'Recent events have sharpened Beijing’s antagonism. Calls for stronger action against its neighbour are growing. This week an influential academic suggested that China may have no choice but to hold talks with the US on contingency planning for war'. Tania Branigan, Guardian, Sunday 17 September 2017
China could well have to start planning a joint military plan with America that would allow for 'deconfliction' just as Russia has with the US over the war in Syria, another strategic state whose implosion and descent into warfare had destabilising consequences within and beyond the region where its located.
The situation as of September 2017 is immensely dangerous not because North Korea in itself is such a real threat to the US. The risk is that Kim Jong Un's nuclear programme demands a response which could lead to the destabilisation of East Asia through further nuclearisation and an accelerating arms race.
As Branigan points out, Trump's 'strategy' has been all over the place. The dysfunctionality of the administration is heightening the potential for China and Russia and the US, South Korea and Japan to miscalculate their responses to the North Korea crisis in a fog of uncertainty that could trigger off a catastrophic war.
At one level, the North Korean Crisis is not as severe as the one over Cuba in 1962 because Kim's hermit state simply cannot be compared with the colossal Soviet Empire or its massive nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War. Kim's bragging about reaching 'equilibrium' with US nuclear power is just a provocation.
However, at another level, the North Korean stand off could be more dangerous in its unpredictability than Cuba because the real danger comes from the potential of Russia and China on one side and the US on the other to mismanage their handling of the seemingly erratic and suicidally 'mad' Kim Jong Un.
The US approach has been based on threatening war on North Korea as a means to compel China to do what the US insists is necessary-or else. This use of coercive diplomacy towards it over a state right on its north-east borders is bound to be resented because Chinese leverage is more limited than Washington seems to realise.
China clearly resents North Korea destabilising the region but it also fears that if it collapses then there could be chaos and nuclear material floating around in conditions of anarchy. If the US and South Korea were to invade, China would have to move south of the River Yalu to create a new buffer zone.
These circumstances would recreate very similar circumstances to those of the first Korean war that never officially ended in 1953. But the bigger question is whether China, aligning more firmly with Russia in the course of 2017 through joint naval drills in the Baltic Sea and now in the north Pacific, would 'allow' any US military action.
Unless the US is bluffing, it is going either to have to issue an ultimatum or to simply attack North Korea without warning. In fact, it could not offer an ultimatum, as with Germany and Austria Hungary over Serbia in 1914, because the success of its military strikes would depend on knocking the regime out before it could respond.
The chances of a US military strike 'decapitating' the North Korean regime or significantly destroying its military before it launched devastating artillery and missile attacks across the DMZ, aimed at turning Seoul into a 'lake of fire', are minimal. In addition, it could lead to panic responses in China and a geopolitical collision.
Moreover, even Trump's real and growing threat of a using colossal of 'fire and fury' against a North Korea on China's border would lead to a heightened and widened paranoia that the US could resort to force over any number of other frozen border disputes and areas of geopolitical friction from Taiwan down to the South China Sea.
China has every interest in cooperating to find a diplomatic resolution. But it is not going to be forced or even seen to be forced simply to do the bidding of the US on its terms as though it's failure to act as the US demands implies it's responsible or guilty for any further threat or imminent recourse of the US to military coercion.
When the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied it was 'the key' to preventing North Korea developing its nuclear programme, and the US was responsible for untying the knots it had tied together, the emphasis was shifted back to the US to back down from aggressive rhetoric and 'lose face' if necessary after its blustering.
Sanctions, even on oil cannot work, as Kim has the technology to convert North Korea's large coal reserves into liquefied form. It is a state completely set up, above all, to survive anything the external powers could do. Sanctions, in impoverishing the people, make it even more intent on accelerating the nuclear programme.
The reason is that sanctions imposed by the West have already failed to dissuade the regime and China and the US are at cross purposes in trying to get North Korea to change course. China has held out that engaging with Pyongyang and still trading would give it more of a stake in not pursuing the nuclear programme.
In other words, building up trade ties and North Korea developing would give the regime more of a stake in not being rash or suicidal in that it would have more at stake to lose and the elites, in particular, more to lose if they started to get rich. Certain smart sanctions would then have more effect.
