22 March 2019
US Vice President Mike Pence has warned North Korea that 'the era of US strategic patience towards (Pyongyang's) continued aggression is over'. Photo: Reuters
US Vice President Mike Pence has warned North Korea that 'the era of US strategic patience towards (Pyongyang's) continued aggression is over'. Photo: Reuters

The twin goals behind US show of force in Korean peninsula

Over the past several decades, no matter how defiant and belligerent the North Korean leaders had remained, and no matter how many ballistic missiles they had fired or how many nuclear tests they had conducted, most people were still convinced that the possibility of another all-out military conflict on the Korean peninsula was almost zero.

It is because, for one thing, most people believed that as long as China remained firmly opposed to any escalation of North Korea’s brinkmanship, Pyongyang’s aggression would not amount to much.

Also, there was the view that despite North Korea’s continued provocations, both the US and South Korea were unlikely to respond ferociously or launch any pre-emptive strike against the rogue state, as they would fear that such a move might risk a direct confrontation with China. In fact it was exactly how the Korean War broke out 67 years ago.

However, in recent years the situation has changed, and people around the world have become less confident that the military standoff on the Korean peninsula won’t spin out of control under any circumstances.

It is because first, the new US president, Donald Trump, unlike most of his predecessors, is a highly unpredictable and volatile leader. And second, ever since the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power after the death of his father in December 2011, it has become increasingly apparent that Beijing can no longer restrain Pyongyang from stirring up trouble on its doorstep like it could before.

One strong indication of China’s shrinking influence with North Korea is that Pyongyang’s nuclear program has accelerated in full swing under the young Kim Jong-un despite Beijing’s continued opposition.

As such, a “Second Korean War” is no longer entirely out of the realm of possibility.

As the aircraft carrier battle group led by USS Carl Vinson moved at full throttle to the waters off the Korean peninsula, President Trump has ordered the deployment of two more aircraft carriers to the region. Even though the Pentagon said the vessels are going there to take part in a routine military exercise, everybody knows the US naval reinforcements have been sent to the area to send a message to Pyongyang.

In the meantime, while US Vice President Mike Pence was on a visit to Seoul over the weekend, North Korea test-fired another ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan which, however, blew up in mid-air just 5 seconds after its launch.

Pence referred to the firing of the missile as an outright provocation, and reasserted that the US will stand by South Korea all along. He also warned north Korea that “the era of US strategic patience towards (Pyongyang’s) continued aggression is over”.

According to a Sunday Times report, Trump’s national security advisor H.R. McMaster told the British government that the Pentagon had identified the location of all major nuclear facilities in North Korea.

If Trump gives the order, he said, the US military is ready to take out all these targets. In fact it is reported that Trump is currently consulting his advisors over whether and when to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

However, it is still premature to say war is imminent. Despite the ongoing tense and touch-and-go situation across the 38th parallel, the chances of outbreak of any full-scale military conflict on the peninsula still remain slim at least over the coming month.

It is because on one hand, the South Korean presidential election is scheduled to take place on May 9, and the US is unlikely to take any unilateral action before or immediately after it. And on the other, though the Trump administration might be preparing for war, it hasn’t given up on the hope of resolving the crisis peacefully yet, as it is still looking to Beijing to use its remaining influence with Pyongyang to halt Kim’s aggression.

Therefore, it is logical to infer that the deployment of 3 aircraft carrier battle groups to the region by Washington could be aimed at fulfilling two goals simultaneously: to deter Pyongyang on one hand, and to send a message to Beijing that it better turn up the heat on its neighbor and restrain it, or else the US is ready to take some action on its own.

As far as Russia is concerned, it would certainly welcome a Beijing initiative to help defuse the crisis peacefully, since the last thing Moscow wants is another sudden military strike against North Korea by the US like a recent one against Syria.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 18

Translation by Alan Lee

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