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The Four Options on North Korea

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: South Korea Simulates Attack on North’s Nuke Site.

South Korea’s military said its live-fire exercise was meant to “strongly warn” Pyongyang. The drill involved F-15 fighter jets and the country’s land-based “Hyunmoo” ballistic missiles firing into the Sea of Japan.

The target was set considering the distance to the North’s test site and the exercise was aimed at practicing precision strikes and cutting off reinforcements, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

On the political side, there's a useful piece in The National Interest headlined, "Here Is What Chinese Scholars Think about the North Korea Crisis." The author, Lyle Goldstein, admits upfront that "it has not been possible to develop a relatively comprehensive typology of Chinese assessments regarding the Korean nuclear issue." China's contradictory approach might best be summed up here:

The scholar Li Kaisheng [李开盛] sees no basis for cooperation because of different interests and a fundamental lack of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington. Li explains that one of the major restraints on the United States possible use of force against North Korea has been “China’s opposition and even [the possibility] of Chinese counter-attack" [中国的反对甚至反击]. He also straightforwardly explains that China will not accept the removal of the North Korean ruling regime, because that would mean U.S. military power directly on China’s border and the loss of China’s “strategic buffer” [战略缓冲地带].

Beijing is generally assumed to hold the key to "solving" the problem of North Korean nukes — to whatever extent it can be solved. The problem is that China apparently wants it all.

To see what I mean, here's a (very) broad outline of possible outcomes:

• The status quo.

• Chinese political or military action against North Korea's nuclear program, up to and perhaps including installing a new regime.

• U.S./R.O.K. military action short of regime change.

• U.S./R.O.K. military action including regime change, and/or forceful reunification with the South.

• There's also the possibility of something like a repeat of the Six Party Talks and a diplomatic resolution. But given that Pyongyang has not and will not live up to any promises to abandon or even limit its nuclear program, this option is really just part of the Status Quo option.

Let's take the main four options one at a time.

The status quo is quickly becoming unacceptable for the U.S./R.O.K. There's never been an outlaw regime in possession of nuclear weapons and an intercontinental delivery system. And if the world is at all sane, the Great Powers would never allow this to happen. But we do not live in a sane world.

The second option has long been my favorite, but may also be the least likely. But imagine a swift PLA action against Pyongyang, followed by the installation of an economically reform-minded (and sane) new regime in the North. Under this scenario, China would maintain its puppet, and the North would lose its nukes, and the U.S./R.O.K./Japan would lose a major headache. And with China being the country taking the bold action, there would be almost no risk of a wider war. But it's almost impossible to imagine the current Chinese leadership giving the "Go" order.