“If they are not going to arm them, they need to say that. They need to make them absolutely clear...The thing the North Koreans are most afraid of is that we’re going to kill Kim Jong-un in a decapitating strike and … that will strengthen their incentives to make sure that low level commanders will have the ability to use nuclear weapons. It will make the North Koreans even more jumpy and have a way itchier trigger finger.”
Lewis believes the North Korean strategy is to use a nuclear first strike to deter an attack aimed at regime change, a posture which makes for a particularly unstable balance of forces, with the adversaries motivated to act preemptively.'
The US decision to send missile-capable drones to South Korea inches the Korean Peninsula closer to war and, potentially, towards a wider conflagration. It could end catastrophically if the Great Powers, China and the US, miscalculate their response to a North Korean attack or, where one looked likely, with a pre-emptive US strike.
As Bruce Cumings emphasises, the leadership of North Korea pay close attention to what is going on in Washington. The firing of four missiles towards Japan, to coincide with Trump’s meeting with Abe, was timed to put the need for paying attention to Pyongyang’s power and capabilities back in the spotlight and to deter hostilities.
North Korean strategy is to keep all the Great Powers on their toes and to keep them guessing. China is not, contrary to what American nationalists claim, the protector of North Korea. By raising the stakes and dragging the US in, Pyongyang clearly threatens Chinese security and they have no interest in it having nuclear warheads.
After the missiles were fired, China made plain it was prepared to place further sanctions on North Korea, as indeed did Russia. Trump merely indicated that the threat from Kim Jong Un had entered a ‘new phase’. There has been little in the way of constructive diplomacy from Washington so far and only hints of military solutions.
Sketchy details of ‘U.S. Operations Plan 5015 (OPLAN 5015)’ have been leaked to the press in Japan and South Korea and indicate, in conjunction with joint US-ROK ground and naval manoeuvres that a preemptive strike would be feasible to knock out the North Korean leadership before it could unleash a counter attack across the DMZ.
However, the fear remains in Beijing is that North Korea could collapse, creating chaos and then drawing South Korean troops northwards along with its US ally right to the Chinese border. When China displeases North Korea, the regime then has turned to a third power in Russia which in 2014 wrote off its debts and promised oil.
North Korea can only remain a power to be reckoned with through threats of psychotic destruction as its economy remains a basket case and on the brink of collapse. The idea is to send the signal that the regime has nothing much to lose through a war, no matter how destructive, and all other states everything to gain by placating it.
This strategy has worked until the last few years but the ratcheting up of North Korean aggression throughout 2016 has seen Russia and China unwilling to be alternatively courted as rival suitors, such is the risk and increasingly erratic war psychosis emanating from Kim Jong Un and his determination to murder all possible rivals.
Yet the bleak reality is if North Korea suddenly disintegrated it could detonate wider destabilisation in an increasingly tense region : it is a buffer state between the world's three most militarily powerful states. If it 'goes', the consequences could help trigger off World War Three as was feared in 1950 when the Korean War broke out.
Trump has done little to try to alleviate spiralling insecurity and paranoia in East Asia. His team are mostly concerned with domestic conspiracies and plots. Bannon, his National Security Adviser, regards the promise to Make America Great Again to mean returning America to the position is had immediately after World War Two.
Officially, the Korean War never ended. North Korean leaders could well be entering an unparalleled frenzy of paranoia, even by its standards, with a President who openly compared himself to General Douglas MacArthur, the figure who was most open in pressing for nuclear bombs to be used during that conflict against communist aggressors.
During that war he pushed Chinese and North Korean forces back towards the River Yalu and then suggested going in to take out Mao's new People's Republic which had been proclaimed in 1949; he suggested using atomic bombs to take out Chinese cities and was sacked by President Truman for doing so.
Nostalgic ideas about MacArthur as the great Caesar figure, who defeated Japan and paved the way for Pax Americana and US dominance in the Far East and as Global Hegemon, dovetail in 2017 with the fears Bannon has over Chinese global domination coming at the expense of the US and because of its weakness.
Worse still, ‘Trumpist’ ideology, which conflates North Korea with being a Chinese communist puppet state, means that Beijing could see preparations for an attack on North Korea as the opening salvo of a potential attempt to encircle and ‘contain’ China itself, not least Bannon warned of potential future war in the South China Sea.
The terrible danger is Trump would see combining more sanctions and diplomacy with China as a weakling option pursued by President Obama when even the former US leader had been considering the possibility of cyberstrikes and ways to deal with Kim Jong Un. There are already preemptive strike plans; Trump acts as the strong man.
Having decided that North Korea is not going to have nuclear weapon under his watch by whatever means ( “It won’t happen” ) and beset by domestic threats, the issue of North Korea could well be the one that Trump decides to establish red lines on and to attempt to make good on his campaign promises to restore US unity and greatness.