BEIJING – A new crisis is brewing on the Korean Peninsula. In mid-February, North Korea conducted an intermediate-range ballistic missile test. On March 1, the United States and South Korea began a joint military exercise that is unprecedented in scale and intensity.
These military drills will run until the end of April, and will include a significant number of ground, air, and naval forces from both countries, including strategic assets such as B-52 bombers and the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. And, despite objections from Russia and China, the US is accelerating its deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.
On the same day that the US and South Korea began their military drills, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the headquarters of Large Combined Unit 966 of the Korean People’s Army. Five days later, the North launched four ballistic missiles, one of which reportedly landed within 200 miles of Japan’s coastline. The tests have led most experts to believe that North Korea has significantly expanded its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, and that by 2020 it may be able to affix miniaturized nuclear warheads onto long-range missiles capable of reaching the continental US.
Talks in New York between a North Korean delegation and former senior US officials had originally been planned for early March. But the meeting was canceled in late February, when the US State Department refused to issue visas for North Korean diplomats, perpetuating a lack of communication that has only compounded the risks of the current standoff.
US President Donald Trump has apparently decided to increase the pressure on North Korea, rather than make good on his campaign rhetoric and speak directly with Kim. Trump’s National Security Council is reportedly conducting an in-depth review of US policy toward North Korea, and considering a number of policy options, ranging from preemptive strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities to “soft” regime change through the imposition of harsher sanctions.
Even if Trump were willing to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea, his administration clearly is not ready to do so, because it lacks both a coherent policy and a credible policymaking operation. The Trump White House remains mired in dysfunction, as evidenced not only by Michael Flynn’s sudden ouster as national security adviser, but also by the scarcity of senior appointments to oversee Asia-Pacific affairs at the Departments of State and Defense.
Despite this executive-branch policy vacuum, the US government views North Korea’s recent missile tests as a major threat. Many congressmen and senior military officials are now calling for a tougher response, which could include restoring the Kim regime to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and using US Special Forces to launch surgical strikes. But such actions would only exacerbate the regime’s sense of insecurity.
The US and South Korean intelligence communities believe that North Korea has 10-16 nuclear weapons and more than 1,000 ballistic missiles, making it practically impossible to disable the North Korean threat militarily without inflicting serious damage on the US and its allies. And now that South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached and formally removed from office, South Korea’s government, with a campaign for a new president in the offing, will be in no position to pursue new policy options – hardline or otherwise – for a number of months.
Meanwhile, China’s role on the Korean Peninsula is becoming more complicated. On the one hand, China has voiced opposition to North Korea’s missile tests, and suspended coal imports from the North under a United Nations Security Council resolution. In response, North Korean state media went so far as to criticize China implicitly for “dancing to the tune of the US.”
But China also regards the new THAAD system in South Korea as a serious strategic threat. Chinese leaders worry that THAAD’s X-band radar will negate China’s second-strike nuclear capacity, and that the system could be integrated with US and Japanese facilities to create a web covering all of Northeast Asia. Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already pushing ahead with THAAD deployment in Japan.
In November 2016, South Korea and Japan signed a pact to share military intelligence. But as the two US allies, who were once bitter enemies, improve their bilateral security relationship, China and Russia both fear that a close US-Japan-South Korea alliance could emerge as the equivalent of a mini-NATO to their east.
The reemergence of Cold War-like security blocs in Northeast Asia would only exacerbate regional hostilities. To avoid that outcome, China is calling on all parties to stop and think. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently put it, the US and North Korea are like “two accelerating trains coming toward each other, with neither side willing to give way.”
Wang has met with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song in Beijing, and he will meet with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on March 18, in an effort to coordinate a first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump. Needless to say, resolving the North Korean nuclear issue will be a priority at that summit.
China, for its part, has proposed a two-prong approach. First, North Korea stops its nuclear and missile tests, while the US and South Korea halt their joint large-scale military exercises. Second, all parties involved return to the negotiating table, with the parallel goals of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and concluding a peace accord to replace the 60-year-old Korean War Armistice Agreement. Parties should, in the meantime, take note of former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan’s proposal that the THAAD system be removed after North Korea abandons its nuclear program.
Strategic mistrust across Northeast Asia will only worsen the US and China’s already testy relationship. The nightmare scenario of a violent conflict on the Korean Peninsula demands that cooler heads prevail.