North Korea’s latest provocation, a weekend rocket engine test coinciding with high-level US-China talks in Beijing, has underlined just how dangerous and unpredictable the escalating military confrontation on the Korean peninsula is becoming.
The Trump administration, far from calming matters, appears set on raising the stakes in a power contest nobody can win. The reportedly successful test of the high-thrust engine at the Tongchang-ri rocket launch station, announced on Sunday, was hailed by North Korea’s maverick dictator, Kim Jong-un, as a breakthrough. The official KCNA news agency said the engine would be used to launch space satellites.
Experts say it could also power long-range nuclear missiles. Kim “noted that the success made in the current test marked a great event”, KCNA said. “He emphasised that the whole world will soon witness the eventful significance of today’s great victory.”
The test is another poke in the eye for the international community following a recent string of illegal North Korean missile launches, conducted in defiance of UN sanctions, and two underground nuclear tests last year. Kim claims to be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile able to hit western US and Europe, and submarine-launched missiles.
Judging by his past statements, he is convinced of US hostile intent and is determined to deter his perceived enemy. Rather than trying to convince him that Washington is not plotting invasion or seeking regime change, the Trump administration has been provocative since taking office in January.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, warned Kim last month of instant defeat should he attack the US or its allies. If he used nuclear weapons, there would be an “effective and overwhelming response”, he said.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, went further in comments during visits to South Korea and China that concluded on Sunday. Ruling out direct talks unless North Korea first unilaterally disarmed, he warned Kim he could face pre-emptive military action.
“Let me be very clear. The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” he said.
US leaders have previously threatened Kim with force, but Tillerson’s comments went a big step further by implying the US might strike first rather than in retaliation. Perhaps it is inexperience – Tillerson is a career oil executive with zero diplomatic training – or perhaps it is foolishness, but in issuing such statements, the greenhorn secretary of state came perilously close to endorsing Kim’s long-standing narrative - that North Korea is an underdog bullied by an aggressive superpower.
Increased Chinese cooperation on North Korea could be forthcoming if Trump backed off on other sensitive issues
The likely effect will be to redouble Kim’s defiance, including possible escalation. Little wonder Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, felt obliged to appeal to the Trump administration to keep a cool head. Wang said the confrontation had reached a dangerous crossroads. The cold war with Pyongyang could quickly turn hot.
Tillerson’s threats, combined with Donald Trump’s weekend tweet accusing Beijing again of ignoring the North Korea problem, make it politically difficult for China’s president, Xi Jinping, to give the US the cooperation it wants, even if he feels so inclined. China says its influence over Kim is in any case greatly exaggerated.
To make matters worse, Tillerson also refused to back down on the US deployment of advanced missile defences in South Korea, to which China strongly objects.
Xi, however, knows how to use an opponent’s strength against him. In his meeting with Tillerson on Sunday, he hinted cannily that increased Chinese cooperation on North Korea could be forthcoming if Trump backed off on other sensitive bilateral issues, notably the South China Sea and arms sales to Taiwan. A deal along such lines may feature at the 6 April summit meeting between the two presidents in Palm Beach.
“The joint interests of China and the US far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” Xi said. The two countries should strengthen coordination on “hot” regional issues, respect each other’s core interests, and protect the broad stability of ties, he said.
It remains unclear what the Trump administration can do about North Korea that has not already been attempted. The fact that its top diplomat disregarded Chinese warnings and is ready to countenance “first strike” military action suggests the only remaining untried option, the use of force, may be all that Washington is left with. By talking tough in public, Trump is boxing himself into a corner. His only way out could be to throw the first punch.