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CNN wrote:Russia's power play in North Korea aimed at both China and US

By Jamie Tarabay, CNN

Updated 1009 GMT (1809 HKT) September 1, 2017

Story highlights:

  • Russia flew bombers near North Korea in support of Pyongyang against US and South Korean military exercises
  • Russia is attempting to compete with China for influence

(CNN) When Russia sent its bombers flying over the Korean peninsula last week, it was as much a signal to its allies in Beijing as it was a telegraph to Washington that Moscow too, was pivoting to Asia.

The Kremlin may not become Pyongyang's most steadfast and critical defender in this newest conflagration, but its cameo in the region is another attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to insert himself into a geo-political stalemate involving the US.

Experts say it may also help deflect attention from upcoming military exercises in Belarus and western Russia next month, which have upset NATO members concerned about what amounts to a mass buildup of Russian troops on the edges of eastern Europe.

China, which sent bombers into the air itself shortly after, declined to comment about the show of force from Moscow. In its regular press briefing on Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would not "quantify how close China and Russia are cooperating on the North Korean nuclear issue," said Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman.

"Just like China, Russia plays a pivotal role in maintaining global peace and stability as well as promoting peaceful solutions to hotspot issues in the region," Hua said. "China is willing to strengthen its cooperation and coordination with Russia to jointly preserve peace and stability in the region and around the world."

The real trouble maker

If China is perturbed by its once-dominant Communist partner seeking to commandeer more influence in the region, it's not outwardly displaying those concerns.

"I think China is confident that its economic development, its military development, takes place at a faster pace than Russia, so in the long run Russia is in no position to seriously challenge Chinese core interests," said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. "There are certain elements of competition between the two countries, but their shared concerns about the US very much outweigh that right now."

Both Moscow and Beijing "share the basic perception of who is the real trouble maker and who is the biggest common threat in the Korean peninsula," Tong told CNN.

That trouble maker, he said, is the United States, and more specifically, the occupant in the White House.

"Secretary (Rex) Tillerson says he wants to do diplomacy before considering other options but the rhetoric from other people in the White House -- (US President Donald) Trump tweeting that talking is not the answer, I think from the Chinese perspective the US is still considering a military option so that doesn't reassure leaders in North Korea or China," Tong said.

Every action Pyongyang takes, said Tong, could be construed by Beijing and Moscow as a reaction to Trump's escalated posture.

Putin appeared to reiterate this on Thursday when he called attempts to get the regime of Kim Jong Un to cease its nuclear program "a dead-end road."

"Russia believes that the policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile program is misguided and futile," Putin said in an article released by the Kremlin. "Provocations, pressure and militarist and insulting rhetoric are a dead-end road."

Russia has recently been making inroads to counter China's perceived clout with North Korea. Overtures include Russia's forgiveness of Soviet-era debt, of which $10 billion due from Pyongyang was written off by the Kremlin. Moscow is one of the largest donors of food aid to North Korea, and alongside Beijing, was recently hit with US Treasury sanctions for selling oil to the North Korean regime.

This is all intentional, says Samuel Ramani, a Russian foreign policy specialist.
"As Russia takes an increasingly assertive approach to world affairs, it reminds its citizens of the Soviet Union's status as a superpower that could influence conflicts worldwide," Ramani wrote in the Washington Post in late July. "In this respect, Russia's increased attention to North Korea is much like its military intervention in Syria and its expanded diplomatic presence in Libya and Afghanistan. Moscow is trying once again to project itself as a global power."

Old rivalry reignites

The jostling between the two powers over North Korea has decades-long historical roots.

"To an extent it began when China and Russia became competitors for influence in the Communist world, they fought border battles in the late 1960s," said Carl Schuster, retired Navy Captain and now adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.

Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, was a guerilla leader who became a major in the Soviet Red Army and served in it until the end of World War II. Upon his return to Korea after 26 years in exile, the Soviets installed him as head of the Korean Communist Party. With their help he built up an army and air force, then declared the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.

"Russia had the greater advantage, they had much more influence in the region," Schuster recalled. "When the Berlin Wall came down, Russia became very poor and China came to dominate."

Over the last 25 years Russia had virtually no ability to sway Pyongyang; it wasn't able to provide technological support or invest significantly in North Korean industry. Now, Schuster says, "Putin sees an opportunity to increase his influence, probably not by much, but it would be better than what he has, and it distracts America."

