There are a number of dangers the current crisis poses. The most unlikely among them is a North Korean attack on the U.S. or South Korea, although an "incident" like the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is not out of the question. More likely is a missile test.
All of the parties -- including China and Russia -- know that North Korea is not a serious danger to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea. Which is why China is so unhappy with the U.S.'s response to Pyongyang's bombast: deploying yet more anti-missile systems in the U.S. and Guam, systems that appear suspiciously like yet another dimension of Washington's "Asia pivot" to beef up America's military footprint in the region. Russia and China believe those ABM systems are aimed at them, not North Korea, which explains an April 15 accusation by the Chinese Defense Ministry that "hostile western forces" were using tensions to "contain and control our country's development."
While the western media interpreted a recent statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping as demonstrating China's growing impatience with North Korea, according to Zackary Keck, assistant editor of the Asian-pacific focused publication The Diplomat, the speech was more likely aimed at the U.S. than at Pyongyang. Keck argues that China is far more worried about growing U.S. military might in the region than rhetorical blasts from North Korea.
The Russians have also complained about "unilateral actions" being taken around North Korea... Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means."
Tension between nuclear powers is always disconcerting, but the most immediate threat is the possibility of some kind of attack on North Korea by the U.S. or South Korea. Conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her military to respond to any attack from the North without "political considerations," and the U.S. has reaffirmed that it will come to Seoul's defense in the event of war. It is not a war the North would survive, and therein lays the danger.
According to Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press, coordinator of Dartmouth's War and Peace Studies, current U.S. military tactics could trigger a nuclear war . "The core of U.S. conventional strategy, refined during recent wars, is to incapacitate the enemy by disabling its central nervous system...leadership bunkers, military command sites, and means of communication." While such tactics were effective in Yugoslavia and Iraq, they could prove counterproductive "if directed at a nuclear-armed opponent." Faced with an overwhelming military assault there would be a strong incentive for North Korea to try and halt the attacks, "a job for which nuclear weapons are well suited."
Council of Foreign Relation's Korea expert Scott Snyder says, "The primary danger is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences."
The demand by the Obama administration that North Korea must denuclearize before serious talks can begin is a non-starter, particularly when the Washington and its allies refuse to first agree to a non-aggression pledge. And the White House will have to jettison its "strategic patience" policy, a fancy term for regime change. Both strategies have been utter failures.
There are level heads at work.
South Korea recently praised China for helping to manage the crisis, and Seoul has dialed back some of its own bombast. The U.S. canceled a military maneuver, and a "senior administration" official warned about "misperception" and "miscalculation," remarks that seemed aimed more at South Korea than at the North. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also says Washington is open to talks with China and North Korea.
But such talks are predicated, according to the U.S. State Department, on Pyongyang proving "its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations." In short, dismantling its nuclear program and missile research. Neither of those will happen as long as the North feels militarily threatened and economically besieged.
In a way, the Korean crisis is a case of the nuclear powers being hoisted on their own petard. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was not aimed at just stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but, according to Article VI, at eliminating those weapons and instituting general disarmament. But today's world is essentially a nuclear apartheid, with the nuclear powers threatening any countries that try to join the club -- unless those countries happen to be allies. North Korea should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but then so should China, Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India.
As far as ending the current crisis, one could do worse than follow up on what basketball great Dennis Rodman said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told him: "Obama should call me."
Good place to start.
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