When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, millions around the world supposed that the threat of world war—and in particular nuclear war—was forever behind us. Developments over the last few years, however, have proven that this hope was extremely premature. In fact, it could be argued that we are living in the most dangerous time in human history, worse even than the days when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to plunge the world into nuclear hell. The critical players and potential flashpoints are more numerous today than in that bygone world, and, at least here in the US, our leadership is less sensible and restrained. At times, it seems to me that some in positions of power are almost eager for war—yes, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, this means you.
Perhaps chief amongst the potential flashpoints that could ignite our global powder keg is the Korean Peninsula, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been lobbing missiles into the Sea of Japan and has vowed to continue his regime’s efforts to develop thermonuclear weapons and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology. President Donald Trump has stated that North Korea will not be allowed to develop ICBMs, and although opinions vary on just how close the communist state is to acquiring such capability, recent speculation has focused on whether Trump will order a preemptive strike in order to destroy its nuclear capability altogether.
Trump has appealed to China—North Korea’s closest and most important ally—to control its belligerent neighbor, noting that “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” Trump discussed the situation with Chinese president Xi Jinping during their meeting last week in Palm Beach, Florida, and has since indicated that China stands to gain much in trade negotiations with the US if it is able to bring North Korea to heel. Speculation has also abounded of late that Trump’s recent cruise missile strike on Syria was, in part, intended as a demonstration to both China and North Korea that his warnings are to be taken seriously.
Trump’s meeting with the Chinese president comes on the heels of months of rapidly deteriorating relations between North Korea and the US and its allies.
During a meeting last month with South Korea’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the world that Washington’s “strategic patience has ended” and that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea. On April 4, an unnamed White House official followed up on Tillerson’s comments, noting that “the clock has now run out” on efforts to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear program. The US Navy’s Carl Vinson strike group has been dispatched to Korean waters in what the Navy’s Pacific Command department is calling “a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” while, according to NBC News, the National Security Council is recommending that President Trump consider moving nuclear weapons to South Korea and even, potentially, assassinating Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile, the US and South Korea are going ahead with plans to install a US-built THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile interceptor system in South Korea, a move that has drawn fire from both China and Russia as an unnecessary provocation in an already tense situation as well as a threat to their own interests in the region. China is blaming the US for increasing tensions and, in a report from Chosun.com (a South Korean publication) dated April 10, the Chinese military has moved 150,000 troops to the North Korean border “to prepare for unforeseen circumstances”—in particular, a preemptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure by the US and its allies.
Now, in a report that—as of this writing—is only a few hours old, it seems that China may finally be taking action to reel in North Korea before Kim Jong-un can provoke the West one time too many.
According to an editorial in the Chinese Global Times publication, North Korea’s continued nuclear testing and provocations have created a situation that threatens China’s “bottom line,” namely, “the security and stability of northeast China.”
With the increase in nuclear equivalents, the threat to the Chinese people nearby also surges. In particular, if by any chance nuclear leakage or pollution incidents happen, the damage to northeast China environment will be catastrophic and irreversible.
This is the bottom line of China, which means China will never allow such situation to happen. If the bottom line is touched, China will employ all means available including the military means to strike back.
By that time, it is not an issue of discussion whether China acquiesces in the US’ blows, but the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will launch attacks to DPRK nuclear facilities on its own.
A strike to nuclear facilities of the DPRK is the best military means in the opinion of the outside world.
The editorial (since removed but still available in cached form) goes on to say that China will not tolerate “a government hostile to China on the other side of the Yalu River, and the US military must not push forward its forces to the Yalu River.”
Interestingly, the editorial seems to indicate that China will not necessarily stand in the way if the United States and its allies decide to strike North Korea’s nuclear facilities; indeed, the Chinese may launch strikes of their own. The only “red line” they seem to be drawing here is where an invasion of North Korea is concerned, insisting that US-led forces must not approach too close to the Yalu River at the Chinese-North Korean border.
Could it be that Presidents Trump and Jinping have already agreed on a military solution in the event that Kim Jung-un continues his reckless behavior? Are we looking at the possibility of a joint strike on North Korea?
If so, this must surely be Pyongyang’s worst nightmare. The fear of Chinese intervention has long been a serious deterrent to taking military action against North Korea as far as the US is concerned; with this threat removed—indeed, with potential assistance from the Chinese—the matter becomes far different. The author of the Chinese article is of the opinion that North Korea would not even fight back in the event of a strike on its nuclear facilities but would “freak out” and “become immediately obedient.”
The question then becomes: Will North Korea really just roll over and play dead? Will Kim Jong-un effectively surrender and hand power over to someone else? Is he willing to spend the rest of his life effectively under house arrest and, potentially, face charges for atrocities committed against his own people?
Beyond the question of what Kim himself will do, however, there is also the matter of what those portions of his military that are fanatically, personally devoted to him will do if they see their beloved leader about to be deposed. How much control does Kim Jong-un really have over his country’s nuclear and chemical weapons arsenals? Will segments of his military decide to seek vengeance or, in the confusion of an attack on the nuclear facilities in which communications with the capital may fail, go rogue and launch an all-out attack on South Korea?
Thus, even with the interesting prospect of potential Chinese cooperation in deposing Kim Jong-un and destroying North Korea’s nuclear capability, we are still left with the potential for an unparalleled disaster. Even unilateral action by China could bring reprisals against the US, Japan, and South Korea, given that Pyongyang will see the situation coming about as a result of US pressure on China.
North Korea maintains the world’s fourth largest standing army, which, although antiquated in many ways, is still capable of inflicting enormous damage on its neighbor to the south, and potentially to nearby Japan as well, even without using nuclear weapons. If, contrary to the Chinese editorial’s expectations, Kim Jong-un and his military leaders do not “freak out” and capitulate unconditionally—and particularly if they opt for the nuclear option, knowing they’re doomed anyway—we could potentially see millions die in the resulting hostilities.
If Donald Trump has indeed reached some sort of military understanding with the Chinese president, it’s possible that they have already agreed to allow Kim Jong-un to remain in power in an effort to avoid such a total disaster—and predicated on his agreeing to play nice from now on, of course; but we’re not likely to know either way until the bombs start going off.