Whatever little sway he may obtain, that, coupled with China's own shaky standing with North Korea, highlights the possibility that neither power enjoys particularly friendly relations with the isolated regime.

"There is a profound sense of mistrust at the basis of the relationship North Korea has with China and even with Russia," said James Person, an expert on Korea at the Wilson Center. "There's a perception particularly with China that Beijing has been overly interventionist over the years and not respectful of Korean sovereignty."

China and Russia both share a border with North Korea, a demarcation that has shifted over time as territorial disputes were resolved, and one that each of them jealously guards.

Person said that China's determination to establish regional hegemony, or a "zone of deference" which takes in North Korea has created confusion among Western observers about China's capacity to rein Pyongyang in. "People in Washington, including President Trump, believe China can just pick up the phone and solve the problem but because of this tortured history of relations they don't have the ability to exercise at will political influence over North Korea."

Moreover, there is risk in China's chastising North Korea any further, something that has been compounded by statements as far back as May in which the North Korean state-run news agency publicly rebuked China for banning coal imports from North Korea after a February missile test.

The North Korean statements warned China of "grave consequences," and said Beijing should "no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK's patience."
"The DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is," the commentary declared.

Yet China chooses to endure this apparent belligerence. Beijing will always prefer the current leadership in Pyongyang to any that might follow should the Kim dynasty fall, says Person.

"I think they would rather deal with the current North Korean regime with nuclear weapons than they would with a basically reunified Korea that places a US treaty ally at the Chinese doorstep," he said.

Moscow's own relationship with Washington becomes more fraught each day. On Thursday, Trump's administration announced it would shut down Russian diplomatic missions in US cities, seemingly in response to an order from the Russian Foreign Ministry in July for Washington to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by nearly half.

Both Moscow and Beijing seek to keep the US at bay to protect their own interests in the area, something Person says the US could use to its advantage if it can quell North Korea's panic and pursue diplomacy again. Even now, he said, there are "talks about talks" that could lead to a de-escalation. But that choice belongs with President Trump.

"The important thing is, the US has to recognize that only it has the ability to give Pyongyang what it wants," Person said. "Yes, China is important in the region, but let's not outsource to China anymore, especially given the fact that China is trying to reassert this hegemony in the region. By outsourcing our North Korea policy to China, we're only abetting them in doing this."

The US must also contend with the notion that Moscow too will embrace a larger role.

"Russia wants to be, and be seen as, a great power. It wants to lead the nations that resist Western power and influence. In defying the United Nations and supporting North Korea, Russia bolsters that status at home and abroad," Ramani says. "And so Moscow's alignment with North Korea will likely get stronger in the near future."

So it's a bit more complicated than a personal conflict between Kim and Trump would be. It's a very dangerous situation as all the three biggest players in the world are directly interested and involved.
I see nothing new here. The only thing Trump adds is the threat of force to reinforce our position. The US seesaws on this all the time. Some US administrations try to be strictly diplomatic and end up losing ground because the other side threatens violence. Some administrations recognize this flaw, like Trump, and puts on a more militaristic front. Nothing really new here.
The difference can only come from actually attacking North Korea and seeing if Russia or China are willing to do anything about it. I don't think they would, but it is a tremendous risk. Pulling it off however would have tremendous benefits to the US in any future negotiations with almost anyone.
I put on my nationalist disguise to make the above comments. :D
I wonder whether what direction the Trump presidency takes. If he goes to war in Korea, his presidency will be like that of Johnson's was. Although he's compared to Nixon because of Russiagate many times, he's more like Johnson on a personal level. In my opinion he won't pull the trigger.
Oxymoron wrote:I think my money is to short the fuck out of Samsung. :excited:

Maybe that's what Gary Cohen and George Soros(!) are doing as well. Joooz make war for profit again! Should I expect pogroms in the US after the genie seems to have got out of the bottle in Charlottesville?

Oxymoron wrote:In all seriousness, I think regime change is the only solution.

Regime change is only possible if the two Koreas unite, and the South absorbs the North obviously. Would you expect it to happen soon?
Beren wrote:Maybe that's what Gary Cohen and George Soros(!) are doing as well. Joooz make war for profit again! Should I expect pogroms in the US after the genie seems to have got out of the bottle in Charlottesville?

