Nikki Haley, United States ambassador to the United Nations, confers with an aide during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council at United Nations headquarters, July 5, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images.

Nikki Haley, United States ambassador to the United Nations, confers with an aide during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council at United Nations headquarters, July 5, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images.

Empty US threats over North Korea are serving Beijing’s interests

27 July 2017

When North Korea tested a ballistic missile back in February, the Trump administration threatened military action. They did the same thing when Pyongyang tested again on 4 July. But each time, after a few days of ­rising anxiety, the tough talk evaporated. Washington went back to the same old measures — sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions — which have so plainly failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs for so long.

That leaves North Korea’s weapons program intact and steadily growing. Worse, it leaves America’s strategic credibility seriously weakened — and that has implications far beyond the North Korean nuclear issue itself. It erodes the basis of the entire regional order in Asia based on US power, and helps to reinforce China’s challenge to US leadership.

Empty US threats over North Korea are serving Beijing’s interests 26 July 2017 Author: Hugh White, ANU

When North Korea tested a ballistic missile back in February, the Trump administration threatened military action. They did the same thing when Pyongyang tested again on 4 July. But each time, after a few days of ­rising anxiety, the tough talk evaporated. Washington went back to the same old measures — sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions — which have so plainly failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs for so long.

That leaves North Korea’s weapons program intact and steadily growing. Worse, it leaves America’s strategic credibility seriously weakened — and that has implications far beyond the North Korean nuclear issue itself. It erodes the basis of the entire regional order in Asia based on US power, and helps to reinforce China’s challenge to US leadership.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and South Korean Ambassador to the UN Cho Tae-yul speak after a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch by North Korea at UN headquarters in New York, United States, 5 July 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar).

Credibility matters so much ­because the US’s leading position in Asia has depended ultimately on the belief, among allies and potential adversaries alike, that it is both willing and able to defend its interests and fulfil its commitments by force if need be. It is the strength of that belief that has made the actual use of force unnecessary, because no one has doubted what the outcome of a military confrontation would be.

But those doubts grow every time the United States threatens military ­action and then fails to follow through. Allies increasingly fear, and rivals increasingly hope, that Washington will not stand by its commitments in a crisis.

As that happens, US leadership erodes, and in Asia today that means Beijing’s bid to build a new Chinese-led order moves ahead.

So Washington needs to stop making these empty threats. It must either resolve to use armed force to destroy North Korea’s ­nuclear and missile programs, or it must learn to live with them.

The problem with using force is that there are no credible military options.

There is no reasonable chance of destroying or even significantly degrading North Korea’s weapons programs without ­provoking a major war on the Korean peninsula, with a very grave risk that nuclear weapons would be used.

That’s because there is no quick cheap ’surgical strike’ option. Any idea of a limited series of precisely targeted strikes to destroy the critical elements of Pyongyang’s ­nuclear and missiles programs runs up against two stark realities.

First, there is no reliable intelligence on the locations of many of the key facilities, so it is impossible to know what to hit. Second, many of them are deeply buried in tunnels and thus impossible to destroy, even if they could be found.

That means any limited strike campaign would have little chance even of significantly degrading, let alone eliminating, Pyongyang’s weapons programs. Moreover, it would certainly provoke major ­retaliation by the North against South Korean, Japanese and US targets.

To read the entire article by Hugh White, visit the East Asia Forum website.

Updated:  22 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team