All Means, Short of War
So the weekend ended without the outbreak of Korean War II. That really shouldn’t be a cause for much surprise, but it was easy to be fooled by the overheated rhetoric emanating from both sides in the days prior.
As NBC News reported, based on who knows what sources, “The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.” China seemed to respond to such reports by warningthat if the U.S. and North Korea “let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this.”
In the end, there was no sixth nuclear test. North Korea instead displayed missiles, including a purported ICBM, in a military parade through Pyongyang. When the North tried to test-fire a missile, whether because of American sabotage or North Korean incompetence, the rocket failed seconds after liftoff. Crisis averted.
The Trump administration thus did not have to show whether it is actually willing to intercept a North Korean missile test or even to bomb North Korea in retaliation for a nuclear test. The fact that there is some ambiguity and uncertainty about this question is, on the whole, a positive development, because it puts real pressure on China to try to curtail its clients in Pyongyang. But while the administration could not and should not rule out military action, it should realize that this would be, as John F. Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “one hell of a gamble.” It would also be one that would not be justified absent clear intelligence that North Korea is actually about to attack either one of its neighbors or us.
Echoing earlier words from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, on his weekend visit to South Korea, warned the North that “the era of strategic patience is over,” and that “if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.” That kind of tough talk sounds good, but as the administration is no doubt realizing, the U.S. has only limited leverage over North Korea. ...