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Why the US hesitates on military action against North Korea

Ranjit S Kalha | Updated on: 2 May 2017, 13:31 IST

Speaking at the UN Security Council last week, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US was willing to open direct negotiations with North Korea aimed at removing nuclear weapons from that country. Tillerson was careful not to include "de-nuclearisation" of the Korean peninsular as an item for discussion, as that would have meant that the future of US nuclear weapons stored in South Korea would also become a part of the discussions. The Chinese have always maintained that it is "de-nuclearisation" of the peninsula that is the main question at stake. Tillerson also called on members of the UN to implement sanctions against North Korea or to downgrade their diplomatic representations at Pyongyang. Tillerson knows full well that the key is China and the attitude that its leaders adopt towards North Korea that would, in the ultimate analysis, be the determining factor.

The US has tried to "hustle" the Chinese along by threatening as President Trump did that "if Beijing is not going to solve North Korea, we (the US) will". While there seems to be significant warming in Sino-US relations after the Trump-Xi meeting in Florida, at least as Trump puts it, yet the bilateral talks seem to have resolved little on North Korea. Just as Trump is learning today successive US administrations have also discovered, in the past, that there are no easy solutions to the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Last year the Obama administration had talked tough about "multi-lateral" sanctions only to find that the Chinese were very reluctant. The key point is that the Chinese do not wish to push the North Korean government so hard that the regime itself becomes significantly destabilised. Therefore the Obama effort only resulted in some desultory additions to the already existing UN sanctions against North Korea. These new sanctions made hardly any difference to the policies being followed by the North Korean regime.

The Chinese are trying to defuse the issue as Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it "China's priority is to flash the red light and apply the break to both (the US and Korean) trains to avoid a collision". Chinese concerns are however not limited to avoiding a North Korean-US clash, but also to the removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment that the US is contemplating in South Korea. The Chinese fear that the THAAD deployment is as much for them as it is for the North Korean missiles. Therefore if any de-escalation takes place under Chinese auspices, then the US would have to re-think its THAAD deployment; as the Chinese are hardly likely to oblige without the promise of removal of THAAD from South Korea. This issue also had its comical side when Trump tweeted that South Korea would have to pay the "costs" of deployment, only to be contradicted by his NSA, McMaster who said that the US would pick up the tabs!

Given that their country too would be in the direct line of fire, the South Koreans are apprehensive and have called for restraint. In the forthcoming presidential elections due on 9th May 2017, the leading candidate Moon Jae-in has pledged to improve relations with Pyongyang, noting that diplomatic relations are the best bet for ensuring South Korean security. In 1994 the then President Clinton considered preemptive military action against North Korea, but the Pentagon concluded that even limited action would claim a million lives in the first 24 hours. Remember this assessment was made before the North Koreans possessed nuclear weapons. As David Sanger reported in the NYT any military action by Washington will undoubtedly trigger a counter-reaction from Pyongyang that would instantly kill a third of the South Korean population.

The US knows that North Korean artillery near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) could flatten Seoul in a matter of hours should hostilities break out. Seoul is hardly 15-20 kilometres south of the DMZ and completely vulnerable to North Korean attacks. Much as the western press speculates about North Korean refugees streaming north to China or Russia, the greater worry is about what happens to the displaced South Koreans who would have had their homes and offices destroyed. Where would they go and who would look after them? It is time that everyone realises the gravity of the situation and instead of sabre rattling moves towards a negotiated settlement. There are no good military solutions available. Hopefully, the US realises this inspite of the rhetorical bluster.

This was first published in the author's blog


First published: 2 May 2017, 13:31 IST