China knows the game

(NYTimes cartoon)
(NYTimes cartoon)

 

While President Trump’s bombastic and alliterative threats against North Korea appear to be credibility-free bloviating, and North Korea’s are specific enough to be worrying even if doubt remains about their capability, there’s one player in this escalating exchange of warnings who seems to really understand how its done.

That would be China.

The marker was laid down in an editorial published yesterday in China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times:

[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

I will admit answering with decided skepticism when others have asked me whether I think China would enter a new Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. But as in so much of international affairs, context and circumstance matter.

As much as China might want to shake up the East Asian regional order to tilt the balance away from the United States and more in its favor, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, China is a decidedly status quo power.

As national security analyst John Schindler reminds us in his latest column at the Observer:

Beijing regards Pyongyang as a troublesome client whose antics cause annoyances and worse. However, for Beijing, the continuing existence of North Korea—as long as they don’t cause an atomic holocaust in Northeast Asia—is better than all the other options. A bumptious client state across the Yalu river beats having a united Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally, on China’s border.

Hence the very clear warning issued to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Kim is on notice that if he starts something he’s on his own. China will not have his back.  And Trump is on notice that China will go to war, just like it did in 1950, to ensure the survival of its client if the US makes the first move unprovoked.

The threats are in. I know which one I believe.

North Korea calls its shot

"Ready? Four Hwasong-12s landing 30km from Guam."
“Ready? Four Hwasong-12s landing 30km from Guam.”

 

In response to Donald Trumps incredibly vague threat to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea, the North Korean government replied with an incredibly specific threat of its own. And they say they’ll be ready to follow through by the middle of August.

That’s next week folks.

As The Atlantic reported this afternoon, North Korea is:

seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range strategic ballistic rockets in order to interdict the enemy forces on major military bases on Guam and to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.

Not only that, but the statement released by the Korean Central News Agency, precisely lays not just the type and number of missiles but the rockets’ flight path and time (20 minutes) from launch to reaching the targeted end point, waters 30 to 40 kilometers (18-25 miles) off the coast of the U.S. territory of Guam.

The commander of North Korea’s strategic rocket forces called Trump’s initial threat a “load of nonsense” and dismissed him the way one might the half-in-the-bag blowhard at the other end of the bar, saying: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”

Not to be outdone, Trump responded himself just a short while ago, cranking the level of bellicosity to 11:

Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough.

Look, the problem isn’t that “fire and fury” is too vague a threat. The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Bringing the conversation back to North Korea, even Trump’s own national security team were quick to distance official United States policy toward the North from the president’s own words. The only person in the administration who seems to be on the same page as Trump is Seb Gorka. That should tell you something.

Bottom line: No one (Gorka excepted) likely believes Donald Trump’s words are any more than empty chest-thumping bluster. But North Korea, that’s a different matter, and the specificity of its most recent threat is troubling for that very reason.

You don’t make a threat that specific, that easy to prove empty, unless you really think you can pull it off. And if they can, that means North Korea has the ability to launch and precision guide nuclear capable missiles.

And if they believe that Trump is full of hot air, as nearly any rational observer would (and the North Korean leadership is eminently rational), then they have every reason to escalate and follow through on their own threats to demonstrate just how ready they are to confront the United States.

Trump is playing a dangerous game, and he doesn’t even know the rules.