In international relations, there is no such thing as coincidences, and powers of observation and gut instinct can sometimes tell more than all the intelligence at one’s disposal. Take, for example, the Kafkaesque narrative occurring in relation to North Korea. If we are to believe the headlines, Donald Trump is going to use the threat of American firepower to beat Kim Jong Un into submission. Does anyone believe that is how it is actually going to play out?
Here is what we know. A hastily arranged “summit” occurred between Presidents Trump and Xi nearly three weeks ago. The summit was too quickly arranged and too short in duration to accomplish anything on a grand scale, and the speed and timing with which it was arranged is suspect. It could easily have been arranged, and sufficient time spent, to address one issue in depth, however – an issue at the top of both leaders’ agenda: North Korea. Trump commenced delivery of the THAAD anti-missile system to South Korea in early March. China began publicly objecting to the THAAD deployment in late March, and by early April Xi and Trump were meeting.
China understands that THAAD is a defensive missile system, and while they may not like the fact that it is a stone’s throw away from Chinese borders, and that Japan has had the same defensive system in place for some time, Xi can probably live with it, recognizing that the U.S. is only deploying THAAD in South Korea at this critical juncture, and that Kim is a real menace to everyone in the region. Yes, China will complain, but in the end, even though they may not like to admit it, having THAAD in place in Japan and South Korea is probably better for everyone (except North Korea, of course).
China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and most of the world’s nations have had it with Kim Jong Un.
Less than a week later after the summit, China reportedly sent up to 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea. Assuming this is true, one’s first inclination is to presume that this is to protect the Chinese border from an influx of North Korean refugees in the event of a conflict. Perhaps it is. But how many troops would really be needed to accomplish that? Say, up to 5,000, armed with weapons to deter border crossings? The number of troops deployed is intended for fighting purposes. Remember that the U.S. first sent about 150,000 troops to initially invade Iraq in 2003. Combine that with the flotilla of U.S. ships that is parked off the Korean coast, and one could be excused for being under the impression that what may be taking shape is the potential for a multi-pronged attack – from the South (South Korea), the North (China) and both North Korean coasts.
China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and most of the world’s nations have had it with Kim Jong Un. No one wants a war, but no one wants Kim to gain eventual long-range delivery capability for nukes. He already has short and medium-range missile capability. While it is not believed he has mastered the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons on top of missiles, he undoubtedly has done so with biological agents. North Korea has proven intransigent and untrustworthy for many decades and does not negotiate in good faith. This situation is clearly intolerable.
Put it all together, and it certainly seems possible, perhaps even likely, that the U.S., in conjunction with South Korea and possibly China and Japan, are seriously considering invading North Korea. (It should also be recalled that the first foreign leader Trump met with upon assuming office was Prime Minister Abe of Japan, and they have an unusually close relationship. Also, Abe successfully amended Japan’s post-war constitution in 2014 to allow for the deployment of its forces to protect its allies – South Korea being one of them). If this happens, the loss of life and property damage on all sides would be incalculable, but what choice is left? This may help explain why Trump assembled the entire Senate on the White House grounds today, presumably to lay out his plan and to get the Senate on his side. Under the War Powers Act, the Senate has only declared war 11 times in U.S. history – that last time being in 1942. Trump would certainly have the country on his side if he left it to the Senate to declare war against North Korea.
As for China, deep down, President Xi knows that it too has little choice. Kim Jong Un has only responded with bellicosity to China, as well, and Sino-North Korean relations are at an all-time low. Mr. Xi must be at his wits end. And, let us not forget that nothing rallies a population around the flag so much as during wartime. Surely, that is a factor in any decision to go to war by any power, cynical as that view may be.
It would appear that all of North Korea’s regional foes may have come to the same conclusion as Mr. Trump. If this plays out with an invasion, and if China participates, Kim Jong Un will have achieved a military alliance between China and the U.S. that has never before occurred. That could also end up transforming bilateral relations between China and its neighbors at the same time. That, too, may be part of Mr. Xi’s grander calculation in all this. We may be about to witness real history in the making, on a variety of levels. War has been waged many times before to rid the world of despicable and dangerous tyrants. It has just been a while. Given that Trump equates military action with rising poll ratings, he appears to have all the incentive he needs to proceed.
Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative and co-author of the book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”.