Sabre-rattling over the North

By Anna Fifield

A demonstrator falls during a protest march demanding education reform in Santiago, Chile. The protesters want free access to school for all ages including at university level. Photo / AP
A demonstrator falls during a protest march demanding education reform in Santiago, Chile. The protesters want free access to school for all ages including at university level. Photo / AP

The United States and North Korea are engaging in high-tension brinkmanship, with North Korea warning that it will "hit the US first" with nuclear weapons, but the prospects that this could escalate into an actual clash of arms are slim.

The stakes remain too high for both countries, analysts say, today as they were yesterday, as they were last year. But the temperature in the region has become decidedly hotter in recent days. And there's always the chance that one side or the other could miscalculate.

Expectations are mounting that North Korea will unleash some kind of provocation, and the US Navy rerouted an aircraft carrier strike group, capable of both firing missiles and shooting missiles down, to the Korean Peninsula.

Yesterday US President Donald Trump issued his latest tweet taking aim at Pyongyang. "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A." he tweeted.

Pyongyang said that "pre-emptive strikes are not the exclusive right of the United States. Our military is keeping an eye on the movement of enemy forces while putting them in our nuclear sights," declared the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party.

A Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, said North Korea should halt any plans for nuclear and missile activities "for its own security", warning that the US is making it clear it doesn't plan to "co-exist" with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. China says President Xi Jinping spoke to Trump after his tweet and stressed the need for an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. Xi told Trump China would maintain "communication and coordination" with Washington over it.

There are good reasons to think the tension won't escalate further into an actual clash. "I don't think we're about to go to war against North Korea," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies's Pacific Forum in Honolulu. "But the United States is certainly trying to send a message that they are fed up with the North Koreans and with sending strong letters of protest."

The American aircraft carrier at the head of the strike group, the USS Carl Vinson, was the very same one that a North Korea-linked website showed going up flames in a mock attack video last month.

The mere suggestion of striking North Korea has been ruled out by successive US administrations. For one, it's not clear where to strike. North Korea's nuclear test site is underground and its fissile material is spread among multiple sites, while its missiles are increasingly fired from mobile launches. Secondly, any attack on North Korea could be expected to unleash a devastating attack on Seoul.

"I don't think there is a good option for the US to preemptively strike North Korea," said Euan Graham, a former diplomat who served in Pyongyang and is now at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. "But I think coercive diplomacy like this can prevent a real escalation." Sending an aircraft carrier to the region was a "classic coercive diplomatic measure," Graham said. "It's straight out of the geopolitical playbook."

Cossa agreed. "The first thing on the checklist is 'demonstrate resolve,' "Cossa said. "Try to make the North Koreans and perhaps the Chinese, too, a bit nervous." Van Jackson, an associate professor at the Daniel Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, said that he was "99 per cent certain"that the aircraft carrier was not moving to strike North Korea.

"The Carl Vinson is a big strategic asset. Look at what we did in Syria - it was quick and quiet and with no posturing. We just did it. We're doing the exact opposite with North Korea. This is big and loud and slow."

- Washington Post, Reuters, AP

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