When news that the Carl Vinson strike group was turning around and heading north to the Korean Peninsula* the world once again moved to the edge of its seat and watched and waited. (As an aside, why are we naming ships after congressmen, but I digress.) Despite sudden newfound anxieties from the left about fairly routine shows of force in response to North Korean saber-rattling, the weekend came and went without the world tail-spinning into World War III. As it turns out, the Carl Vinson strike group was actually in the Indian Ocean conducting joint exercises with Australia.
The Trump Administration seems to want to buck the traditional North Korean policy, saying the “era of strategic patience is over.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have both issued unusually brief statements that seem to indicate that the United States has stopped playing games with Pyongyang and simply had enough.
This past weekend marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim il-Sung, the biggest calendar day of the year in the North. They rolled out the traditional parade of military hardware that included some rather impressive looking missiles. Questions about the realness of those missiles was questioned by skeptics. The North also conducted another missile test this weekend, which failed spectacularly. There were also questions as to whether this was “Stuxnet for missiles.” When asked by Chris Wallace to comment on the rumors Deputy National Security Advisior KT McFarland simply said, “No comment.”
Trump has definitely talked tough about North Korea. He has sought to have China tighten the screws on its ally. The strikes on Syria have some believing Trump may actually be crazy enough to mean it when he says all options are on the table.
Trump’s tough talking stance on North Korea may be short-lived. In less than three weeks South Koreans go to the polls to choose a new president to replace the recently impeached Park Geun-hye. A South Korea swing to the left could put a wrench in any American plans to take a harder line towards the North.
The problem with sanctions is that, while necessary, the regime simply does not care if the people suffer as a result of economic isolation; in fact their juche ideology welcomes isolation.
Nobody with a level head wants a war on the Korean Peninsula. The United States remembers what happened the last time it fought a war in Korea. Seoul lies close to the border and would be anything but safe in Korean War 2.0. China want a unified Seoul-dominated Korea in the same way the countries of the Middle East want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not to mention all the refugees that would stream into China. If the North Korean regime cares at all about maintaining its grip on power, then they do not want a war either. Add to this the fact that three of the major players are armed with nuclear weapons and it makes for a tinderbox that nobody wants to ignite.
In 1994 North Korea reached an Iran nuke deal-like agreement with the Clinton Administration. The Clinton White House assumed the regime would collapse and thus any deal would be irrelevant, meanwhile the deal averted a war on the Peninsula, so it was a win-win.
Fast forward 23 years and the regime is still standing and is not only nuclearly armed, but is working on a submarine-based launch platform that if successful could more easily target the mainland. The North Korean problem is one and that has no easy solution and its time we all admit that.