If Secretary Tillerson isn’t bluffing, the Kim dynasty’s days may be numbered.
Breaking with what had been a quiet start to his job, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on March 17 that the Trump administration might be forced to take preemptive action “if [North Korea] elevate[s] the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level.
He ruled out any more negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, and declared: “The policy of strategic patience has ended.”
It is hard to imagine the increasingly paranoid North Korea shrugging off such a statement. Indeed, these are not words to be snuffed at. Tillerson’s warning represents the toughest stance against North Korea that a US administration has taken in decades. The quiet American’s words may serve as a spark to dramatic and devastating change upon the Korean Peninsula.
METHOD IN THE MADNESS
Probably by calculation, Tillerson’s statement is vague. It is unclear where the Trump administration may draw the line in regard to Pyongyang’s weapons program, but that’s likely the point: to deter any further progress or to give the United States a chance to strike without warning.
Besides, drawing a line will not matter. Since coming to power in 2011, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un has shown no tendency toward compromise on the issue. Political scientists have often concluded that the north maintains and expands its nuclear program for the country’s very survival.
Though not without risk, an arsenal of nuclear weapons prevents the threat of invasion. So wherever a line is drawn, Kim is sure to ignore it. For the regime, a North Korea without nuclear weapons would mean no North Korea at all.
Neither did the secretary of state clarify whether preemptive action would be limited to destabilizing the north’s nuclear facilities or committing to a full-scale assault with the aim of regime change.
Again, it may not matter. Even a limited strike would take the region down a path not seen since the Korean War.
If the regime survives a preemptive strike, the retaliation will be devastating for the peninsula. Just 35 miles from the border that separates the two Koreas, Seoul is within a path of destruction. Japan, an old imperialist foe of North Korea, may also find itself within the regime’s crosshairs. Sensing an inevitable death, it is unthinkable what vengeance the Kim regime may unleash in its dying days.
If Tillerson really prefers action over strategic patience, then it is of utmost importance that the Trump administration should have a plan to limit the damage. Neither can the administration continue down its unilateral path. North Korea’s nuclear facilities must be destroyed immediately and Pyongyang brought down with limited civilian casualties. And the US must cooperate with South Korea to best protect its population. China and Japan, too, will need to prepare for a conflict that could spillover beyond the peninsula.
Even in a better turn of events, cooperation and caution is everything. If a limited attack quickly brings down an already unstable Kim dynasty, the US, South Korea and China will have to confront an exodus of North Korean refugees pouring over the borders. And then there is the question of North Korea’s future as a nation state.
Of course, world events seldom take such an optimistic path. Great upheaval, even for the better, comes at great costs.
And from the U-turn over the One China policy to infuriating a British intelligence agency, the Trump administration has tended to lurch from one foreign policy mishap to another. This is a cause of great concern. For the sake of millions of lives, a crisis on the Korean Peninsula is a test the administration must get right.
It is now North Korea’s turn to respond to the US government’s new stance. But Tillerson needs to be several steps ahead.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Simon2579