The escalating confrontation between the United States and North Korea has generated rhetoric that recently reached a fevered pitch as North Korea threatened to launch missiles at Guam and President Trump made statements in non-diplomatic language about grave consequences should North Korea take such an action.
The President’s superlative-laced speaking style, extemporaneous comments, and tweeting are inconsistent with the normally formal conduct of foreign policy and its measured language. It is totally contrary to Chinese diplomatic culture as well. Private, quiet, patient, and long term have met public, boisterous, impatient, and short term.
Many people are uncomfortable with confrontation and grow fearful. The media gives its attention to the rhetoric far more than the policies and actions. This makes people fearful. In fact, the rhetoric, in conjunction with other actions, can both send a necessary message to the North Koreans that retribution will be swift and overwhelming, and send a message to others that this is serious and their interests are jeopardized should they not cooperate with the United States.
The fundamental issue is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China, the U.S., Russia and nearly all other nations agree that a nuclear armed North Korea is contrary to the interests of all parties. Three past administrations failed to stop the North Korean programs because they did not perceive an immediate threat and were not willing to push as hard as the Trump Administration now finds that it must.
The confrontation escalated over the past year or so as Kim Jong Un tested two nuclear weapons in 2016 and a dozen increasingly capable missiles in 2017 – more in a single year than in the preceding decade. Further concerning is the potential that the regime may be close to developing an exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb.
The United States perceives the North Korean actions and intentions as a direct, though not yet imminent, threat to the United States and its allies. A related threat to nuclear non-proliferation strategic interests also exists as demonstrated by Iran’s intentions to increase relations with Pyongyang.
The Trump Administration’s actions indicate it believes the North Korean threat has reached a greater and more immediate threat that requires a different approach from the past. It is pursuing a strategy to pressure North Korea militarily, diplomatically, and economically to an extent not seen before.
It appears the Trump Administration continues to believe that China is the key to resolving the North Korean nuclear and missile threat issue and that it will continue to pursue a policy of pressuring China to act. China must feel that its own strategic interests are threatened by the North Korean actions to such a degree that China must exercise its full power to rein in Kim Jong Un.
An editorial in the Chinese Global Times on August 8, 2017 titled “Reckless game over the Korean Peninsula runs risk of real war” is insightful and should be viewed by the United States as a semi-official statement of the Chinese position. The English language Global Times is not an official arm of the Chinese government, it is a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, a Chinese language newspaper group that is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. For those who have forgotten, the Communist Party is the Chinese Government despite the wishful thinking of many.
The editorial describes the interests and potential actions of the People’s Republic of China should hostilities ensue between the U.S. and North Korea. Notably, the editorial says, “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral.”
This is a warning to North Korea to tread lightly. China is saying that any war initiated by North Korea is outside the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance between the two countries.
The 1961 mutual defense treaty has provided an umbrella to North Korea for over 55 years under which it has perpetuated a cult regime with the worst human rights record on Earth. It has also provided cover for the development of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities.
The Chinese have tolerated this most dangerous North Korean development for decades in the way they handle most of their concerns, with a long-term view and patience – it is their way. But the North Korean’s have reached a point of development that their activities threaten instability in the region and Chinese strategic interests.
The deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems to South Korea is viewed in China more as a threat to their strategic systems than a defensive shield for South Korea against the North. Japan, despised by China, is talking about re-militarization and the development of its own nuclear deterrent. Japan’s U.S. provided THAAD and naval Aegis systems may be expanded in response to the North Korean threats into a shield that can threaten Chinese strategic force capabilities as well. Japan’s defense minister recently said that Japan would shoot down any North Korean missile targeting Guam.
The Chinese are under a great deal of pressure as they see their strategic interests threatened - a militarily resurgent Japan, defensive strategic systems arraying around them, and potential instability threatening their economic interests. Ultimately, if China is to weigh in fully to stop Kim Jong Un it must perceive the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea as greater than the chaos and risk of a regime change in North Korea. It is not clear that point has been reached, but the Trump Administration is doing all it can to force that conclusion.
