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Call me an optimist, but I think war on the Korean Peninsula is very unlikely. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Trump Administration’s bellicose and amateurish antics over the issue are undermining America’s strategic credibility, while doing nothing to prevent North Korea building a missile with the range to hit the US mainland (an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM). So Trump’s signature mix of tough talk and feeble action is having exactly the effect his critics always expected and feared. It weakens America’s position in Asia, and strengthens China’s.
War on the peninsula is unlikely because it makes no sense for America to start one. That’s because it has no credible military options that offer a reasonable chance of destroying or even seriously obstructing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Many key targets would be hard to find. Even with very good intelligence it would take a sustained strike campaign lasting weeks to make much impact. And at least some of the targets would be so deeply buried as to be almost impossible to touch.
The marginal results of such a campaign would have to be weighed against the costs of North Korea’s retaliation. It is unlikely North Korea would go so far as to immediately invade the South, but it would hit back very hard. And that would leave Washington with a new and even bigger problem: how to react in turn? Not responding to a major but limited North Korean counter-strike would look miserably weak, but any proportionate response would set both sides on an escalating path to a full-scale war which would quite likely become nuclear.
Everyone would like to see North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs stopped, but no one has seriously tried to argue that stopping them would be worth the costs of major, and possibly nuclear, war. And no one has convincingly argued that there is a credible military option that does not entail a very serious risk of such a war.
Not for the first time, then, Washington’s ‘all options are on the table’ is a transparent and pointless bluff. The hope that Trump’s missile attack on Syria would make his threats to North Korea more credible missed the big difference between striking an opponent that can’t hit back and striking one that can. And the strange and humiliating muddle about the USS Carl Vinson just confirms how far from serious Washington has been about attacking North Korea.
So Pyongyang won’t be deterred from further testing, and Beijing won’t be spurred into the kind of truly draconian measures that would have any chance of reining Pyongyang in. What happens next is therefore quite predictable. There will be more missile and nuclear tests, America and its allies will fulminate, nothing effective will be done, and North Korea will move steadily closer to an ICBM capability.
To read the entire article by Hugh White, visit the Lowy Institute website.
Photo by Flickr user Bryan Dorrough