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Hugh White says Washington cannot disarm North Korea without risking major war, and empty threats only make America look weak and undermine its Asian alliances. China, its strategical rival, will benefit

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

Hugh White says Washington cannot disarm North Korea without risking major war, and empty threats only make America look weak and undermine its Asian alliances. China, its strategical rival, will benefit

North Korea
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 July 4. 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 programmes for so long.
That leaves North Korea’s weapons programme 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 American leadership.
Credibility matters so much ­because America’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.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reacts after the test-firing of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14, at an undisclosed location on July 4. This marked a watershed moment in Pyongyang’s push to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

What military strike? US war fleet still thousands of kilometres from North Korea

But those doubts grow every time America 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 actually to use armed force to destroy North Korea’s ­nuclear and missile programmes, 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 programmes without ­provoking a really 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 programmes runs up against two stark realities.

There is no quick cheap ‘surgical strike’ option

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 programmes. Moreover, it would certainly provoke major ­retaliation by the North against South Korean, Japanese and American targets.

And that would leave Washington with a tough choice about how to respond in turn to such retaliation. To do nothing would look very weak, but to counter-retaliate would risk a spiral of escalation leading swiftly to full-scale conflict.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis and South Korean Defence Minister Han Min-koo inspect the honour guard during a welcoming ceremony in Seoul on February 3. Photo: EPA/Yonhap

Five reasons why the US cannot attack North Korea like it did Syria

That is why US Secretary of Defence James Mattis – clearly the most level-headed of Trump’s ­senior advisers – has warned that such a war would be “catastrophic”.

So the problems with using force are very clear. The problem with not using force is that nothing else seems at all likely to work to curtail, let alone eliminate, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. Trump has looked to Beijing to use its unique position as Pyongyang’s major trading partner to impose the kind of devastating economic pressure which alone seems likely to bring Kim Jong-un to heel.
But China has no intention of doing that. The most obvious reason is that economic pressure strong enough to force Kim to back down would also be strong enough to risk the collapse of this regime, and Beijing does not want to deal with the chaos which that would create.
A North Korean ICBM fundamentally transforms the risks for America

The deeper reason is that the current situation works to Beijing’s advantage.

Of course China would much prefer that Pyongyang did not have nuclear weapons, but it seems willing to live with them, confident that its own nuclear forces will deter any North Korean attack against itself. And, more importantly, the North’s growing nuclear forces serve China’s interests precisely ­because they do pose such an insoluble strategic problem for America.

In the ruthless zero-sum strategic contest now under way between them over strategic primacy in Asia, Beijing wins when Washington’s ­inability to disarm North Korea makes America look weak.

This is especially true now that the North seems on the threshold of developing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that could mount a nuclear attack on America itself. A North Korean ICBM poses no new threat to China, because it is already within reach of the North’s shorter-range missiles, but it fundamentally transforms the risks for America.

That is not just because of the danger that Kim Jong-un might order an unprovoked attack on American cities. Indeed, the certainty of massive US nuclear retaliation makes that extremely unlikely.

More importantly, Pyongyang’s ability to target America directly undermines the confidence of US allies like South Korea and Japan that America would be willing and able to protect them from Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.

President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump on the first day of the G20 summit meeting, in Hamburg on July 7. Photo: Kyodo

Can Trump do anything to stop a war with North Korea?

And that serves Beijing’s interests. It undermines these critical US alliances which are central to America’s strategic position in Asia, and correspondingly advances China’s bid to replace America as Asia’s leading power.

It is thus very unlikely that China will do much to help America solve its North Korea problem.

All this shows how deep and complex are the strategic challenges facing America in Asia today. They will only be made worse by kind of empty bluffing we have seen so far over North Korea from the Trump administration. A much more considered policy is needed. And that must start with a fundamental re-examination of US aims and objectives in Asia, and a coldly realistic assessment of the costs and risks that they would entail.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Costs of bluffing