Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
As the scale of the US-South Korean joint military exercises continues to expand, North Korea responded strongly with irregular nuclear tests and missile launches. The international community, despite being anxious, has been accustomed to the cyclic tension on the Korean Peninsula. More people tend to believe that the US and South Korea are merely strengthening deterrence against the North and the possibility that a hot war will break out is small.
However, some observers warned that a simple misjudgment may lead to a catastrophic regional war. Dangers, after all, loom amid endless chaos on the Peninsula.
In the face of US-South Korean military pressure and deterrent abilities of the most advanced strategic weapons, North Korea showed no willingness to compromise. Minister of the North Korean Embassy in China Pak Myong-ho warned in a press conference in Beijing last month that the Korean Peninsula is currently on the brink of nuclear war. The latest surveillance by the US and South Korea indicates that Pyongyang seems to be preparing for its sixth nuclear test.
The Trump government has shown an impatient and stern attitude. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in South Korea on March 17 that a policy of strategic patience with North Korea has ended. In order to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons, "all options are on the table," Tillerson said. The US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against North Korea at the end of March.
Washington also refused the Beijing-proposed suspension for suspension plan, in which the US and South Korea suspend their military exercises in exchange for a halt to North Korea's missile and nuclear activities.
The US claimed it hasn't seen "a positive attitude" from North Korea, nor does it have a plan to return to the Six-Party Talks. What the US is trying to convey is that its North Korean policy of the past 20 years has failed, China hasn't done anything helpful, and North Korea cannot be allowed to continue to fool the US anymore.
The stubbornness of North Korea and the US has sparked speculations on whether the situation on the peninsula, a gunpowder keg, will get out of control?
For the moment, it still takes time for the Trump government to come up with a new strategy toward North Korea. But, the development of North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities has become increasingly aggravating and left no space for relevant countries to make strategic adjustments.
Since Washington doesn't want to return to negotiations, there are only two options remaining. The first is to impose more stringent sanctions against North Korea, which Washington hopes can force the country to surrender or lead to its collapse. The second is to launch a preemptive, asymmetric and unpredictable war.
From the perspective of the Trump administration, the first option can hardly lead to effective results. It will continue to expand sanctions against North Korea, but it won't expect it will bring desired effects.
Then, will the US opt for an unpredictable war with the North? During his recent Beijing visit, Tillerson said the US would work together with Beijing to persuade North Korea to "move away from the development of their nuclear weapons." But this is merely diplomatic rhetoric. Washington will not easily listen to Beijing's advice, nor will it promise to give up the use of force to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. In fact, the US has always maintained strategic ambiguity over whether it will resort to force against North Korea.
On the list of national interests of Washington, the North Korean nuclear issue ranks below the Middle East conflicts and the rise of China. Of course, the US has to take the security of its allies and its troops stationed in South Korea into consideration. But it knows well the huge risks of war on the Korean Peninsula. Both nuclear weapon going out of control and the escalation of major power conflicts will have tragic consequences. The North Korean nuclear issue won't be solved in the short term by unilateral military means.
According to Trump's "America First" doctrine, rebuilding the US requires more time and energy on domestic affairs. Trump has emphasized repeatedly that he would refuse to send US forces into battle unless it is absolutely necessary.
To prevent the rise of a Eurasian hegemonic rival is the goal of the US' long-term geopolitical strategy. The rival in the past, present and future is by no means North Korea. Regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, the US still believes that as long as Beijing exerts "real pressure" on North Korea, there will be a turnaround for the crisis. Washington will not easily return to the Six-Party Talks, but it is almost certain that there will be no war, but only tough bargaining. The author is director of the Department of International Political Science, College of Political Science and Public Management, Yanbian University. firstname.lastname@example.org