Cause and Effect
We need to file this one under cause and effect. War on the Korean Peninsula is not inevitable, but we’re not that far off, either. It all hinges on what the Norks do next. Another nuclear test is the trigger point for the US to remove the North Korean capacity to deploy missiles or use it’s nuclear weapons.
The Chinese signaled that they will allow that to happen without recourse to the US. If North Korea attacks the South, the US and South Korea will remove the regime with extreme prejudice. If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, the US will reciprocate — and China will stand on the sidelines trying to keep North Korean refugees from over-running China.
US elections have consequences and President Trump and his capable administration have laid out what will happen very clearly. The Chinese have agreed with the plan.
On April 25, the Chinese unofficial English language publication, Global Times, published an editorial on the North Korean confrontation which warned North Korea to not detonate a sixth nuclear device. Excerpts follow.
“The game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point. If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return. All stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.”
“Under the best-case scenario, unprecedentedly severe sanctions imposed by the UN will deal a heavy blow to the entire industrial activities of North Korea and it will barely be able to sustain development of its society. Once the US launched surgical strikes against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, the Pyongyang regime will be forced to make a life-or-death decision.”
“By then, if North Korea does not resort to strategic retaliation, its deterrence will lose ground and Washington will play it like a fiddle. If Pyongyang does choose to retaliate against Seoul, the US and South Korea will target its regime without a second thought.”
“A high stakes situation like this could quickly get out of control. No stakeholders want such a situation. But once the gamble begins, no side will be able to stop it.”
“…China is now acting to prevent the relevant sides from rolling the dice in this crazy gamble, and is doing this by persuading Pyongyang to quit its sixth nuclear test. If Pyongyang stops now, it will avoid the devastating result that it cannot bear. North Korea can drive a bargain with the US with its current nuclear achievements and strive for its rights over national security.”
“Pyongyang has pursued an independent course since the end of the Korean War. The integrity of the nation’s sovereignty is much higher than that of South Korea. This has impressed quite a few people. Yet given North Korea’s current national strength as well as its peculiar geopolitical circumstances, it must learn how to be flexible as well as resolute. Taking a small step back will make a conflict easier to solve. This does not mean being a coward, but being courageous to face the challenge in a different way.”
“The North Korea nuclear issue is like a puzzle filled with bombs. Pyongyang must not strike a match and detonate it. What it needs is big wisdom to realize a soft landing.”
This editorial was written on Army Day, April 25. It contains unusually candid language. Chinese leaders have abandoned subtlety in communicating with North Korea. Global Times is the publication in which Chinese leaders can express their views candidly, but without making an official statement.
This editorial is similar to prior editorials in several respects. The most important message is that another nuclear detonation represents the point of no return in a game of chicken. Imagery of North Korean preparations for a nuclear test during the past two months has provided the time for leaders in China and the US to have confidence in making that judgment.
The second message is that North Korea will suffer the most if it crosses the point of no return. “It will barely be able to sustain development of its society.” An earlier editorial said North Korea would cease to exist.
A final point is that China continues to insist that its ability to influence North Korea is limited. It cannot force North Korea to comply with Chinese wisdom.
A new Chinese idea
A second editorial in Global Times proposed that the US and the international community should be prepared to offer North Korea incentives for good behavior.
“North Korea is facing unprecedented international pressure due to its nuclear and missile programs. The country’s economy can hardly bear tougher sanctions and Washington has raised many times the extreme option of initiating a military strike on Pyongyang.”
“But sticks alone are not enough to prompt North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile activities. The international community should acknowledge the importance of the carrot.”
“Now Pyongyang is clear about the consequences if it continues to act recklessly. What it is uncertain about, though, is what benefit it will get if it stops nuclear and missile activities.”
“As for Washington, it should show its sincerity to encourage Pyongyang to move in the right direction and leave room for positive changes.”
“Sanctions against North Korea should be imposed within such a pattern – as long as North Korea violates UN Security Council resolutions, the sanctions will become tougher with no upper limit. But if North Korea does not carry out new nuclear tests or missile launches within a certain period of time, there should be no new sanctions. Both sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear activities should be temporarily frozen.” (Emphasis added.)
“Major powers should research what North Korea can get once it announces a moratorium on its nuclear and missile tests. The UN Security Council should play an active role to bring Pyongyang in this direction.”
This editorial is important for two reasons. The first is that it tends to confirm that Chinese officials have been in contact with their North Korean counterparts. The editorial staff wrote confidently, “Now Pyongyang is clear about the consequences…” That implies that the Chinese got through to the North Koreans. The rest of the sentence reads like North Korea’s probable follow-up question to a Chinese presentation about the consequences.
