North Korea and Red Lines – Is Conflict Inevitable?

On July 4th, North Korea launched an ICBM missile in their most successful test thus far.

The success was surprising to many, because it appears to be two years ahead of schedule. This ICBM technology seemingly allows North Korea the capability to reach Alaska, and perhaps Hawaii. Given their success over the past few years, few doubt the eventuality of their capability of hitting the mainland 48 states in the near future.

Yesterday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a forceful message to the UN Security Council, advocating global participation in North Korea sanctions, but at the same time, firmly putting US military might on the table as well.

Ambassador Haley held off on actual sanction specifics, but did mention oil and finance. North Korea imports 100% of their oil, and relies heavily on outside currency to fund their import needs. The current belief is if we are successful in drying up their oil supply, and freezing their banking, we will incapacitate Kim Jong-Un’s military.

All of this sounds reasonable. In fact, its comes straight out of the Foggy Bottom playbook. Utilize diplomacy to convince the global community to enact ever tightening sanctions with the hopes of bringing the rogue nation to the table for negotiations, thereby easing the threat.

It seems doubtful this diplomatic tact will be successful this time. At least, it seems dubious, given the “red lines” three nations have declared. Those are:

  • America: The USA will not accept a nuclear capable North Korea. There will be no new rounds of negotiations without North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea not only must eliminate their nukes, and their nuclear facilities, they must prove this fact to the US before any talks can commence.
  • North Korea: North Korea will not negotiate away their military nuclear capability. At a minimum, negotiations must allow for their current nuclear capability.
  • China: China cannot countenance the thought of South Korea (and therefore the US) occupying North Korea, thereby allowing the US military to be on their border. (One can hardly blame them, this would be akin to Russia camping on our border just miles from San Diego.) China is also fearful of the flow of refugees across the border if conflict were to being. China’s stance is they will get North Korea to the table if and only if, South Korea and the US cease joint military exercises, and remove all of the advanced missile and radar defense technology now installed in South Korea.

Of course, the obvious question is how strong these red lines really are. Can the U.S. accept a North Korea with the nuclear capability to hit America anywhere it wants, anytime it wants? Will Kin Jong-Un negotiate away his nukes in return for aid? What can China really live with?

But the really important question is how rational is Kim Jong-Un? If he is sane, then status quo diplomacy might work. If he’s a maniacal psychopath, then any diplomatic expectations are rooted in sheer fantasy.

When you game this out, conflict appears inevitable. If you take away Kim Jong-Un’s oil and cash, you very well might have a wounded animal in a corner scenario. What does this Demi-god have to lose once he has deprived his civilian population of oil, and his military is on its last legs? Reason? Sanity? No one can make a case for this dictator being even remotely sane.

What Ambassador Haley, Secretary of State Tillerson and the President aren’t saying is the most preferable scenario lies in the North Korea military taking out Kim Jong-Un themselves. The thinking is if the North Korean Army begins to see it’s own demise due to a global quarantine, they will overthrow Kim and establish new leadership.

The problem with this line of thought is not only is Kim Jong-Un their third generation godlike leader, the Army is third generation loyal to his family. If you add the fact that most of the officer class could be tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity, there doesn’t seem to be incentive for them to betray their leader.

China has shown themselves to be playing both sides, all the while attempting to appear mainstream to the global community. They met with President Trump very early into his term, and seemingly assured him of their desire to cooperate in reining in the North Korean nuclear capability by reducing trade with them. The 2017 first 6 month trade figures have just come out, and trade between China and North Korea has increased by 34%. It is becoming more and more difficult to have any faith in their desire to facilitate denuclearization.

There is one more fact to consider. South Korea’s capital city, Seoul is a densely packed city with over 10 million in population. It lies within 75 miles of the border between South and North Korea. No one really knows how many missiles the North Korean Army have along the border pointed at the capital city, but few deny the presence of chemical weapons among them.

If North Korea were allowed to strike Seoul, minimum causalities are estimated in the 300,000 range before North Korea was defeated. The use of VX gas, and other chemical weapons would certainly raise that estimate.

It is very hard to see how tightening the screws on North Korea will have any effect if China won’t cooperate. But then, what happens if China cuts off their oil? Does North Korea move into a war footing, escalating tensions globally?

At the end of the day, if any diplomatic scenario of sanctions eventually moves this mentally unstable dictator into an aggressive military stance, does a pre-emptive strike make sense? Or will America resign themselves to living daily under the threat of nuclear catastrophe from this rump nation?

Something has to give. These three “red lines” are in conflict with each other to the extent someone has to blink. If we are expecting a mentally unstable 30-something to blink first, especially with China’s continue assistance, then we might be living in a fantasy. But, if he doesn’t, what then? Will we acquiesce to North Korea in much the same way Europe has to the Muslims? Or will we defend our red-line?

Only time will tell, For now, our administration seems to be saying all the right things.

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