Regime change is only possible if the two Koreas unite, and the South absorbs the North obviously. Would you expect it to happen soon?

All wars are for profit... in any case yes reunification is the only way forward.
Russia's foreign minister is urging the United States to negotiate a deal with North Korea to avert war, voicing concern that tensions might spiral out of control.

Referring to the U.S., Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that "the one who is smarter and stronger must take the first step" in diplomatic efforts.

Lavrov says Moscow has asked Washington in confidential conversations if it realizes that U.S. allies South Korea and Japan would suffer the most if the North's nuclear missile tests provoke a military conflict.

He says the U.S. response was that certain developments would leave military intervention as the only option.

Russia is mainly worried about the escalation to conflict and reining in the Trump administration. The Trump administration will negotiate a deal with North Korea, if it stops dangerous provocations for a couple of months by ceasing all missile and nuclear tests. To bring Kim to the negotiation table, the show of force may be necessary. The Koreans didn't experience the Second World War, which is why they don't understand who they are messing with.

ThirdTerm wrote:The Koreans didn't experience the Second World War, which is why they don't understand who they are messing with.

But they clearly experienced the Korean War, which may be a more relevant experience in this case.
Oxymoron wrote:All wars are for profit... in any case yes reunification is the only way forward.

I am not sure what you mean by reunification unless you want Japan to take back over.
The Korean War was not a declared war. It was a conflict in the early stages of the cold war. It had nothing to do with profit. The US had already withdrawn all their troops in preparation for it becoming one country, when the North attacked the South.
One Degree wrote:I am not sure what you mean by reunification unless you want Japan to take back over.
The Korean War was not a declared war. It was a conflict in the early stages of the cold war. It had nothing to do with profit. The US had already withdrawn all their troops in preparation for it becoming one country, when the North attacked the South.

:lol: :lol: you got to be joking?
If war is not intended to improve your countries wealth, then why the fuck are you waging it. Either the US is retarded or it is fighting for its interests, based on US preeminence in the global stage I would think it is the later.
Oxymoron wrote::lol: :lol: you got to be joking?
If war is not intended to improve your countries wealth, then why the fuck are you waging it. Either the US is retarded or it is fighting for its interests, based on US preeminence in the global stage I would think it is the later.

I already told you the US had withdrawn their troops. They were fighting Soviet expansion. After the defeat of Japan, The Soviets occupied the North and the US occupied the South. They were supposedly working together to create one country. The Soviets had other plans. Why do you think MacArthur wanted to attack Russia?
One Degree wrote:I already told you the US had withdrawn their troops. They were fighting Soviet expansion. After the defeat of Japan, The Soviets occupied the North and the US occupied the South. They were supposedly working together to create one country. The Soviets had other plans. Why do you think MacArthur wanted to attack Russia?

Soviet Expansion? The Expansion was mutual, and the US wanted to control as much territory as possible to expand its global economic power. If this is not making a profit, I do not think you know what the word means.Going to war based on 1980's Hollywood action Mythos is the stuff of movies not geopolitics.
MacArthur wanted to Nuke and invade China...please enlighten me as to when he called for WW3 with the Soviet Union over Korea.
This article takes the view that N Korea is more interested in asserting itself relative to China. The US is just a convenient whipping boy for the fat kid to show how tough he is.

Image Credit: REUTERS
North Korea is playing a longer-term game than the US
If Kim’s belligerence induces Japan or maybe South Korea to develop nuclear deterrents, that would take some of the pressure off him, as nuclear proliferation would become the regional default
By Tyler Cowen
Published: 17:24 October 20, 2017
Gulf News

If we think through the North Korea nuclear weapons dilemma using game theory, one aspect of the problem deserves more attention, namely the age of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un: 33. Because peaceful exile doesn’t appear to be an option — his escaping the country safely would be hard — Kim needs strategies for hanging on to power for 50 years or more. That’s a tall order, but it helps us understand that his apparently crazy tactics are probably driven by some very reasonable calculations, albeit selfish and evil ones.

It is very difficult to predict the world a half-century out. Fifty years ago, China was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution, and Japan’s rise was not yet so evident. North Korea was possibly still richer than the South, which in 1960 was one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s unlikely anyone had a reasonable inkling of where things would stand today.

