Recent events have attracted much (perhaps too much) attention to the Korean Peninsula, and yours truly feels compelled to share some opinions on what is going on.
With Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the threat of a large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula has increased, although currently, in spite of all the hype and exchanges of bellicose rhetoric, it remains small.
To a large extent, the increased risks are connected with the personal traits of Donald Trump: his desire to look tough and decisive, his skepticism about U.S. allies, his propensity towards impulsive actions and risky brinksmanship. There is, however, an objective reason that the risk has increased – about it below.
Despite everything said above, the events which attracted so much attention from the world’s media in the last 2-3 weeks appear to be another diplomatic show, rather than an actual demonstration of force. We, the lucky inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula, are treated with such shows regularly, every couple of years or so.
RAMPING UP THE TENSION
Admittedly, these impressive yelling matches are usually initiated not by Washington, as is the case now, but by Pyongyang.
The logic behind such tactics is simple: the side which wants to change status quo starts to increase tensions, which puts pressure on the opposite side, which sometimes begins to feel insecure and make some concessions.
Of course, such tactics work only when the initiator of such chest-beating and saber-rattling sessions is seen as potentially capable of irrational actions – and this is the reason why, historically, such crises have always been initiated and controlled by the North Koreans. However, the current international reputation of the new U.S. administration (not necessarily deserved) makes it possible for Washington to engage in such displays of bellicosity.
The events which attracted so much attention from the world media in the last 2-3 weeks appear to be another diplomatic show, rather than actual demonstration of force
This current campaign, seemingly, hopes to achieve two goals. One intended target is, of course, Pyongyang. Obviously, Americans hope that the North Koreans, being treated with such a show of strength and resolve, will behave like the Americans sometimes behaved in the past when facing a sudden – and carefully simulated – North Korean bellicosity: they hope that the North Koreans will give in and, for a while, refrain from dangerous actions. Above all, it is hoped that such pressure will make Pyongyang postpone nuclear tests and long-distance missile launches.
SENDING A MESSAGE
The second goal is Beijing. A show of strength, combined with hints at a possible military action, should persuade Beijing that China’s long-term interests would be better served if China agrees to increase its pressure on North Korea. The alternative is either a dramatic increase in the U.S. military presence near the Chinese border or a war – neither option is attractive to China.
It remains to be seen whether these tactics will work when applied by the Americans, and not North Koreans. However, there are some signs that it might be working.
These impressive yelling matches are usually initiated not by Washington, as is the case now, but by Pyongyang
For example, it is widely known that the North Koreans have been busy preparing for a sixth nuclear test, which could have been logically expected to happen around the Day of the Sun. The satellite imagery seemingly indicated that a nuclear device had even been installed into a tunnel, so everything was ready – but no test has happened so far.
The North Korean leaders decided to play it safe and refrain from the test, it seems, when the Americans began to behave in such an unprecedented manner. There are also some signs of China’s shift towards a harsher approach – and this shift can also be attributed to the recent events.
Nonetheless, the chance of a real confrontation in the immediate future remains low. U.S. decision makers understand that any attack on targets inside North Korean territory is likely to be followed by a North Korean counter-strikes against Seoul (which is exactly what the North Koreans have already threatened to do).
North Korean heavy artillery, positioned along the DMZ, is capable of inflicting serious damage on the city, an action is likely to trigger a full-scale war. So far, the U.S. has no enthusiasm for fighting a massive land war in Asia – something the U.S. has not done for 40-odd years. Immediately after his campaign triumph, Donald Trump certainly thought about the military option, but by the end of February, having communicated with the experienced advisers, the President and his team seem to have lost their enthusiasm for a preemptive strike.
The chance of a real confrontation in the immediate future remains low
WORST CASE SCENARIO
However, the absence of the immediate threat does not mean the absence of a threat in the long run. The situation will become really dangerous if (and only if) the DPRK successfully launches an ICBM capable of hitting targets in the continental U.S. – that is, an ICBM with a range close to 10,000 km. One should keep in mind that it is not enough to show what looks like an ICBM at a military parade – it must be successfully launched.
When and if this happens, North Korea will become the third country in the world, after Russia and China, capable of obliterating a major American city. For any American president, this will become a serious challenge, which could indeed provoke preemptive strikes. This is especially applicable to Donald Trump, given his personal traits and the value he is likely to attach to his legacy. The fear of a newly emerged nuclear threat might outweigh the fear of a Second Korean War.
Nobody knows how close the North Korean engineers are to their goal, but we still seem to be separated from a long-distance ICBM launch for months or, more likely, years. As long as this launch has not happened, Washington is not going anything ‘kinetic,’ since the risks are too great.
However, even a successful launch of a long-range ICBM does not necessarily mean that the United States will go for a preemptive strike. It will merely mean that the probability of strikes will increase from the current zero level. Risks will remain immense, and it is quite likely that the U.S. will grudgingly accept the need to learn to live in the shadow of the North Korean missiles.
Finally, a “preemptive strike” will not necessary mean a massive attack on ground (or rather, underground) objects in North Korea. Kinetic actions can be limited merely to the interception of an ICBM in the air during a test, or, perhaps, an attack on the ICBM launch pad when the missile is being readied for a launch.
From the military point of view, both are not particularly effective, since such attacks will, at best, somewhat slow down the advancement of the North Korean nuclear program.
However, such limited actions have serious advantages, too. First, they are an easy sell to the American public. At the same time, such options are less politically dangerous, since do not imply a massive attack against the North Korean territory. There are fairly high chance that North Korea will not respond to such actions and, perhaps, even hide from its people the fact that the Americans have destroyed their ICBM.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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