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?


Endgame in the North Korean Crisis?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 06 September, 2017


Abstract

Is there a strategic advantage to the US in provoking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to attack the US or its allies by using inflammatory rhetoric? Is there a method to US President Donald Trump's seeming madness in his sharp statements on North Korea? I argue that there is, and that there is a possibility that this is part of a larger geopolitical game.


Introduction

The Korean Peninsula has been at the forefront of international news for a few months now. There have been heated words exchanged between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, and there has been a rapid escalation of tensions. North Korea has been launching missile tests, with one of them flying over Japan; has announced that they have been successful in testing a hydrogen bomb (a claim that has been verified by seismic data) that can be fitted on to a warhead; and has explicitly said that the US territory of Guam is a potential target.

However, it is my view that Mr. Trump’s strong statements are not merely those of an individual out of control. This could well be part of a carefully thought-out strategy with the Pentagon at the centre.

Donald Trump, for his part, has been threatening North Korea with words such as “fire and fury”; such as “the time for talk is over”; by conducting joint military exercises with its allies South Korea and Japan; and by publicly excoriating the South Koreans for being too soft on the North.

Many people are interpreting Mr. Trump’s utterances as typical of his tendency to fly off the handle – something that Americans and the whole world had plenty of opportunity to witness during the entire election campaign for the 2016 elections, as well as in the months after he took charge of the Presidency.

However, it is my view that Mr. Trump’s strong statements are not merely those of an individual out of control. This could well be part of a carefully thought-out strategy with the Pentagon at the centre. Let me explain.

The Korean War

Korea was partitioned in the closing stages of WWII. The Russians invaded Japanese-held Korea from the north, and the Americans invaded it from the south, and they drew the line partitioning Korea into a North and a South at the 38th parallel.

The Korean War was the first proxy war between the US and the USSR in the Cold War. Both China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea in the war, with the Chinese sending vast numbers of soldiers to fight the Americans, and the Soviets providing fighters to counter American air power.

General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the American forces in Korea (and Japan), which were initially caught by surprise when the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950, and completely overran the country, restricting the American force in Korea to the Pusan perimeter. MacArthur improvised a brilliant amphibious operation, through which American forces landed on the other side of South Korea, on Inchon, and encircled the North Koreans, whose supply lines were stretched. The North Korean army collapsed under the US assault, and was driven beyond the 38th parallel.

Since American forces had actively fought in this war (as opposed to many other Cold War engagements in which they had mainly supported others fighting), North Korea has seen the Americans as a mortal enemy ever since the Korean War.

But MacArthur was not satisfied with this. He wanted to take the fight deep into the North, and finally pursued the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border at the Yalu river. Mao Zedong was watching these developments very warily. Even though Communist China had just been formed, Mao had visions of his country being a great power. There was also enmity between the Chinese and the Americans because the Americans had supported Mao’s enemy, the Kuomintang (Guomindang) and its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi), in the 1949 revolution.

Mao was thus allergic to the idea of American forces next to his country, and had decided in advance with the Chinese Politburo that if the Americans were to reach the Yalu, the Chinese would attack. And that is what they did on October 25, 1950, when 300,000 soldiers poured over the Yalu to attack the Americans, which resulted in the bloody retreat of American forces from the north, a slide that only stopped when Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgeway took charge of American forces in Korea.

Ridgeway improved the morale and discipline of the American troops, and counterattacked in a series of bitterly-fought engagements, and finally the North was back at the 38th parallel. This time the Americans did not make the mistake they had in 1950, and did not pursue the enemy into North Korean territory. Fighting continued for two more years in a bitter stalemate, until an armistice was reached under UN auspices on 27th July, 1953, with India playing a key role in the formation of the Neutral National Repatriation Commission, under the Chairmanship of General KS Thimayya.

Both the North and the South suffered terribly as a result of the war. Seoul was destroyed four times in battles over control of it. Much of the North was completely destroyed in US bombing raids. Since American forces had actively fought in this war (as opposed to many other Cold War engagements in which they had mainly supported others fighting), North Korea has seen the Americans as a mortal enemy ever since the Korean War.

Sixty-Four Years of Hostility

The end of the Korean War was inconclusive, with the formation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). With no peace settlement signed, this is the longest continuing formal war in the world.

Now, for the first time, the US sees an enemy that can pose a threat not only to its ally, South Korea, but to itself as well.

The regime that ruled North Korea then continues to rule it today. Kim il-Sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, and his grandson, the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. The country is completely closed off to the world, with the exception of China and Russia. According to many accounts, China provides most of the oil and food that the North needs to survive. For decades, the Chinese have also helped the North militarily, as a check on American ambitions in the Far East. It is also very likely that China itself provided the North with the technology to produce nuclear weapons.

For decades, the problem of the Koreas was only a mild annoyance. The Kims would regularly make aggressive statements about America and the South, but nobody seriously expected another war to break out in the Korean peninsula.

All that changed with the development of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong-il, which accelerated under Kim Jong-un. Now, for the first time, the US sees an enemy that can pose a threat not only to its ally, South Korea, but to itself as well. Kim Jong-un’s utterances have not made things any easier for the US – when he says he is developing ICBMs that can reach Guam, Hawaii, and potentially the US west coast; and when he talks about weaponizing those missiles with miniature hydrogen bombs with yields of 50 kilotons.

A Possible Response of the US to the New Threat

Thinking purely from an American strategic perspective, the most efficient thing for the US would be to launch a sudden, surprise, pre-emptive nuclear attack on the North, which would prevent them from being able to launch their own attack on Seoul, Guam, or any other place.

The US has been very concerned about the development of nuclear weapons by the north for a long time. Repeatedly, treaties have been signed and sanctions imposed to ensure the stoppage of the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for economic incentives. It is clear that those have failed; the North has only used those treaties and sanctions to buy time to further develop their weapons program.

