I consider North Korea to be America’s stalking horse for its China strategy.
If I’m right, things aren’t looking too good.
I have a piece up at Asia Times, Will We Have to Nuke Asia in Order to Save It?
It reviews the recent excitement over the fifth North Korean nuclear test and addresses the fact that the DPRK’s busy bomb-and-missile makers have eroded the US deterrent to the extent that South Korea believes it needs to upgrade its pre-emptive threat (not retaliatory response, mind you) to a war crime (razing Pyongyang with a conventional strike):
Seoul has already developed a plan to “annihilate” Pyongyang in a massive bombing campaign if the North shows signs of a nuclear attack, the Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean military source as saying Sunday.
The plan, known as “Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation” (KMPR), was revealed after the Defense Ministry briefed the National Assembly last week on the subject, Yonhap said.
Using colorful language reminiscent of North Korean state media, the report said that Pyongyang would be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map” if signs of an imminent attack were uncovered.
“Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon,” the report quoted a source as saying.
“The KMPR is the utmost operation concept the military can have in the absence of its own nuclear weapons,” the source added.
With this level of violence being proposed as the new baseline, and South Korea’s anxieties about its non-nukishness reaching new heights, it’s not surprising that the US has to raise the ante with the threat of a tactical nuclear strike to maintain credibility as South Korea’s protector.
With “nuclear capable” B-52s over the Korean peninsula to show our resolve, nukes are back in Asia (as I predicted back in April: backpat for China Hand!), President Obama’s dream of salvaging his Nobel Prize for non-proliferation by renouncing first strike is in tatters and…
…and in case you’ve noticed, the conventional US deterrent is apparently unable to bring to North Korea, a battered and sanctioned state with an economy the size of Ethiopia’s, to heel.
What’s that say about the credibility of the US deterrent in Asia?
Not good things. Believe me.
First off, the temptation for Japan and South Korea to go nuclear is getting stronger.
That means in order to forestall the proliferation of nuclear weapons among our allies in Asia and the concomitant erosion of the US leadership position, the US has to adopt more aggressive measures to claim the initiative in North Asian security and pre-empt the Japanese/ROK nuclear option.
The most logical but most destructive endgame for keeping US on top is for it to forcibly de-nuclearize North Korea, either by lighting off WWIII with an invasion or trying to force the PRC into doing it for us.
Good Luck With That.
In my piece, I make under-appreciated point that the PRC is just as worried as anybody else that North Korea will drop a nuke on it in retaliation for regime-change shenanigans, so I’m not expecting anything particularly aggressive from China along the lines of forcible counter-proliferation.
Not a lot of really attractive options, in other words.
The implications for U.S. PRC policy of a failure of the North Korea deterrence are not particularly heartening. If perceptions of the effectiveness of the US military and the efficacy of US leadership continue to erode, the US will have to get more aggressive in its security strategy to retain the initiative in Asia, and not just the Korean Peninsula.
If trends continue, it seems to me the US will have to compensate for its decreasing military advantage by migrating from a relatively stabilizing military deterrent/containment strategy to a more aggressive, results-oriented China-collapse strategy to convince Asia it’s got the chops to stop the PRC pandadragon in its tracks before it’s too late.
How aggressively the US deals with the strategic challenge of nuclear North Korea will be a useful harbinger of its intentions for the PRC.