An aircraft-carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson is heading toward the Korean Peninsula. In the wake of a US airstrike on Syrian military targets, the moves of the USS Carl Vinson have garnered much attention.
Launching a missile strike at an airbase in Syria demonstrates that US President Donald Trump is bolder to resort to force than his predecessor Barack Obama. Whether Washington will take similar actions toward Pyongyang has become suspenseful. Pyongyang reacted strongly to the US attack on Syria, saying it is "not frightened."
Trump is different from Obama in personality and he is willing to display he is distinctive. The blast on Syria helped him convey a strong signal to the world that he is a commander in chief not afraid to exercise military options. However, there are also many signs that Trump is returning to Obama's foreign policy. Nearly three months after taking office, he no longer behaves like a diplomatic revolutionary. The US military this time launched a salvo of approximately 60 cruise missiles from destroyers, without dispatching fighter planes. The strike has a limited effect. It is more like a warning against the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
Such attacks, if launched on North Korea, will have a even more limited effects while causing greater risks. In view of Pyongyang's several thousand artillery pieces and a large number of short-range missiles aimed at Seoul, a symbolic strike against North Korea by the US would bring a disaster to the people in Seoul.
Raiding Syria is a quick decision. But the US will think more seriously when dealing with North Korea: If Pyongyang carries out a retaliatory strike against Seoul, what should Washington do?
Once Washington resorts to military means toward Pyongyang, it is unlikely to be limited to nuclear facilities and related military infrastructure. A US-South Korea joint "decapitation attack" against the North is highly possible. Thus, a military strike on the North will very likely evolve into large-scale bloody war on the Peninsula.
Nonetheless, emboldened by its success in Syria, Washington will probably become more impatient with Pyongyang's provocations. Destroying North Korea's nuclear facilities with air raids is not considered an absurd idea by the Trump team any more, but a serious option that is frequently talked about.
In this case, should North Korea conduct the sixth nuclear test, the possibility that it will become a decisive factor in pushing Washington to take a military adventure cannot be excluded. This year's situation is different from that of last year. Obama exercised restraint during his last year of tenure, following a policy of strategic patience toward North Korea for seven years. Trump, shortly after assuming power, accorded priority to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue in a high-profile gesture. He will feel discredited if Washington is outmaneuvered by Pyongyang.
It's reported that the National Security Council has presented Trump with options that include equipping US troops stationed in South Korea with nuclear weapons. If so, the goal for denuclearization of the Peninsula will come to nothing and North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons will be de facto legitimized. Both China and Russia will strongly oppose it.
It's of vital importance that North Korea does not misjudge the situation in future. New nuclear tests will meet with unprecedented reactions from the international community, even to a turning point.