North Korea nuclear crisis

Why China is best-placed to cool the war rhetoric between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump

John Barry Kotch says third-party diplomacy offers the best hope after the US and North Korean leaders ramped up their missile threats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 7:12pm

In his landmark study, The Origins of the Korean War, historian Bruce Cumings reflected on the “strange fate [which] had brought a one-time farm boy from Golconda, Illinois, Lt Gen John Hodge, to rule over the fortunes of 15 million Koreans”.

A three-star combat veteran of the Pacific war, Hodge arrived in Korea in September 1945 as commander of the XXIV Corps, to plant the American flag on the peninsula as well as staunch the flow south of Colonel General Ivan Chistyakov’s 25th Red Army at the 38th parallel: the start of a three-year US military occupation of South Korea that eventually set the stage for the Korean war.

It is an even more “strange fate” today that North Korean missiles risk bringing that war back to the American heartland, along with the American Pacific outposts of Guam and Hawaii, as well as Washington’s closest East Asian allies, South Korea and Japan.

History has much to teach about crises, and miscalculation in confronting them

History has much to teach about crises, and miscalculation in confronting them, most recently in Iraq in 2003, where both protagonists miscalculated the impact of weapons of mass destruction on the outcome. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein miscalculated by relying on ambiguity, only feeding US determination for certainty; George W. Bush miscalculated in unleashing “shock and awe” on the basis of a murky UN mandate, finding no weapons of mass destruction, as well as underestimating the difficulty of occupying post-war Iraq and reconstituting a functioning Iraqi government, given the existing Sunni/Shiite political divide.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, albeit a bystander, was also directly affected. Marked out by the Bush administration as a charter member of an “Axis of Evil” of potential nuclear outliers, Kim fled Pyongyang for the hinterland, fearful of being in caught in the cross-hairs of an American attack. And while he probably did not hide in a rabbit hole like Saddam, the experience undoubtedly rubbed off on his son and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

Watch: George W Bush reveals the ‘Axis of Evil’

Dwight Eisenhower, the five-star US general who became president, noted that “every war will surprise you” – and the Korean war was no exception.

The Soviets and North Koreans were surprised that the US intervened (even the Americans were surprised, both by the ­invasion itself and by the decision to intervene, having previously ruled out defending South Korea); South Koreans were surprised that their army melted away in the face of the North Korean onslaught, overrunning Seoul in a few days, while the North Koreans were surprised to encounter US forces as they swept down the peninsula, having counted them out in planning the invasion. They were doubly surprised when US/UN forces crossed the 38th parallel and laid waste to the North. Finally, the Chinese were surprised that the Americans didn’t halt well before their border, having warned them away, while the Americans led by General Douglas MacArthur were totally surprised by Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River undetected.

The original goal of unifying the peninsula remained beyond reach

The only event that didn’t surprise the combatants was how the war ended – in a stalemate, with neither side able to dislodge the other, at a reasonable cost in lives and treasure – while the original goal of unifying the peninsula remained beyond reach and still is.

If “the past is prologue”, what of the present and future, and what surprises await?

The current crisis was triggered by press reports based on intelligence assessments that Pyongyang had become capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland, and successfully miniaturised a ­nuclear warhead roughly two years ahead of previous estimates; ­another big surprise and a psychological boost for Pyongyang.

Watch: North Korea claims successful ICBM test

President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are now engaged in a “war of words”, raising the political temperature in the region as well as the risk of conflict, with Kim threatening “an enveloping fire” around Guam with a missile strike, and Trump promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen before,” with the US military ominously “locked and loaded”. Kim’s response will determine whether Trump’s warning against “overt ­action” is more of a “wavy red line” than “a line in the sand”.

US should prepare to shoot down North Korean missiles if Kim doesn’t ditch Guam strike plan

But while Trump’s incendiary remarks have been partially offset by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call for dialogue, defence chief James Mattis’ focus on “diplomatic traction”, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Joseph Dunford’s emphasis on achieving “denuclearisation through diplomatic and economic pressure” – mixed messages from the commander-in-chief and his chief policymakers have trumped policy coherence.

More importantly, Washington has forfeited a golden opportunity to build on the momentum generated by a unanimous UN sanctions resolution, supported by both China and Russia, potentially cutting North Korean exports by a third. Rather than dribbling out the new intelligence estimates and ­unsettling the region with bombast, the administration’s policy goals would have been better served by issuing a white paper outlining a ­coherent policy towards Pyongyang, in lieu of more sabre-rattling.

US national security officials do their best to walk back Trump’s threats to unleash ‘fire and fury’

With the leaders in both Washington and Pyongyang out on a limb of their own making, third-party diplomacy offers the best hope of bridging two unpalatable alternatives; acquiescence and acceptance of the North as a de facto nuclear state, and military action to eliminate the threat.

Having called on “all the relevant parties to avoid remarks and actions that may escalate the conflict”, Beijing should follow up with a proposal for a three- to six-month cooling-off period. No missile or nuclear tests, no military exercises.

Above all, Guam should be off-limits. A second Korean war is in no one’s interest.

John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former US State Department consultant