So if you are a dictator planning for long-term survival under a wide range of possible outcomes, what might you do? You don’t know who your enemies and your friends will be over those 50 years, so you will choose a porcupine-like strategy and appear prickly to everyone.

We tend to think of Kim as an irritant, but his natural enemy in the long run is China. It is easier for North Korea to threaten Chinese cities with weapons, and its nuclear status stands in China’s way of becoming the dominant regional power in East Asia. Chinese public opinion has already turned against North Korea, and leaders wonder whether a more reliable, pro-Chinese option to Kim might be installed. Since assuming power, Kim has gone after the generals and family members with the strongest ties to China.

One way to interpret Kim’s spat with United States President Donald Trump is that he is signalling to the Chinese that they shouldn’t try to take him down because he is willing to countenance “crazy” retaliation. In this view, Beijing is a more likely target for one of his nukes than is Seattle.

More radically, think of Kim as auditioning to the US, Japan, South Korea and India as a potential buffer against Chinese expansion. If he played his hand more passively and calmly, hardly anyone would think that such a small country had this capacity. But, by picking a fight with the US, he is showing the ability to deter just about anyone.

Another possible scenario from Kim’s perspective is that external pressures and sanctions rise, and North Korea can’t survive as a regional nuclear pariah. If this doesn’t seem likely today, remember we are talking about the next 50 years. So if Kim’s belligerence induces Japan or maybe South Korea to develop nuclear deterrents, that would take some of the pressure off him, as nuclear proliferation would become the regional default.

Russia not a reliable friend

All good long-run strategies for Kim should have some short-term payoffs. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be ignoring the North Korean threat, and may have possibly allowed Soviet-era nuclear technology to make its way to them. Kim has earned his country one very powerful protector, but he would be unwise to consider Russia a reliable friend in the longer run. The Russians too have to fear North Korean nuclear weapons.

A common criticism of game-theoretic analyses is that individuals are simply not very calculating and rational. But evidence shows a lot of North Korean skill at deliberate strategy. Kim was considered a weak successor to his father. Yet, he cemented his power decisively. He developed intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and expanded the nuclear arsenal much more quickly than most observers had expected. He brought reforms and unexpectedly high rates of growth to the North Korean economy, and he seems to have retained the loyalty of a significant fraction of the North Korean populace.

It’s mostly good news that Kim is probably more rational than his rhetoric would indicate. The American and South Korean equity markets are hitting new highs, and the Japanese market is doing fine, which hardly seems compatible with a pending nuclear war. The point is not that markets are always right in their bullishness, but at least equity valuations are not completely crazy.

Alternatively, you still might think that Kim and the markets really are insane. But then how about you? We all know that a sane and smart worrywart would know to sell everything and short all those markets, and surely you did that some time ago?
— Bloomberg
Tyler Cowen is a senior Bloomberg View columnist
Are the Americans following the right strategy? Surely the aim for America should be to prevent any side getting the upper hand while presenting themselves as the indispensable facilitator for dispute resolution.

Instead they are taking a ham fisted approach which is diminishing their standing in the region while empowering regional leaders. Both China and Japan have strong leaders who have just strengthen their hold on power.

Maybe it would be better the back down from confrontation with N Korea and engage in a longer term game of playing off the various protagonists. Certainly this seems to be the game Russia is playing.

South Korean Leader Boxed In as Trump Threatens North Korea


SEOUL, South Korea — He won the presidency promising a shift toward dialogue with North Korea. He argued that sanctions and pressure alone would never persuade the North to scrap its nuclear arsenal. And he pledged to “say no to the Americans if necessary.”

But six months after South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, returned the nation’s liberals to power, his plans to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula have gone nowhere.

President Trump has doubled down on sanctions in the standoff with the North, dismissed talks as a waste of time, stepped up military drills and rattled the region with pugnacious threats. And he has barely disguised his disagreement with Mr. Moon, openly accusing South Korea, an ally of 67 years, of “appeasement.”

Now, as Mr. Moon prepares to host Mr. Trump’s first visit to South Korea, he finds himself caught in a bind, compelled by the White House and conservatives at home to support hard-line policies that he once criticized — and that many of his supporters worry are dragging their nation to the brink of war.