The problem is Kim's 'neo-Juche' regime has sabotaged all attempts to balance carrots with sticks by controlling a patronage system that allocates consumer goods carefully according to regime loyalty and mercilessly uses terror and execution for any in the elites who have shown too close a political link to China.
Four of the five pallbearers at Kim Jong Il's funeral in 2011 have disappeared and Kim's uncle executed for becoming too close to China. Kim's step brother was also considered a potential rival and assassinated in February 2017 at Malaysia Airport with VX nerve gas to demonstrate two things to the world.
The first is that Trump's Tomahawk missile strikes against Assad for an alleged chemical weapon attack in April 2017 was not going to impress upon Xi Jinping that he had any way of influencing or building up a counter elite or coup potential. China would never be able to remove him any more than Trump could either.
Secondly, the use of a chemical weapon was designed to remind the world that Kim has huge stocks of these weapons and is not in any denial that he has them or would use them to lethal effect against any attempt to remove him or his regime by military force. Such weapons could easily be fired against any regional state.
Kim Jong Un's Strategy: Maximum Brinkmanship and Regime Survival.
Kim is playing a game of suicidal brinkmanship based on the seemingly rational calculus that the US is going to have to recognise his power and either it or China, with US tacit approval, is going to have to offer to 'monetise' any halt to the nuclear programme or else re-engage in talks to end the Korean war.
A return to the Six Party talks are the only way out. The alternative is for North Korea to proceed, Japan to gear up for rearmament, including even developing its own nuclear missiles and for South Korea to have more THAAD anti-ballistic missiles deployed and for China to fear North Korea is being used as a further pretext to 'contain' it.
The cost of not resolving the crisis diplomatically or putting in place a process to start doing so is the dangers of any move or perceived move to resolve it through force could lead to insecurity and paranoia in conditions of heightened tensions where the North Korean crisis could trigger off a wider geopolitical clash.
THAAD anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea are to be used against short and medium range missiles, but the radar technology they come equipped with are thought to have another function as an early warning system that would downgrade the deterrent function of China's ICBMs relative to those of the US.
Kim's strategy would appear to be to ratchet up the regional crisis and to destabilise it through stimulating a potential arms race which would threaten to make a diplomatic resolution even harder in future should the Great Powers not deal with North Korea now. The longer they delay, the higher the stakes become.
The decision to fire potential nuclear armed missiles over Hokkaido is intended to get Japan to accelerate an arms race already in motion, including a shift towards developing nuclear missiles as China and Japan dispute the sovereignty of the Senkuku Islands, their claim to the seas round them and the oil that lies beneath.
Kim has increased the pace of H bomb testing and missile firing throughout 2017 probably because he realised in the new US administration the chance to contribute to the insecurity bred by Trump's campaign comments that Japan and South Korea could develop nuclear missiles and the US shouldn't pay for their security.
By launching his own dash for nuclear ICBMs, Kim is increasing the threat of hostilities not only towards his own state but also of the other regional states to one another. It's this effect of his nuclear programme and the fear that the US is not a reliable ally, one swinging between belligerence and being unengaged, that he's exploiting.
The ultimate ambition in Pyongyang is regime security. It's thought developing ICBMs capable of striking US cities within a short time frame also would deter the US from assisting South Korea should North Korea cross the DMZ and forcibly reuniting the Korean Peninsula. Certainly, ICBMs could have such deterrent effect.
As a pretext for US military action to prevent Kim having ICBMs, this falls into a trap set by Kim who in 2013 claimed he no longer recognised the forty year truce and to hasten the nuclear programme accordingly. But the idea North Korea would be able to develop ICBMs without a counter deterrent coming is not credible.
On September 5, South Korea hinted for US nuclear weapons to be redeployed there, only for President Moon Jae-in to dismiss the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in his country, warning sensibly it could "lead to nuclear arms race in northeast Asia": this would mean both China and even Russia.
The regional powers appear to understand that the purpose of Kim's missile tests is to try to ratchet up fear and paranoia and keep playing them off in having to come to him with a deal or for the threat of war in future in the region to be increased. The problem is Trump's administration has no strategy to bring about multilateral talks.