The Korean Dilemma

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Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Viernes 11 de agosto, 2017

A CNN poll released on August 8th reported that only 38 percent of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s presidency, while 75 percent have said they do not trust anything that came out of the White House.

Responding to reports that North Korea now has the ability to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads on its recently tested inter-continental ballistic missiles, President Trump said that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury” if it threatens the United States. The North Koreans responded in turn that they are ready to attack the US Pacific dependency of Guam that houses two major military bases, including one that is home to the long-range bombers that regularly overfly the Korean peninsula.

The ball is now in Trump’s court, since the North Korean “threat” appears to have called his bluff and backed America into a corner.

But is America alone?

Perhaps the Chinese are also backed in a corner and may be forced to intervene against Pyongyang after years of doing nothing. Also, the North Koreans know that their regime will be obliterated if they take any action against the United States.

What is at stake?

North Korea believes fervently that the United States is out to terminate its existence, and that the regular semi-annual joint military exercises with South Korea – scheduled for later this month – are simply a prelude for an invasion. They see a nuclear option as the only deterrent to an invasion.

But the United States cannot accept that a rogue, hostile regime, led by unhinged leaders, develop that capacity to strike it with nuclear weapons. No President can accept this. Hence the stalemate.

Traditionally, China has sided with North Korea given its historical military links and its own expansionist objectives in Asia. As well, The Chinese believed they could control North Korea. But last week, China joined the rest of the United Nations Security Council in imposing new sanctions against North Korea, seemingly reluctant to continue backing an uncontrollable neighbor.

The Chinese also seem to be tiring of Kim Jong Un’s unpredictability, and are also concerned about having a nuclear armed regime led by an unstable leader on its border. Hence the Chinese decision to back the recent Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions of the North Korean regime.

The answer lies not in the imposition of sanctions in a resolution as such, but on the will of the Chinese to enforce sanctions meticulously.

Since almost all North Korean exports and financial transactions go through China, the economic collapse of the North Korean regime could well result in an influx of millions of North Korean economic refugees into China and a failed state on its border. While one would think that most refugees would head south, this scenario continues to absorb China’s leaders.

Should war break out with the United States, the North could strike a devastating blow against South Korea, whose capital lies only 30 miles from the border with North Korea. At the same time, it would mean the end of the regime as the military superiority of the United States would indeed cause swift and painful damage to the North. While the South would suffer heavily, experts say that, with strong US support, it would ultimately prevail.

In the Chinese view, this would be a disaster, since a unified Korea under Southern tutelage would bring a US client state right up to its southern border.

The United States is now facing a nuclear North Korea capable of launching nuclear warheads against the US mainland. North Korea has also placed China in a difficult position since these missiles could well reach China should it be perceived to be hostile to their interests. We have yet to learn about Chinese thinking on these latest developments, and China is a key player. We still have no idea how China will react to these developments.

While most leaders would phrase their thoughts in such a way so as to permit some form of dialogue at this critical juncture, Trump chose to issue an ultimatum that provides him with no face-saving way out. Either he responds in force now that the North has issued its threat, or he backs down and losing face. While he has succeeded in getting universal backing for sanctions against North Korea, that regime will simply continue carrying on with its nuclear plans regardless.

In my view, the North Koreans will not let go of the nuclear option, and this will require the US to stand down or intervene. Both options have very negative consequences for the United States and the world.

A US president usually goes to war with the backing of a majority of Americans.

Given the poll results described above, President Trump’s credibility with Americans is at an all-time low, and his standing with world leaders on the whole is not very good.

Indeed, one might wonder if Trump’s reaction was calculated to take the heat off from the various domestic investigations currently underway that have him and his family in the crosshairs. Will Americans rally around an embattled president they currently don’t trust? A crucial question as the threat of war looms.

The Chinese and Russians should be concerned as well. North Korea can strike them too, and herein may lie a way out for Trump – conscript them to deliver a crush from all sides as has never been possible before.

Not a good place for the leader of a superpower, nor for the rest of the world that will have to live with the consequences of any action.