Passing SeoulThe USS Carl Vinson strike group has arrived on the Korean Peninsula. Onboard the aircraft carrier alone are 60 fighter jets and the E-2C Hawkeye early warning squadron, which plays the role of combat command for the skies. The group’s Aegis-class cruisers and destroyers are armed with SM-3 interceptor missiles with a 500-kilometer (300-mile) range. The most frightening weapon is the destroyers’ tomahawk missiles, which set the course for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine, has also arrived in Busan loaded with 154 tomahawk missiles.
The U.S. Air Force has deployed advanced fighter jets — F-22s, F-35Bs and B-1Bs — to Guam, which allows them to send air support to the Korean Peninsula within two to three hours. Fighter jets and bombers in U.S. bases in Japan can also reach North Korean air space shortly after takeoff.
This unprecedented military pressure from the United States helped prevent Kim Jong-un from conducting a sixth nuclear test during North Korea’s major political holidays in April, including the anniversaries of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth and the establishment of the People’s Army. The “tough cookie” of North Korea lowered its tail in the face of his counterpart in the U.S.
However, we must not make a judgment solely based on the microscopic phenomenon of military pressure, on whether Uncle Sam will attack the North’s nuclear and missile facilities, and on whether war will break out on the peninsula. What stopped Kim’s reckless behavior as much as the USS Carl Vinson, USS Michigan and tomahawks was Beijing’s unparalleled check on Pyongyang after U.S. President Donald Trump struck a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump, a risk-taker to the bone, managed to succeed in creating a rift between North Korea and China.
The Global Times, one of the most aggressive state mouthpieces in China, issued warning after warning against the North. The most horrifying was that China would not oppose a pre-emptive strike by the United States and that China could cut its fuel supply to North Korea if it pushed forward another nuclear test.
But let’s not be mistaken. It is naïve to believe China does not oppose a pre-emptive strike on the North. It is China’s toughest possible rhetoric. A pre-emptive strike will no doubt trigger North Korean retaliation on the South, and that means war on the peninsula. This is not a scenario that China can accept.
During Trump and Xi’s summit in Florida and their phone call on April 24, the two presidents seem to have agreed on three points. First, the United States will not launch a pre-emptive strike that will lead to all-out war. Second, China will stop the North’s nuclear and missile tests aimed at acquiring intercontinental capability by building pressure on Pyongyang, including cutting the oil supply. Third, if China does not cooperate, the U.S. will carry out secondary boycotts on Chinese companies that deal with the North.
But the two leaders probably did not stop there. They most likely tried to find a solution to resolve the nuclear conundrum after first putting out the urgent fire — a sixth nuclear test and additional ballistic missile tests. They have two options: freeze the North’s estimated 20 nuclear warheads and find a diplomatic solution, or leave them alone to develop 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, which is how much they are estimated to produce during Trump’s term through 2020.
Although Trump is tough and unpredictable, he appears to have removed the option of a pre-emptive strike from the table. Trump and Xi made a deal that the United States would not designate China as a currency manipulator if China used all available means to pressure Kim. For his part, Xi achieved his major goal of preventing an unwanted war on the peninsula.
In his recent book “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout,” Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, predicted the Trump administration would separate the nuclear issue from regime change and freeze the number of warheads at the current level of 20. He then predicted Washington would adopt a policy of establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea and sign a peace treaty through so-called coercive engagement.
Coercive engagement means forcing Pyongyang to sit at the negotiating table. Under this plan, North Korea will be able to maintain its deterrent power with 20 nuclear warheads, while China can avert a war on the peninsula and the collapse of the North Korean regime. The United States will also be able to stop the North from miniaturizing nuclear warheads and developing intercontinental missiles. The plan will also help the South avoid a war.
A joint statement issued by State Secretary Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats on April 27 focused on “maximum pressure and engagement.” This also translates into Washington’s hope that the United States will protect its mainland from the North’s nuclear threats by freezing development and negotiating based on power.
However, the Trump administration’s strategy fails to account for South Korea. The exclusion of Seoul from this critical process is a serious issue. The problem is that many security experts, except for former neocons and hard-liners, agree that this is the only realistic resolution available, aside from war. It’s nice that Trump and Xi are doing their best to address the nuclear issue, but Seoul must not be passed over.
Nevertheless, our presidential candidates are turning a blind eye to the evolving situation while reiterating their childish national security policies. The next president must draw up a thorough and meticulous strategy that can be reflected in Trump and Xi’s plans.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 28, Page 39
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.