The sentences in bright highlight contain a new formula for temporarily easing tensions. The editorial writers proposed that a freeze on nuclear and missile testing should be matched by a freeze on sanctions. This is the first time we have read a solution that ties testing to sanctions.
All previous Chinese solutions have proposed a suspension of testing in return for a suspension for Allied military training. We have written previously that there is no symmetrical exchange of value in that formula. The sanctions must be biting if the North Koreans now are willing to consider suspending tests in exchange for suspending new sanctions.
On 26 April, Turkish authorities launched a massive detention operation, arresting more than 1,000 people nationwide. The Turkish government said the arrests were aimed at supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom President Tayyip Erdogan blames for last year’s failed coup attempt.
Anadolu Agency, a state-run news service, reported that the government aims to arrest another 2,000 people. A late report said that 9,000 policemen have been suspended for links to the coup plot.
The Turkish Interior Ministry said the raids on the 26th were aimed at disrupting a secret anti-government network, called the “secret imams.” Supposedly this network had infiltrated Turkey’s police forces. The network has no connection to the Islamic clerisy.
President Erdogan has chosen to interpret the narrow margin of victory in the passage of the constitutional amendments as a mandate to pursue the purge and other security programs with greater energy.
Turkey has detained or suspended more than 150,000 of its best educated public servants. The impact on the armed forces was demonstrated in their lackluster effectiveness against Islamic State fighters in northern Syria since last August.
The purge will continue as long as it helps Erdogan consolidate and centralize presidential power.
Turkey in Syria
Between 24 and 26 April, Turkish army and air force units attacked US-backed Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters.
A Russian news service reported, “According to reports that are coming in, on the night of Monday 24 April, Turkish Air Force aircraft delivered missile and bomb strikes on parts of Iraq and Syria bordering on Turkey. The Turkish side states that positions of armed formations of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Democratic Forces of Syria led by the Democratic Union Party, which is close to the PKK, were the targets of the strikes. About 70 Kurdish fighters are reported to have been killed.”
On the 26th, Rudaw reported that the Turkish army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) exchanged fire on the Syria-Turkey border. Both sides claim they were attacked first and retaliated.
A YPG media outlet reported that Turkish artillery shelled at least four villages in the border area of Darbasiyah in al-Hasakah province. It did not report any casualties.
The Turkish military announced that it continued its strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq and against the YPG in Syria on 26 April. The army said the raids killed six militants.
When President Erdogan announced the end of Operation Euphrates Shield last month, he said that Turkey would not withdraw its forces from northern Syria and that other operations would begin soon. The attacks on 25 and 26 April appear to be the opening actions in the new operations. If so, the new operations are directed against the Kurds more than the Islamic State.
In undertaking these operations, Turkey has challenged the US, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. It deliberately has fractured the anti-terrorism effort.
The Syrian Kurds called for the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. “Only by declaring north Syria as a no-fly zone can YPG defend the country unhindered. Turkey must adhere to a no-fly zone,” wrote the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on Twitter.
The Turks consider the Kurds to be terrorists and justify their attacks as part of the Coalition’s anti-terror campaign. Erdogan and his advisors know that the US and Russia strongly back the Kurds in Syria and the US and Iraq back Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.
For years Turkey had a relatively free rein to operate against the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization, in northern Iraq and Syria. Times and the nature of the fighting have changed. A huge backlash against Turkey is forming to reduce Erdogan’s hubris.
If the US or Russia provide air defense weapons to the Syrian Kurds or extend an air defense umbrella over them, the threat of losing a modern combat aircraft might prompt the Turks to reconsider their campaign against the Kurds during the fight against the Islamic State.
A Russian View
Russian reaction. In commenting on Turkish military attacks against the Kurds, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted the following comment.
“Such moves cause most serious concern in Moscow. We are talking about the Turkish military’s actions against Kurdish forces that are genuinely opposing terrorist groups, above all ISIL (the Islamic State), on the ground. In circumstances where the war against terror in Iraq and Syria is far from being over such actions are clearly not facilitating the consolidation of antiterrorist efforts; they are exacerbating the situation that is tense as it is.”
“That the Turkish strikes were delivered against sovereign states’ territories in circumvention of their legitimate governments also cannot but cause concern. We deem such moves unacceptable, running counter to the fundamental principles of interstate relations.”
“In these circumstances, we call for restraint from all the sides. It is important to demonstrate due political farsightedness and focus one’s attention on the most important current task – countering the terrorist international in the form of ISIL, Nusra and other affiliated groups.”
This is the second time that Turkish forces have attacked either a Russian aircraft or the forces of a Russian proxy. Turkey’s actions are putting pressure on a fragile relationship. The Russians have been uncustomarily patient with the Turks.