US threat to strike North Korea is ‘aimed at Beijing’s ears’

Analysts say tough talk from US secretary of state is likely rhetoric meant to pressure China into curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 11:14am

A pre-emptive strike on North Korea threatened by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is most likely just rhetoric to pressure Beijing, analysts say, despite the tension on the peninsula.

Tillerson declared during his first visit in office to the region that the US policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea had ended, and that all options were “on the table” to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat, including pre-emptive military action.

“We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures,” Tillerson said in Seoul.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says military action against North Korea an ‘option on the table’

“If they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, [a military] option is on the table.”

Xinhua downplayed the statement in a commentary on Saturday, saying the threat of a US military strike is “nothing new”.

“These same tactics were once used by Trump’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and failed,” it said.

An American analyst took a similar view.

Tillerson’s stance of all options on the table was not very different from that of the administration of former US president Barack Obama, said Bonnie Glaser at the US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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It was unlikely the “cautious” US military would launch a pre-emptive strike unless it could make sure it would be an absolute success, said Sun Xingjie, a professor of international relations at Jilin University.

“Tillerson’s statement could be more of a tactic of putting diplomatic pressure on China to further exercise its influence on North Korea,” Sun said.

“The only possibility the US would use force against North Korea would be with the consent of Beijing, but I don’t think China would agree.”

The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, still valid until 2021, remains a concern for Beijing in the unlikely case of a US military strike.

The treaty, first signed in 1961 and renewed in 1981 and 2001, stipulates that one country must immediately take military and all other necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation.

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Glaser said a US strike would be clearly targeted at somewhere that was reasonably believed to be a missile launch pad for a nuclear weapon. “I highly doubt that China would invoke its treaty with North Korea based on such a strike,” she said.

The treaty has reduced the risk of other countries launching an assault on North Korea.

However, in the case of Pyongyang initiating an attack, China would not be obliged to get involved, said Cai Jian, a professor at the Centre for Korean studies at Fudan University.

“The treaty in the meantime puts pressure on the North Koreans, warning them not to take risks,” he said.

Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based military analyst, said that when the treaty was last renewed, China warned North Korea that it must take responsibility for its own behaviour.

“There won’t be a second Korean war,” Wong said.