The U.S. must also make clear to the Chinese that a preemptive strike by the United States is not going to occur or at least identify to the Chinese the extreme circumstances under which it must act. For example, if Guam is the target of a missile launch the U.S. might be compelled to act beyond engaging the missiles with defensive systems. Also, the potential for North Korea to test a hydrogen bomb within a year may trigger a response.
The Global Times editorial also stated that “China will respond with a firm hand” where its interests are jeopardized [and] If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
The United States made a significant miscalculation during the Korean War when allied forces under the auspices of the United Nations moved north from the 38th parallel into North Korea. The Chinese, having issued many and very clear warnings about such an action, sent 300,000 troops across the border into North Korea to oppose and ultimately push back the U.N. forces.
Make no mistake. The Chinese will defend their interests. The movement of 150,000 troops to their North Korean border in April, 2017 and subsequent exercises of those forces since was a message to the United States.
The Chinese see the Korean Peninsula as the pathway to historical invasions. They see the perpetual division of the peninsula as necessary to provide a buffer to invasions. The unification of the peninsula under a western allied government is unacceptable, particularly by force.
The Trump Administration should take caution and avoid miscalculations. It should also make clear that it concurs in the need for a divided peninsula until and unless the Korean people themselves agree to unite in a peaceful and democratic manner.
The Trump Administration’s aggressive policies with regard to North Korea appear to be having the desired effect, not only with China, but across the globe.
The United Nations Security Council passed unanimously resolution 2371 imposing the most stringent economic sanctions yet on North Korea on August 5th. In contrast to several other UN resolutions that were ignored by China, it announced on August 14th that it will ban imports of iron ore, iron, lead and coal from North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the leaders of Thailand and Malaysia recently to gain their agreement to isolate their essential trade and economic pathways with North Korea. Thailand is a major link in North Korean shipping and trade and Malaysia has become a major pathway for North Korean illicit business activities.
The European Union (EU) will convene an "extraordinary meeting" on Aug. 14th to discuss the North Korean situation. This comes shortly after the EU broadened a sanction list targeting over sixty North Korean’s with travel restrictions and asset freezes.
Russia has restated that it does not accept a nuclear North Korea and has called for resumption of six-party talks to reach a peaceful settlement on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.
The Trump Administration is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy that has had some desired effects and may be successful in the long term. The non-traditional language and style of the President may be part of that strategy, and regardless, appears to be contributing to the strategy’s success by making clear that the U.S. will act severely to any direct threat on U.S. territories and creating an air of unpredictability. Of course, miscalculation is a risk that must be avoided.
Personal conversations between President Xi and President Trump, such as during the recent G20 Summit in July and again in a personal phone conversation on August 11th, are essential to avoiding miscalculation. The Associated Press reported on August 11th that the Trump Administration has been using a back-channel communication path for months to communicate directly with the North Korean regime. Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis wrote a joint Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal on August 14th laying out U.S. policy in a manner that is clear to all parties.
Aside: The North Korea issue has made many Americans fearful that a nuclear war is about to happen. This fear is inconsistent with the reality of the situation. The focus of the media on the rhetoric of the North Korea issue rather than the policy and its effects is a disservice to the American people that contributes to that fear. This is further fed by commentary on cable television and in social media that contends the president is akin a modern-day Dr. Strangelove who should be thrown from office by any means - including a coup. Some have gone so far as to make statements such as, “Where's lee Harvey Oswald or John wilkes booth when we need them?”[sic] Hatred - yes hatred - of the President is tainting the perceptions of many as they rely increasingly on self-validating narratives from a very limited scope of information sources. With an objective view and a broadening of their information sources they may conclude that there is more substance to what the Trump Administration is doing in North Korea than they have perceived and encourage success of the effort rather than removing the President from office illegally or killing him.