The base assumption of the armchair generals and foreign policy experts is that war on the Korean peninsula is suicide for all involved. The South Koreans know that the North Koreans have the capacity to inflict massive damage to South Korean cities. The North Koreans know that any war with the South brings in American air and sea power, which means the end of the Kim regime. Even assuming the Chinese step in to prevent a North defeat, the end result is monstrous for all concerned. As a result, we have a standoff.
That all sounds good, until you read something like this in the National Interest. Gordon Chang’s analysis may be way off base, but you cannot ignore the fact that Washington keeps pounding the war drums. It really does not matter if people outside Washington are listening. What matters is that official Washington seems to be gearing up for war. The Trump administration has been slowly building up offensive assets in the region. We now have three carrier groups operating within striking distance of North Korea.
Maybe it is all a bluff, but why would Washington bluff, if they accept the various war narratives popular with the foreign policy experts? If the North Koreans are sure that the South does not want a war, why would they think that Washington is doing anything other than bluffing? The whole point of saber rattling is so the other side thinks there is at least some chance that the guy rattling the saber is serious. More important, the guy with the saber needs to think he is serious too. Otherwise, you get Obama’s red lines.
There’s also the unknowns. In this case, no one really knows what South Korean and US military intelligence knows about the North Korean military. It is a safe bet that that the US has had spy satellites parked over North Korea for a long time. It’s also a safe bet that the South Koreans have been cultivating sources in the North Korean military. None of this information is made available to the so-called experts and armchair generals. In other words, Washington may be responding to things entirely unknown to the public.
One thing that is known is that North Korea knows they cannot win a war against the South. The proof of that is how they have organized their military. Those artillery pieces on the border are a one-shot threat. They get about 72 hours to inflict as much damage as possible, until US air power takes them out. If they play this card, they forgo their opportunity to send their infantry and armor south. Instead, the North will have to wage a defensive war, hoping the South elects a negotiated end rather than an invasion.
This means their best card to play in this game just about guarantees their destruction, either from a land invasion or an extended air campaign. It would certainly end the Kim family dynasty. That makes the threat significantly less credible. The US can pressure China or make a deal with China, to get help putting the screws to the Kim regime, knowing that the Koreans only have a doomsday card to play. In other words, the doomsday card prevents a US invasion, but does not prevent economic war.
Of course, it’s possible that the math has changed for the Chinese. Right now is peak China economically and demographically. Now is the best chance they will have to resolve their Korean problem. A decade from now, when China has an aging population and the North Koreans have the ability to strike Beijing, the Americans may not be interested in helping with this problem. The best time to address tough problems is when you have the resources to address them. There is no better time than now for China.
There’s also the Trump factor. Previous presidents have been willing to accept the options presented to them by the foreign policy establishment. Trump is psychologically incapable of accepting the options presented to him for anything. Everyone who has done deals with him says the same thing. Trump thrives under pressure, so he puts everyone under pressure. He’s sure he can wheel and deal with anyone under pressure, so that’s how he changes the negotiating table. He creates uncertainty and puts everyone under the gun.
That seems to be what he is trying to do with Asia. On the one hand, he is encouraging Japan to build out their military and take a more active role in policing the region. This puts enormous pressure on China. He’s helping the South Koreans get ready for war, which puts pressure on the North and on their relationship with China. All of a sudden, the US is doing things very different in Asia. Trump’s willingness to change course on a dime, adds an air of unpredictability to him, which always makes Asian leaders nervous.
No one outside the Trump inner circle knows what’s in the works, but the steady buildup of offensive assets in the region is not just saber rattling. To send a message, you send a carrier group and hold some joint exercises with the South Koreans. Maybe after a North Korean missile launch, you pass some more sanctions and give a bellicose speech. What Trump is doing looks a lot like the preparation for a decapitation strike or maybe a sustained air campaign to cripple the North Korean regime. It looks like war prep.