US show of strength masks limited options over N Korea

04-Sep-2017 Intellasia | FT | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Experts say military exercises and presidential rhetoric will not rein in Pyongyang

The day after Donald Trump warned on Tuesday that “all options” were on the table in response to North Korea firing a missile over Japan, US bombers and fighter jets conducted a joint exercise with Japanese and South Korean war planes to send a signal to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.

To make sure the North Korean dictator got the message, the Pentagon released images of the aircraft flying over the Korean peninsula and dropping live weapons on a firing range in South Korea. “You can see in our photo archives that live drops like this are uncommon,” said one US military official.

When Trump tweeted the next day that talking to Pyongyang was “not the answer”, it raised the spectre that his team was contemplating military action to tackle the North Korean nuclear threat. But hours later Jim Mattis, the widely respected defence secretary, appeared to contradict his commander-in-chief by saying America was “never out of diplomatic solutions” regarding North Korea.

Mattis later denied being at odds with the president, saying diplomacy included sanctions and not just talks, and saying he agreed that Washington should not be talking “right now” with a nation that had just flown a missile over a US ally.

But many experts worry that Trump’s tweets which could be calculated efforts to create leverage, or off-the-cuff remarks to impress his base are complicating US policy towards North Korea and putting its allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, more on edge.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, an Asia expert at the CNAS think-tank, says US policy is “all over the map” as Trump uses bellicose language such as warning North Korea in August that the military was “locked and loaded” that his officials later have to explain do not suggest imminent military action.

“This creates a real credibility problem?.?.?.?because perhaps the president does not speak for the US,” said Ms Rapp-Hooper, who thinks Trump is trying to impress his base rather than influence policy.

Andrew Shearer, a former Australian national security adviser now at CSIS, a think-thank, says Japan and South Korea face a “difficult dilemma” that is complicated by the inconsistent messaging. “They are seeking reassurance that the US will protect them in extremis, but they also need to be able to placate publics concerned that they could be dragged into a devastating war.”

Trump’s comment about the futility of talks came just days after he said North Korea was “starting to respect” the US. While the latest North Korean test once again reminded people about the growing threat from Pyongyang, it also underscored the lack of good options.

Although the Pentagon is using modern “gunboat diplomacy” to warn North Korea not to threaten the US, few experts see any viable military options. Before he was fired, Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, said “there’s no military solution here” due to the casualties North Korea would inflict on Seoul.

US experts are split over whether diplomacy could convince North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. Joe Detrani, a former top US intelligence official who has dealt with North Korean officials repeatedly over the past 15 years, says negotiations during the Clinton and Bush administrations both produced results that slowed North Korea’s progress towards a viable nuclear deterrent.

“When we stopped talking and implemented ‘strategic patience’ [during the Obama administration] North Korea raced to build more nuclear weapons and more medium and long-range missiles to deliver [them]” he said. “Talking to North Korea has value. Addressing their security concerns has value. And telling them that there will be consequences if they continue to threaten the US and its allies has value.”

Shearer of CSIS argued that talks were a “red herring” because North Korea would never give up its arsenal, but said there was also no credible option for a preventive military strike. “The most likely outcome is that we end up with a mix of deterrence and containment: more sanctions, missile defences and counter-proliferation efforts.

The Trump administration has been pushing countries around the world to put more pressure on North Korea, particularly China. The Treasury has recently started sanctioning Chinese companies that help North Korea develop nuclear weapons. Some experts doubt that China would ever put sufficient pressure on North Korea because of Beijing’s concerns about sparking regime collapse on its border.

Anthony Ruggiero, a former US government sanctions expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the problem with only targeting Chinese firms was it was like playing “whack-a-mole” as new companies replace others that have been targeted. “It is better to go after Chinese banks and say, ‘We are now one stage away from freezing assets and cutting you off from the US financial system’.’”

Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution, said too many experts were laying out a binary choice between diplomacy and military action, and pointed out that the recent missile test shows that North Korea can already do significant damage to South Korea and Japan. He added that while the US should show North Korea that there would be consequences for its actions, it was important to remember that there were other ways to deal with North Korea.

“We have maintained a very credible deterrence policy on the peninsula for 65 years, although it will have to be a different kind of deterrence given North Korea’s weapons progress,” said Pollack.

Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korea analyst who met North Korean officials in June, said the US had no good options and that Pyongyang would not abandon its weapons programme. “In the long run, we need to be realistic, North Korea will get there,” said Ms Terry, who added that the North Koreans she met had said, “we are very close to completing our arsenal, why would be give them up at this point?”.


Category: Korea

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