A US-North Korea war is highly unlikely. What is likely is status quo – vibrating waves of security tensions, sanctions, and South Korea and Japan’s whiny diplomacy to tell on North Korea to the US. As much as the world is entertained by Trump’s loud rhetoric that the US will unilaterally take care of the North Korean problem, the stakes are too high for China, South Korea and Japan to allow US attack on North Korea. Perhaps the only agenda common to China, South Korea and Japan right now on this matter is that none of them wants a war in the region.
When it comes to North Korea, we’re talking about a regime that:
- thrives on the nation’s fear of the regime;
- is not accountable to the nation for its actions;
- will not hesitate to starve the nation just to be able to wage a war, if it must;
And yet it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un wants to start war with the US. The dictator is brandishing threats against the US and its two Asian allies in the region to likely seek the least compromised peace treaty with the US. The regime would not see itself gaining in a peace negotiation unless it can project formidable military capability. Sustaining the regime is undoubtedly Kim’s biggest priority and going into a war with the US is his least likely option.
The US unilateral strikes on North Korea will likely anger Japan and South Korea more than China as the two Asian countries will have to bear the brunt of a North Korean retaliation. The safety of South Koreans and Japanese are as important as that of the US, not to mention that there are 29,000 and 50,000 US troops in South Korea and Japan respectively. Besides, North Korea has massed artillery and missile capability adjacent to the demilitarized zone, close to South Korea. It has been estimated that in this scenario alone, North Korea could potentially cause 100,000 casualties in South Korea.
China, on the other hand, has remained ambivalent whether or not it will defend North Korea in the event of a military conflict. According to the 1961 Sino North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression toward North Korea. But the Asian superpower has its own priorities in the region and can likely adopt other means to stop the supposed war between the US and North Korea. China’s support to North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953). Since then, China has provided political and economic backing to the North Korean regimes. But relations between the two countries have strained over the years since North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beijing has also supported sanctions from UN Security Council Resolutions and implemented new trade sanctions including reduced energy supplies to North Korea and has called for denuclearization talks. But China is also known to have stopped international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China’s support to North Korea ensures a buffer between China and democratic South Korea, home to around 29,000 US troops and marines. Also, the apprehension of hundred of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China in the event of an unstable North Korea is a huge concern for Beijing. It is highly likely that China will want North Korea’s stability, which, otherwise, will jeopardize China’s strategic buffer and bring US troops too close for comfort.
While Trump has been urging China to do more to confront North Korea, the US has also sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, heightening concerns in China. China is worried that North Korea’s test of military hardware could provoke a strong response from Washington. Amidst the tension, China has sought Russia’s help to cool tensions over North Korea. Russia has also warned North Korea that Kim’s threats to deliver preemptive nuclear strikes could create a legal ground for the use of military force against the country.
There is a realistic possibility that the US does not know exactly what North Korean nuclear capability is as Kim’s threats have rapidly escalated US concerns. But the US ought to know that North Korea’s military capability is sufficient to annihilate millions in South Korea and Japan, should a war break out between the US and North Korea. That North Korea will be smashed in retaliation cannot be a consolation or measure of success in this war.
The US has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits. Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior. But the only likely power to influence North Korea is China. Pressing China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear arms is, however, ineffective, rather pushing China to make sure that North Korea does not use them is a reasonable way forward. It is almost certain that Beijing will actively seek to stop a supposed US strike on North Korea. This could be through attempts to force North Korea to negotiate. If that fails and a war is imminent, China is likely to deploy troops on the line in North Korea to dissuade the US from striking. It’s the same strategy that the US adopts as it stations troops in South Korea and Poland. The Chinese forces in North Korea would then also be in a position to force a coup and install an alternative government to the Kim regime, which ensures that North Korea survives and Chinese priorities in the region are served.
The lynchpin of this assessment is that Kim Jong Un is a rational actor in this matter. It is likely that he will not lose sight of his need to sustain his regime. With that in perspective, tensions will still prevail but the likelihood of a war in the region is remote.
High level negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang have eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where the possibility of a military clash has loomed large since a rare exchange of fire across the border late last week.
In recent weeks relations between the two states have became increasingly hostile. Earlier this month, two members of a South Korean border patrol were seriously injured in a mine blast, an incident described by Seoul as a cowardly act of provocation which merited “harsh” retaliation. Pyongyang was similarly incensed by the commencement of joint military exercises between South Korea and the US – an annual event which the North believes is preparation for war and the eventual occupation of their capital.
These exercises were temporarily suspended after an exchange of artillery fire across the border on Thursday 20 August. According to South Korea’s defence ministry, shortly before 4pm local time, a single North Korean artillery shell was fired across the border. Minutes later, this was followed by several more shells which fell harmlessly into the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). In retaliation, South Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds back across the border while placing its troops on maximum alert and ordering the residents of Yeoncheon county to evacuate their homes. So far no one from either side of the border is reported to have been injured in this exchange of fire.
After several troubling days, the standoff ended earlier today when an agreement was reached by negotiators in Panmunjom, an abandoned village north of the Military Demarcation Line where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. Talks began on Saturday evening after Seoul passed a deadline imposed by Pyongyang to end propaganda broadcasts across the border or face the possibility of military action. The South eventually agreed to this demand and in turn, the North agreed to voice its regret over the injuries sustained by the two South Korean soldiers. Former South Korean diplomat and current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has congratulated both sides for speedily resolving the crisis before it was allowed to escalate and expressed the hope that the two countries could use this decision as a springboard to solve other problems which affect the troubled peninsula.