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Brow-beating China about North Korea is a risky business – Donald Trump should tread carefully

The Telegraph, April 3, 2017

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US President Donald Trump’s ultimatum to Chinese President Xi Jinping over North Korea, raised the possibility of US taking unilateral military action, just as the two approach an upcoming summit in Mar-a-Largo, Florida. The summit is meant to set the tone of the superpowers’ relationship, so Trump’s warning was obviously an opening gambit in what look to be a complex set of negotiations.

As political commentators react to the incautious nature of the threats, two things are rapidly becoming apparent: first, the strategic calculus inside Washington has dramatically shifted as North Korea gets closer to developing a nuclear-strike capability on the continental United States. And second, President Trump has decided to approach North Korea as a “China problem”, proceeding from the assumption that a China-problem demands a China-solution.

For all the comments made about keeping military options “on the table”, the fact is that American Presidents have few choices on the Peninsula. Certainly, Washington has a strong military presence in the region, capable allies nearby, and a nuclear deterrence tempered and honed over the past 70 years. But North Korea has its own strong cards, which even the game immensely.

First, it has one of the region’s largest militaries, which it hangs over South Korea like Damocles’ Sword. Second, it has up to 13,000 artillery pieces, buried deep within bunker emplacements along the border, prepared to fire at Seoul, one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Third, it has developed a ballistic missile system and nuclear weapons programme, which it continues to develop in order to gain parity with the US and its allies. Fourth, it has the threat of its own demise which it implicitly uses to gain Beijing’s unconditional support, knowing full-well that China fears a collapse and chaos on its border more than it fears nuclear weapons. Weapons which are after all, pointed away from China.

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