The Gathering Storm

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Pretty much everything with respect to the Korean peninsula has been overshadowed by NBC reporting that needs to be parsed as carefully as an KCNA statement. The guts of the story are that the US is prepared to pre-empt if there is intelligence that the North Koreans are going to undertake a sixth nuclear test. The capabilities for the operation are two destroyers, the Carl Vinson task force and fighters and bombers stationed in Japan and Guam. A striking feature of the story is that the sources—“multiple senior intelligence officials”—claim not only that cyber capabilities could be used but special forces as well.  

But what does it mean that the US is “prepared” to act? Is it “prepared” in the sense that it intends to strike if the North Koreans test? (The intrepid team of Bermudez and Liu at 38North outlines the activity at the test site and the NBC story cites senior officials as “moderately confident” that a 6th test is planned). Or is the administration signaling—and to China as much as North Korea—that military options are under serious consideration, exploiting the willingness to use force that the Trump administration displayed with the Tomahawk strikes on Syria and the use of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) in Afghanistan? The linkage between the latter and North Korea may be more marked than the former since the mission in Afghanistan was to wipe out tunnel systems that bear at least a family resemblance to the nuclear test site in North Korea (see the useful New York Times graphic here). 

Questions abound, starting with targeting. Striking the test site might disrupt the test itself, but it might not. What else might be targeted? Any American strike would cross a threshold we have not seen on the Korean peninsula since the onset of the nuclear crisis, but even such a departure would itself also only constitute a signal in the first instance. What would come next? In Syria, the Trump administration could back away from further action if chemicals weapons are not used again. If North Korea simply folds, a strike might finally move Beijing to seriously address the issue. But if North Korea undertakes its own kinetic response, then walking away is much, much costlier and pressures to escalate would be high.

And then there is the virtual afterthought in the piece about what the South Koreans think about these options. The NBC stories emphasize—as do South Korean officials—that they would need to sign off on such an action. But whether they would be given a real option to veto this operation is doubtful if the President himself had decided to move. But in South Korea there is no palpable sense of crisis: presidential frontrunners Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo said in a debate yesterday they oppose a US preemptive strike but their statements and a look at what they're emphasizing on their social media accounts do not suggest turmoil or deep frustration at the United States. The KOSPI index was down on Friday but no free-fall. There are also no reports of hoarding in preparation for the apocalypse.

And then there is China. Whatever else we think of his foreign policy, Trump has succeeded in putting sustained pressure on Xi Jinping to do something about North Korea. Xi can’t be happy about being pushed around, and a number of things coming out of Beijing could be read as veiled signals to Pyongyang. These start with China’s surprisingly muted response to the Syrian strikes, taken in the name of upholding another WMD-related norm. As Julian Ku points out at Lawfare, China’s refusal to more clearly condemn the attacks is surprising and unique; China even abstained on the most recent UN Security Council resolution, leaving the Russians isolated in vetoing it. Second, there is the UPI story about PLA forces being put on alert and even moved toward the North Korean border. And finally, you have a host of stories—some fake news—purportedly coming out of the Chinese press urging a tougher line. One Global Times story from two days ago placed the onus for instability squarely on Pyongyang and argued for tougher sanctions if North Korea tests. The language of the editorial is worth quoting:

“More and more Chinese support the view that the government should enhance sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear activities. If the North makes another provocative move this month, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to the North.”

But we are also seeing countervailing signs of reversion to form. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is once again reverting to form by calling for calm on both sides, the maddening moral equivalence that has no doubt motivated the Trump team to be more forward. China and North Korea still have a mutual defense treaty, one that the North Koreans could in theory invoke in case of a US attack. While the Chinese do not want to rouse Armageddon over Kim Jong-un, are we really sure that they would simply stand by while their credibility was shredded? This is the classic “sleepwalking” scenario, drifting into a conflict no one wants: World War I meet World War III.

All of that said, it is not clear that the conclusions of the NBC report—that a military crisis is imminent—are correct. Let’s review the bidding. Several days ago, President Trump tweeted twice about North Korea in rapid succession. One Tweet reiterated his threat to go it alone, but in the other he claimed that he had “explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” As I wrote earlier in the week, the messages coming out of Mar-a-Lago also appeared to focus more on tougher sanctions as the first step.

Our prediction: Kim Jong-un is more cautious than he looks, over-the-top statements notwithstanding. He will not test, or will go with missiles rather than a nuclear test, the US will not have to respond, and China will be temporarily off the hook. But note that this good outcome would still leave us nowhere unless China and the US in fact do collaborate on the issue. We all know the package deal: China gets North Korea back to the bargaining table, probably through economic leverage, and the US agrees to show up. Don’t count on it, but it is the only off ramp we can see. 

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