Their brinkmanship raises the risk of conflict but seems unlikely to improve outcomes.
Are we on the verge of witnessing a showdown between the United States and North Korea? The brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang has raised tensions on the Korean peninsula to a new high.
In January, Mr Kim Jong Un declared that North Korea had entered the "final stage of preparation" for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In mid-April, a high-ranking North Korean official refused to deny the possibility of nuclear tests, when asked. North Korea acquiring the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland would certainly represent a game-changer.
On another front, in February, Pyongyang successfully launched a solid fuel-propelled quick- response intermediate-range missile. In March, the North successfully conducted exercises to simultaneously launch four missiles in the direction of Japan, a move that was interpreted as a practice run for attacking US bases in Japan in the event of a contingency. North Korea has gradually developed missiles with better range and performance, and is enhancing their operational capabilities.
In response, the US has shown a tougher stance. In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that "the policy of strategic patience has ended", referring to the policies adopted by the Obama administration, and noted that "all options are on the table" in relation to the North.
US Vice-President Mike Pence promised this week, during his 10-day tour of Asia, an "overwhelming and effective" response to any attack on the US or its allies, adding: "The shield stands guard and the sword stands ready."
It is often reported that the US is considering "pre-emptive" strikes, but what Washington is actually implying is a preventive strike, something bearing similarities to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
If the US were to move ahead with such an attack, it would target North Korea's major nuclear facilities along with the North Korean leadership, including Mr Kim. If North Korea's nuclear facilities were destroyed, it would almost certainly launch a large-scale retaliatory attack on Seoul. To prevent this from happening, the only option would be to eliminate the North Korean leadership and prevent retaliatory orders from being sent.
CAN THE US DECAPITATE NORTH KOREA?
A fierce psychological war between the US and North Korea has already begun. With the US displaying its tough approach, Mr Kim has curtailed the frequency of his public appearances over the past several weeks. This is seen as a sign of concern over US military action.
On April 9, the US announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, exerting increased pressure on the hermit kingdom. Although it later emerged that the armada, led by carrier USS Carl Vinson, sailed north only this week, both North and South Koreans thought the carrier strike group would arrive in Korean waters soon.
On April 11, the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's Parliament, was convened in Pyongyang, and on April 15, a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth was held. Most of North Korea's top leaders were present on these occasions. If the US had chosen that moment to attack, it could have decapitated the North Korean leadership.
However, Mr Kim Jong Un attended both events after taking the necessary precautions. First, North Korean media did not report on whether Mr Kim had been present at the Supreme People's Assembly until after the proceedings had ended. Even if the US had attacked, it may have struck out, and if Mr Kim survived any such attack, Seoul would surely find itself in a "sea of flames".
On the other hand, Mr Kim's attendance at the military parade was reported via live telecasts around the world. But the members of many foreign media outlets and invited guests effectively formed a "human shield". Mr Kim acted with his guard open, demonstrating to the world an attitude of not yielding to American pressure.
LESSONS OF THE PAST
One of the reasons North Korea is not extremely concerned about a preventive strike by the US is that it has learnt from past lessons. It was in 1994 that the Korean peninsula came closest - since fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953 - to a resumption of hostilities. At that time, the US planned military operations to destroy North Korea's nuclear facilities and gave serious consideration to the implementation. If the decision had been made to attack, it would not have been difficult to wipe out North Korea's nuclear infrastructure, which was then still at a rudimentary stage.
In the end, however, the US did not go ahead with its plan. That decision was taken because of the risk of a full-scale war and the magnitude of potential losses. According to estimates at the time, if war had broken out on the Korean peninsula, it could have meant 30,000 US military casualties, 450,000 South Korean military casualties, over a million civilian casualties including between 80,000 and 100,000 Americans, along with fiscal spending of more than US$60 billion.
If the use of military force on a non-nuclear North Korea carried that much risk, it is not difficult to imagine how high those risks would be against a nuclear-armed North. And if a preventive strike were to fail, South Koreans, Americans living in South Korea and innocent civilians would suffer devastating losses in a reprisal.
Given all this, what are we going to see in the weeks and months ahead? For the time being, this game of brinkmanship between the US and North Korea will likely continue. The US will continue to flaunt the idea of a strike that takes out the North Korean leadership, applying psychological pressure on the leaders in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, as long as the US applies pressure, North Korea will continue to strengthen its nuclear and missile capabilities. Even so, unless the US risks an attack, North Korea will not start a war by attacking the US or South Korea. As a result, this brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang will likely continue for some time.
At the same time, China may be forced into an either-or decision: either exert strong pressure on North Korea, or make major concessions to eliminate the trade deficit with the US. During bilateral economic talks, the US will continue to use North Korea as a tool of its policies vis-a-vis China.
Meanwhile, as long as the US applies pressure, North Korea will continue to strengthen its nuclear and missile capabilities. Even so, unless the US risks an attack, North Korea will not start a war by attacking the US or South Korea.
As a result, this brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang will likely continue for some time. In other words, the risks are higher but the outcome will be the same - a situation less favourable than what former president Barack Obama's "strategic patience" had created.
There is one potentially positive outcome resulting from this situation: both sides realise that the situation is deadlocked and the risks are higher, and decide that dialogue is the only realistic way out. When Mr Tillerson remarked that "all options are on the table", he also noted: "We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures." If these diplomatic measures include opening a dialogue with North Korea, developments could enter a new phase.
We must remember that this can happen only if war does not break out in the meantime.
The writer is a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo and the author of North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008.
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