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[News Analysis] Did US draw ‘red line’ on North Korea?

NK is not Syria, but strategic mistake could lead to ‘inadvertent war,’ experts warn

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Published : 2017-04-18 15:55
Updated : 2017-04-18 15:55

Every March, the Korean Peninsula is drawn into an all-too-familiar cycle of escalating tension.

It starts with South Korea and the US kicking off their annual military drills with a massive scale of troops and state-of-the-art assets, followed by North Korea churning out rebuke in a warlike rhetoric. The following month, Pyongyang gears up to celebrate a series of major national holidays, often with a nuclear or long-range missile test, triggering the allies’ warnings and condemnation. As tension flares up, fear mongers swoop in to sound the alarm that war is imminent.

The decades-old pattern, however, suddenly transformed into a viable narrative after the US’ surprise attack early this month against Syria for the suspected use of chemical weapons, and then against Afghanistan involving its largest non-nuclear bomb. 

Combined with the unpredictable personality of US President Donald Trump and his unorthodox approach to foreign affairs, the latest developments prompted Koreans to ask themselves a question about their own survival: Will the US do the same to North Korea? 

US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)

The concerns seem legitimate to many. After pounding Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, Trump ordered his naval “armada” -- the flagship Carl Vinson Strike Group -- to head back to the Korean Peninsula, shifting its original route from Singapore to Australia. On Monday, US Vice President Mike Pence said at a news conference in Seoul that the recent strikes in Syria and Afghanistan showed the “strength and resolve” of the Trump leadership, urging the Kim Jong-un regime “not to test his resolve or the strength of armed forces of the US in this region.”

Hours later in Washington, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the Trump administration has no “red line” drawn on North Korea, but could take “decisive action” when it is deemed appropriate.

“I don’t think that you’re going to see the president drawing red lines in the sand, but I think that the action that he took in Syria shows that, when appropriate, this president will take decisive action,” the official said during a press briefing.

Spicer argued that if the Trump administration were to announce the specific conditions that warrant US military intervention on the North, then Pyongyang could exploit it to prepare for a response.

Despite the heated rhetoric from the Trump administration, any preventive attack on North Korea would burden Washington with too much military and political risks, analysts said, highlighting that the communist regime enjoys a military and geopolitical advantage that Syria never had, and is armed with nuclear weapons with second-strike capability.

According to a study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, North Korea is estimated to have up to 30 nuclear weapons as of last year and the arsenal is expected to grow to as many as 60 weapons by 2020.

“The biggest difference (with Syria) is North Korea’s readiness to retaliate, and the ability to attack with nuclear weapons. It would be unprecedented to attack another nuclear state,” said Van Jackson, an associate professor at the US Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

To make matters worse, analysts say that North Korea’s nuclear sites are hidden in the mountainsides widely spread across the region and enjoy far greater air protection than the densely-concentrated Syrian airbases that the US targeted.

More recently, North Korea demonstrated the ability to hide its delivery system from high-tech reconnaissance satellite. Using solid-fueled rocket engines and mobile launchers, the nuclear missiles can be fired faster, easier and stealthier.

But nuclear retaliation might not be the most worrisome issue. What is more bothersome is North Korea’s conventional weapons capable of inducing massive damage to South Korea, said Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who drew up a plan to attack North Korea during the Clinton administration.

In an interview with the LA Times, the former secretary said if there is going to be a military reaction from the North, it would be “not a nuclear attack as they have threatened, rather a conventional but still quite destructive attack against South Korea.”

While South Korea enjoys clear military superiority, North Korea possesses the capacity to launch a catastrophic artillery strike on the city of Seoul, which lies within range of North Korean long-range artillery and rockets amassed along the border.

Meanwhile, some analysts highlighted the different levels of influence that the superpowers supporting North Korea and Syria can exert over their wayward benefactors -- North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with nuclear weapons and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons.

Cha Doo-hyun, a visiting research fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said that while Russian President Vladimir Putin had the ability to control the wayward Assad, China does not have the same influence over Kim.

“When the US launched an attack against Syria, I think the US was able to use Russia to stop Assad from getting out of control. I doubt President Xi has the same influence over Kim Jong-un,” Cha told The Korea Herald.

Despite the difficulties, a military strike remains a “viable option” for the Trump administration, analysts agreed, particularly when North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test.

Fanning the speculation that a new nuclear experiment might be Trump’s invisible “red line” on the North, a foreign policy adviser traveling to Asia with Vice President Pence said, after the North’s failed missile test Sunday, that if it had been a nuclear test, “other actions would have been taken by the US.”

“The US has not issued a red line about a nuclear or missile test. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one,” said professor Jackson. “The biggest strategic error would be having a red line and not making it clear to the adversary.”

A US preventive strike against the North could set off an unpredictable chain reaction, raising the possibility of “inadvertent war” between the US and North Korea -- both of whom have tried to achieve deterrence by being offensive and provocative, he said.

“Preventive strikes are not only possible but actually likely at some point. North Korea and the Trump administration have similar beliefs about effective deterrence -- that they can achieve deterrence by being offensive and provocative. … That kind of thinking is a recipe for inadvertent war,” he said.

“That’s how inadvertent war happens. If the US attacked North Korea in response to a test, the US would be the aggressor.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)