Mr. Moon’s engagement agenda has been thwarted as much by the North’s defiant weapons tests as Mr. Trump’s combative response. But South Korea is more accustomed to belligerence from Pyongyang than Washington, and there is widespread concern that Mr. Trump may make matters worse when he arrives next week.

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Mr. Trump leaves Washington on Friday for a five-nation, 12-day trip across Asia during which he intends to intensify pressure on North Korea while also pushing for better trade deals for the United States. After a stop in Hawaii, he travels to Japan, then South Korea and China before ending the tour with regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines.


Mr. Moon met with President Trump at the White House in June. Credit Pete Marovich for The New York Times
“What South Koreans fear the most is, what if Trump says something provocative, like a military option against North Korea,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Trump is unpredictable.”

Mira Rapp-Hooper, a scholar of Asian security issues at Yale Law School, said Mr. Moon has struggled to balance his agenda with “a Trump strategy that simultaneously aggravates North Korea and threatens the alliance relationship with South Korea.”

“Usually when you are in a heightened security situation, you would expect to see an alliance pull closer,” she said. “But it is very difficult to do in a world where Trump is threatening South Korea itself.”

There have been some signs of pushback by Mr. Moon. He reached a deal with China on Tuesday to end their dispute over the deployment of an American missile defense system, agreeing not to accept additional launchers from the United States. He later said he wanted to pursue “balanced diplomacy” with Washington and Beijing, which favors talks with North Korea.

And in a speech Wednesday, Mr. Moon repeated his position that military action against the North “shall not be taken” without South Korea’s consent, undermining the credibility of Mr. Trump’s threats.

During a visit by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week, South Korea also sought to take back operational control of its military forces in the event of a conflict, which would undo an agreement in place since the 1950s that puts its troops under United States command if fighting resumes.


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Still, Mr. Moon appears to have concluded that South Korea has little choice but to stand by Mr. Trump and accept its status as the junior partner in the alliance — even though it would have the most to lose in a war.


North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has not conducted a missile test since Sept. 15. Credit Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters
“What we must realize, painfully, is that although this is a Korean Peninsula issue of greatest urgency for us, in reality, we have no power to resolve it,” Mr. Moon said on July 11 of the nuclear standoff. “We have no power to elicit an agreement.”

Scott Snyder, director of the program on United States-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mr. Moon has proved to be a pragmatist.

“And any South Korean pragmatist is going to look at options for achieving South Korea’s security needs, and immediately recognize that the U.S. security guarantee is central,” he said.

Some of Mr. Moon’s supporters have accused him of betraying his principles by deferring to Mr. Trump and what they consider a reckless approach to the North. The conservative opposition, meanwhile, has seized on any deviation to accuse Mr. Moon of endangering the alliance with the United States.

But Mr. Moon’s approval ratings remain high, with many South Koreans instead faulting Mr. Trump. The administration’s hints of a preventive strike on North Korea have unnerved them as much as, if not more than, the North’s weapons tests.

Many were shocked and furious in August when Senator Lindsey Graham quoted Mr. Trump minimizing the potential for casualties in a war by saying they would occur in South Korea, not the United States.

Small groups of anti-American activists have since taken to the streets in Seoul, shouting “No Trump, No War!” and calling him a “dotard,” a derogatory word for an old person that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, used to condemn Mr. Trump after he threatened to “totally destroy” the North in September.


A South Korean soldier participating in a drill near the disputed sea border with North Korea in September. Credit South Korean Marine Corps/Yonhap, via Reuters
“South Koreans are frustrated that the United States has not allowed their country any wriggling room,” said Cho Han-bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “Trump is helping spawn anti-American sentiment here.”


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Mr. Moon is also juggling concerns about the security of the coming Winter Olympics, which South Korea will host three months from now in Pyeongchang, a town about 60 miles from the border with the North.

When the South last hosted the Olympics, in 1988, North Korea attempted to disrupt the event, most notably by detonating a bomb on a Korean Air passenger jet, killing 115 people, less than a year earlier. And in 2002, as South Korea hosted the World Cup soccer tournament, the North provoked a naval skirmish that left six South Korean sailors dead and an unknown number of North Korean casualties.

