North Korea: No war for now, but get ready

WITH war very clearly on the table of possible responses to North Korea’s continued development of nuclear arms, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) able to hit the United States, will blood flow in the peninsula?

The military option has loomed larger since US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in Seoul last Friday that Washington would not negotiate with Pyongyang.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO was on his first Asian visit, assuring Tokyo and Seoul of American defense commitments, and asking Beijing’s cooperation in restraining North Korea after its leader, Kim Jong Un, declared in January that it was on the “final stage” of launching an ICBM capable of reaching America.

Tillerson’s statement that decades of negotiating to stop the North Korean nukes program are a failed strategy, reflected President Donald J. Trump’s tweeted view that “they have been ‘playing’ the United States for years.”

If Pyongyang wanted negotiations, Tillerson declared, that can only happen “by denuclearizing, giving up weapons of mass destruction [WMDs]”, as it had pledged in agreements since 1992, but never did, because those WMDs were its main leverage to get Washington, Seoul and Tokyo talking and giving aid, in the first place.

China wants to keep talking

Whether the tougher Trump-Tillerson tack would work depends a lot on China, North Korea’s indispensable backer, which has sustained it through crushing UN sanctions.

While long unhappy with Pyongyang’s aggressive, destabilizing actions, Beijing has kept supporting it to avoid its collapse, and the rise of a unified Korea hosting American forces right at the Chinese border.

After meeting two hours with Tillerson, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US should return to negotiations: “No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek a peaceful settlement.” Wang also rebutted Trump’s tweet, maintaining that China has “devoted much energy and effort over the years” to addressing the North Korean issue.

Tillerson seemed to soften his tough line: “We share a common view…that things have reached a dangerous level, and we’ve committed ourselves to doing everything we can to prevent any type of conflict from breaking out.”

So, it seems there’s no American military action, for now. The next China-US discussion on North Korea may transpire if and when President Xi Jinping visits Trump on a date still being finalized.

Preparing for war

Now, one may think everyone now takes it easy till Xi meets the Donald, but not generals and admirals in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo or Washington. After Tillerson put guns on the table of options in Korea, defense chiefs and top brass worldwide will think through what might happen and what they need to do in case the shooting actually starts.

We’ll do a broad review of Korea scenarios in a future column. For now, check out a January study by Stratfor. The think tank’s five-part report analyzed the nuclear threat from North Korea, how to derail it by force, what air assets the US may use, how Pyongyang may retaliate and the cost of American action.

Part 3 on possible US military action ( cites stealth aircraft and cruise missiles striking North Korean nuclear facilities and weaponry, based on military intelligence and satellite surveillance.

Able to evade North Korean air defense, 10 B-2s alone, with a total of 13,600-kg GBU-57 deep-penetration warheads and eight 900-kilogram GBU-31 satellite-guided bombs, can destroy or severely damage known nuclear weapons infrastructure in North Korea.

The US may also deploy 24 F-22 from bases in Japan and South Korea, plus 600 cruise missiles of the Seventh Fleet on ships and submarines deployed nearby. But Stratfor warns that not all nuclear weapons and facilities are known, so some or many may survive and strike back.

Whether Trump would wait depends in part on what his Pyongyang counterpart Kim Jong Un does. If the latter fires another missile or detonates a nuke, there would be intense pressure on the former to take action.

And what are the chances of another rocket or bomb going off up north?

On March 9 Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated a 43-percent chance of such a WMD event before the end of this week, and a 62-percent chance by April 8.


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Ricardo Saludo heads the Center for Strategy, Enterprise & Intelligence (CenSEI), which provides strategic studies and advisories. A former Cabinet Secretary, Civil Service Chairman, and Asiaweek editor, Saludo obtained a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Management from SOAS, University of London; and a Diploma in Strategy and Innovation from Saïd Business School, Oxford. He is with the adjunct faculty of Ateneo School of Government and Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism.