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North Korea War Gains Plausibility

SNA (Tokyo) — For all the talk of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un being crazy and wildly dangerous, the fact of the matter is that the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been reasonably stable and predictable for some years.

The Kim regime is determined to build intercontinental missiles and more sophisticated nuclear weapons no matter what the United Nations or other powers demand. Pyongyang seems to have calculated, not unreasonably, that the only thing that might stop the United States from attempting “regime change” against them, as they did in Iraq, is the fear of provoking a nuclear war in which millions of people might die. Saddam Husain’s biggest mistake, they may believe, was precisely that he had obeyed UN demands and quietly disposed of his weapons of mass destruction.

There is no persuasive evidence that North Korea is planning to attack its neighbors, only that the regime is determined to hold its own ground by frequent demonstrations of military prowess. Their repeated message has been that they are fully prepared to make aggressors pay dearly for any move against them.

So the pattern goes: North Korea tests its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; the international community declares it unacceptable; the United Nations imposes new rounds of mostly-ineffective sanctions; and the cycle turns over and over again without change, except that Pyongyang’s military technology gradually improves.

Although the pattern is well-established, obviously change will have to come at some point. The most likely scenario has been that a major political change would come from within North Korea itself. Other scenarios have included a crisis in relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, whose interests are by no means identical, even if they ostensibly remain allies.

For people of goodwill, the hope has always been that when the moment of truth for the Kim regime comes, that events would go down relatively peacefully as they did, for example, in the Soviet Union in the 1989 to 1991 period.

But it is by no means clear that US President Donald Trump, especially if guided by advisers like Steve Bannon, can really be described as “people of goodwill” who really have the global human interest at the forefront of their minds. The notion that this particular group of American leaders might actually be cynical enough to provoke a major war abroad in order to consolidate their power at home has been widely suggested by a variety of commentators, and they’ve given plenty of cause to anticipate this sort of despicable behavior.

It has become apparent that the Japanese government itself now believes that a US military attack on North Korea is a genuine possibility. While previously it was easy to dismiss the “all options are on the table” talk as mere bluster, now we have learned that the Abe administration is urgently sending messages to Washington that they want to be consulted in the event a decision in favor of the use of military force has been made.

According to the Beijing media as well, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly phoned US President Trump today calling “for peaceful means to solve problems” with North Korea.

Yesterday, Donald Trump himself tweeted to the world: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem! North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”

According to a Kyodo News report published today, “a senior State Department official” told Japanese officials earlier this month that a US military attack on North Korea was being considered as a real option. Since his deputies have yet to be appointed, this would seem to indicate that the warning to Tokyo came directly from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The Japanese-language reports on what Tillerson said to the Japanese officials is stark: “There are only two options here. Either China starts cooperating with us, or we will strike North Korea.” The reports emphasize that the word “strike” was specifically used, and this basic message accords with Trump’s tweets.

Another point to note is that Tillerson’s warning came in “early April,” and it was on April 4 that the Abe administration suddenly decided to swallow their pride and send Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine back to Seoul in spite of entirely failing to achieve their objectives regarding the removal of the Comfort Women statues. Our linkage with Tillerson is speculative, but it accords with the facts as they are currently known.

The US military is, in fact, already moving. This past weekend the scheduled visit to Australia by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was cancelled and it was re-routed toward North Korean waters.

The Navy Times notes, “The carrier strike group brings with it a ton of firepower, including the strike and air-combat capabilities of the Hornets, early warning radars, electronic-warfare capabilities and more than 300 missile tubes on the carrier’s escorts.”

Putting this all together, the most likely explanation is that Trump and Tillerson are trying to resurrect Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” believing that this is the edge they need to frighten Beijing into working more sincerely to rein in North Korean behavior. In other words, the threat of military action against North Korea is intended as a bargaining strategy. In this scenario, they are hoping to achieve something that they can sell back home as a diplomatic “win” against an old enemy that former President Barack Obama was too weak to effectively deal with.

While that is probably the safer bet, it is also worth noting that once a confrontation begins, it is not always possible to get out of it without a loss of face.

Also, in Donald Trump’s case, “madman” may not be only the name of a theory. Indeed, Trump has often warned that when he does launch a strike against another country, he will do so as a surprise. In this respect, there’s no reason not to take him at his word. If there was ever a US president reckless enough to start a war with a nuclear-armed North Korea, this is the one.