Given all this, purely from a military strategy perspective, what is the best option for the USA?

It seems to me that things have become very serious for America. One of the cardinal tenets of American foreign policy is that ethics are subservient to the American national interest. Thinking purely from an American strategic perspective, the most efficient thing for the US would be to launch a sudden, surprise, pre-emptive nuclear attack on the North, which would prevent them from being able to launch their own attack on Seoul, Guam, or any other place. From purely an American strategic and military perspective (without considering the human tragedy involved), this would solve the Korean problem once and for all for the Americans.

The strategic benefits would be immense. The US would break the Chinese vise grip on South-east Asia, and would have a dominating presence right next to China and Russia.

But of course, it would have a horrible cost in human life. The tragedy would far exceed that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because the American objective would be to obliterate the North so that there is no chance of a counterattack – and this might mean a massive nuclear attack. This would also be very easy for them do in a very short span of time. Indeed, I would be very surprised if a detailed contingency plan was not already in place. The US Seventh Fleet is already in Japan and South Korea and could complete such an attack within an hour if given the signal. It would be over so quickly that the Russians and Chinese would not have time to react.

But such an attack would be widely condemned by the rest of the world, and the US would be seen as an aggressor.

But...what if North Korea did something stupid? What if they actually fired a missile at Guam? What if it missed its target, went down in the sea, but caused a huge nuclear explosion?

Then the US would be well within its rights to retaliate, and retaliate massively. It would not have to ask the UN for sanction, and would not need to inform Russia or China, because every country has the right to defend its sovereignty.

Politically, too, this move would be very beneficial to Donald Trump … If Trump can show that the threat from North Korea to the US is genuine and credible, he will be greatly praised for his leadership as a Commander-in-Chief willing to take tough decisions to benefit Americans.

Such a move would also take the focus off the investigations into Trump’s links with Russia, and the fact that his first year so far has been a dismal failure.

Beleaguered leaders love nothing more than a war.

The strategic benefits would be immense. The US would break the Chinese vise grip on South-east Asia, and would have a dominating presence right next to China and Russia.

The trick is to do it without being painted as the aggressor. What better way than to goad and provoke a mentally unstable and unpredictable leader, like Kim Jong-un, by using inflammatory rhetoric such as “Fire and fury will rain down on North Korea like they have never imagined?”

It should be noted that, given the standards of provocation for US aggression in the past, even this may not be necessary. George W. Bush invaded Iraq merely on the assumption (based on flimsy evidence that was shown to be false) that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; in North Korea’s case, you have a country that verifiably has weapons of mass destruction and, to boot, has sworn to use them against the United States. That itself could be excuse enough for the US to launch a pre-emptive strike, and not many in the world would blame them.

Politically, too, this move would be very beneficial to Donald Trump. Americans always unite in the face of a national threat. If Trump can show that the threat from North Korea to the US is genuine and credible, he will be greatly praised for his leadership as a Commander-in-Chief willing to take tough decisions to benefit Americans. Few Americans would fault him for using nuclear weapons against an adversary who has threatened to use them against the US, and has come close to hitting an important ally, Japan. Most Americans I have spoken to have told me that they have no regrets about the fact that the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because it saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans that would have been lost in a land invasion of Japan. Such a move would also take the focus off the investigations into Trump’s links with Russia, and the fact that his first year so far has been a dismal failure. Beleaguered leaders love nothing more than a war.

China's Role

China and Russia fully realize this possibility, which is why they are making statements daily asking for the US to “negotiate” with North Korea. For both countries, North Korea is the perfect foil to the world’s biggest superpower – a small country threatening to nuke the world’s biggest military power, and effectively putting a leash on US ambitions in South-East Asia. There is little doubt that if North Korea has advanced this far in its nuclear program, it has only been possible because of the active encouragement of and direct help from China. North Korea is essentially a proxy for the Chinese in their bid to contain America. That is why the North has been able to continue its military program despite sanctions for decades.

The Chinese strategy has worked very well for 20 years now; but if things blow up into a nuclear war, then the entire strategy will backfire on the Chinese and the Russians.

Unless China uses its considerable clout with North Korea in scaling down this situation, it will end up in the unspeakable horror of nuclear war.

Nuclear fallout clouds do not respect national borders, and the Chinese will be very vulnerable if a nuclear bomb explodes on the Korean peninsula.

The Chinese strategy has worked very well for 20 years now; but if things blow up into a nuclear war, then the entire strategy will backfire on the Chinese and the Russians.

The only country with sufficient leverage on North Korea since the Korean War has been China, and it continues to be the only country that can influence North Korea. They have deliberately encouraged North Korea in a bid to undermine the US’ global power. The American military has grown wise to their strategy and, I believe, in combination with a highly unstable and unpredictable leader in North Korea, has used Trump’s own unpredictability to push this situation closer to a war.

Unless China uses its considerable clout with North Korea in scaling down this situation, it will end up in the unspeakable horror of nuclear war. China’s immediate intervention – by choking off the supply line - may involve causing regime change in North Korea and subsequently, chaos, but there really is little alternative. Alternatively, it could send its army across the Yalu, depose Kim Jong-un, and replace him with a puppet of their choice, in a fast coup to defuse the situation. This way, they could continue to retain their hold on North Korea. This is important for them as they have always viewed the Korean peninsula as being within their sphere of influence.

The ball is not in America’s court. It is in China’s. They need to act quickly to prevent tragedy on a global scale. Nuclear fallout clouds do not respect national borders, and the Chinese will be very vulnerable if a nuclear bomb explodes on the Korean peninsula. The Americans might well call Kim’s bluff, and that would be a disaster for the world.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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