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There is additional anxiety because joint military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States are scheduled to begin during the Olympics. The North has condemned the annual drills as rehearsals for invasion, and often makes a point of responding with missile tests.

China has proposed suspending the exercises in exchange for a freeze in testing by North Korea, a proposal that both Mr. Moon’s government and the Trump administration have rejected.

When he meets with Mr. Trump, Mr. Moon is expected to discuss ways to ease tensions ahead of the Olympics. But South Korean officials said the exercises were unlikely to be scaled back or delayed, especially if North Korea continued its weapons tests.

Mr. Moon continues to argue that pressure alone will not persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arms, and that the world must offer it carrots, including negotiations and, eventually, economic exchanges.


Ribbons on a wire fence near the border with North Korea symbolizing people’s wishes for reunification of the two Koreas. Credit Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press
But he also has other political battles to fight, with youth unemployment over 9 percent and voters expecting action to end the culture of collusion between government and big business that was exposed by the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

“There is so much weighing on him that I don’t think he has the political capital or ability to muster a strong coalition for sustained engagement” with North Korea, said Celeste Arrington, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “That is currently kind of a pipe dream because the constraints are so great.”


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By contrast, China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will host Mr. Trump next week after political victories at home. Mr. Abe recently won a commanding majority in parliamentary elections, while a Communist Party congress in Beijing elevated Mr. Xi to the same exalted status as Mao Zedong.

Mr. Abe has unequivocally supported Mr. Trump’s approach toward North Korea and argued that “dialogue will not work.”

North Korea has not conducted a missile test since Sept. 15, when it sailed an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan. It is unclear what is behind the lull, but South Korean officials hope to use it to reduce tensions — and build momentum for diplomacy during Mr. Trump’s marathon tour across Asia.

Mr. Trump is expected to address South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly — he would be the first American president to do so in nearly a quarter century — and visit Pyeongtaek, a town south of Seoul that hosts Camp Humphreys, one of the largest American military bases in the world.

The visit is intended in part to address Mr. Trump’s complaint that South Korea is not paying enough to support the American military presence. The base was recently expanded after South Korea provided land and financing.

“South Koreans hope that Mr. Trump’s visit will be an occasion to reconfirm the alliance and agree to a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “The last thing they want is for him to come here and add instability.”

Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, and Motoko Rich from Tokyo.
Might it be that China will invade N Korea? The Americans and the Chinese might being cooperating. I doubt the Russians would be happy about Chinese occupation of the north but they aren’t strong enough to do much about it.

A Tillerson Slip Offers a Peek Into Secret Planning on North Korea
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Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson offered tantalizing details on how the United States would race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons in the event of a collapse. Credit Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

For years, American diplomats have been trying to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of this scenario, hoping to avoid a conflict between arriving American Special Forces — who have been practicing this operation for years — and the Chinese military, which would almost certainly pour over the border in a parallel effort.

And for years the Chinese have resisted the conversation, according to several former American officials who tried to engage them in joint planning. The Chinese feared that if news of a conversation leaked, Beijing would be seen as conspiring with the United States over plans for an eventual North Korean collapse, eroding any leverage that Beijing still held over Mr. Kim.

So it was surprising to Mr. Tillerson’s colleagues in the White House and the Pentagon when, in a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, he revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

North Korea has defied past predictions of collapse, and one does not appear imminent. But if a collapse were to occur, the aftermath could present grave dangers. American officials have envisioned that North Korean officers, fearing the end of Mr. Kim’s government, might lob a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan as a last, desperate act — or detonate it on North Korean territory to make occupation impossible.

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On Tuesday, speaking from note cards, Mr. Tillerson said at a conference on the Korea crisis that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”


A celebration this month in North Korea of the nation’s status as a nuclear state. North Korea has defied repeated predictions of government collapse. Credit Kim Won-Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He added, “We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how might that be done.”

He repeated his past assurance that the administration was not seeking “regime collapse” or “an accelerated unification of the Korean Peninsula.”

“We do not seek a reason to send our own military forces north of the demilitarized zone,” the dividing line between North and South, he said.

But if America’s hand is forced, he added, “we have had conversations that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel” when conditions allowed.

In other words, the United States would essentially cede North Korean territory to the Chinese military, or let China and South Korea figure out who would control 46,500 square miles of territory and take care of its 25 million occupants, many of whom already do not have enough to eat.

In an interview on other national security issues on Friday, a senior administration official who has been deeply involved in the North Korea contingency planning declined to speak about the issue, even to confirm that the conversations the secretary described had taken place.

The White House has been more focused on the beleaguered Mr. Tillerson’s public offer to begin talks with North Korea on any issues, even “the weather,” from which he backtracked on Friday in a presentation to the United Nations.


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But the reference to planning for North Korean collapse, while not drawing wide notice, caught the attention of those who have been drawing up military plans for a number of possible scenarios, including American pre-emptive strikes. Asked whether Mr. Tillerson had referred by mistake to entreaties to the Chinese that previous administrations kept secret, Steven Goldstein, the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said it was quite deliberate.


The border dividing North Korea and China. In the event of a collapse in the North, the Chinese military is expected to race into the country. Credit John Ruwitch/Reuters
“The secretary reiterated the position he has taken in meetings with Chinese counterparts,” he said. “He would like the U.S. and Chinese military leaders to develop a plan for the safe disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons were the regime to collapse.” He added: “While the secretary has never advocated for regime change, we all have an obligation to be prepared for any scenario.”

There is no indication that the Chinese have responded, or that military officials have met — though Beijing would almost certainly keep that secret if it occurred.

According to current and former American officials, the contingency plans to seize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal have grown in complexity in recent years, largely because the North Korean arsenal has grown.

There are competing estimates among American intelligence agencies over how many weapons the North possesses. Most estimates range from 15 to 30 nuclear devices, but the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for protecting American troops on the Korean Peninsula, projected this year that the number could be in excess of 50.

The North is presumed to have undertaken an elaborate effort to hide the weapons. The result, one senior military official said recently, is that even if dozens of weapons were seized and deactivated, there would be no way to determine whether many more were still hidden away, perhaps under the control of surviving members of Mr. Kim’s military.

In the secret American rehearsals of how to execute a seizure of the North’s weapons — more of which are planned for the first half of next year, officials say — speed is of the essence.

Finding those weapons, landing “render safe” teams to disarm them and airlifting them out of the country would be a difficult enough task in peacetime. But the American planning assumes a three-way scramble to seize both weapons and territory, involving Chinese troops who may find themselves facing off against the United States and its South Korean allies.

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“Washington should assume that any Korean conflict involving large-scale U.S. military operations will trigger a significant Chinese military intervention,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, wrote this month in the journal Foreign Affairs, in a provocative article titled “Why China Won’t Rescue North Korea.”


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China, she wrote, “will likely attempt to seize control of key terrain, including North Korea’s nuclear sites,” most of which are within 60 miles or so of the Chinese border. Because of geographic advantage, they would probably arrive long before American forces.

In the past, American planning was based on an assumption that China would come to the aid of North Korea, as it did during the Korean War nearly seven decades ago. But Ms. Mastro, who also advises the United States Pacific Command, wrote that today “the Chinese military assume that it would be opposing, not supporting, North Korean troops.”

Her analysis mirrors what is increasingly becoming the dominant thinking among American military planners. That has made the secret discussion that Mr. Tillerson alluded to all the more vital. Curiously, some Chinese academics have begun writing about the need for the United States and China to prepare a joint strategy. Such public airing of the issue would have been banned in Chinese publications even a few years ago.

Mr. Tillerson’s public comments prompted memories of a lengthy conversation between the American ambassador in South Korea and a senior South Korean official in 2010. The details were revealed by WikiLeaks in a trove of 250,000 State Department cables that included secret discussions about how to deal with China’s ambitions for North Korean territory in the event of a collapse.

Over a lunchtime conversation, the South Korean diplomat confidently predicted to the American ambassador at the time, Kathleen Stephens, that North Korea would collapse “two to three years” after Kim Jong-il, the dictator at the time, died.

In fact, he died in 2011, but the predicted collapse never came. The diplomat then described plans to assure that Chinese companies would have plenty of commercial opportunities to mine minerals in the northern part of the peninsula. Ms. Stephens’s description of the lunch, sent back to Washington, included the caution that “China would clearly ‘not welcome’ any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ.”

There is no indication that those discussions included the sensitive issue of disposing of nuclear weapons. At the time, the North had only a handful.

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