Who's pushing Korea to the brink of war?

David Whitehouse analyzes the latest threats and counterthreats between the U.S. and North Korea--and considers what could pull the conflict back from the brink.

Donald Trump  (Joyce N. Boghosian)Donald Trump (Joyce N. Boghosian)

MONTH BY month, the Trump administration is stumbling and blustering its way ever closer to a potentially catastrophic war in Korea.

It's hard to keep up with the rush of alarming events, threats and taunts. Here are a few of the lowlights:

-- In August, Trump responded to North Korea's recent missile tests by promising "fire and fury" if North Korea made "any more threats." The North replied that it might send missiles to splash down in the ocean near the U.S. island territory of Guam.

-- In September, Trump used his first speech at the United Nations to threaten genocide, saying the U.S. would "totally destroy North Korea" if it or its allies had to defend themselves. Trump made sure to insult the North's Kim Jong-un by calling him "Rocket Man."

-- In between, North Korea tested two intermediate-range rockets in flights over the island of Hokkaido, Japan. The North also set off its sixth nuclear explosion underground. Probably 10 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, the device may have been a hydrogen fusion weapon, as the North claimed.

-- After the nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council passed a new round of sanctions against North Korea, although China and Russia blocked a U.S. drive for drastic cuts to the North's energy imports.

-- Kim Jong-un made an unprecedented direct reply to Trump's UN tirade, calling him a barking dog and a deranged dotard. Kim promised to "consider with seriousness" the "highest level of countermeasure in history."

-- Before and after Kim's reply, the U.S. conducted drills pairing nuclear-capable B-1B bombers with fighter escorts near the border with North Korea. One exercise featured a combination of live fire and simulated bombs, and the other flew farther north than any such drill in decades.

Events like these seem to confirm the idea that, as Daryl G. Kimball, head of the U.S.-based Arms Control Association, told the New York Times: "We are in a cycle of escalation that leads to a very bad end."

Kimball is right to stress the real danger of war, but he leaves out a crucial point: The key force driving the "cycle of escalation" is the United States.

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TENSIONS BETWEEN North Korea and the U.S. have escalated in recurrent cycles for decades, although the recent hostilities are the most intense since the early 1970s. It's important to uncover the motive force behind the perennial conflicts--and just as important to learn why the conflict is more intense this time.

The constant irritant has been relentless U.S. pressure on the North, including frequent threats to the very existence of the regime, whose official name is the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea).

For one thing, the U.S. has targeted the DPRK with nuclear weapons since the late 1950s. President Dwight Eisenhower's deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea violated the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953. The U.S. moved the weapons offshore in 1991, but President Bill Clinton reaffirmed that the DPRK remained a target.

For another, the U.S. and South Korea have, since the 1970s, carried out annual war games with South Korea that rehearse the overthrow of the Northern regime.

More generally, the U.S. has kept the North under economic siege for the country's entire existence, not just with multiple rounds of international sanctions of dubious legal standing, but other actions such as blocking loans from multilateral lending agencies and banning all North Korean exports to the U.S.

In other words, even when the U.S. wasn't threatening the DPRK with military overthrow, its leaders tightened the siege to push the country toward collapse. That's the meaning of Barack Obama's malignant scheme of strangulation that was given the friendly-sounding name of "strategic patience."

Since 2000, there have also been examples of regimes in Iraq and Libya that gave up nuclear weapons under U.S. pressure--and then were destroyed, either directly by the U.S. or with U.S. help. Those experiences convinced the DPRK regime that, once begun, there could be no turning back from building a nuclear deterrent.

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THIS BRINGS us to today, when the U.S. has intensified pressure because North Korea is approaching the threshold of creating a nuclear weapon that would have a special deterrent effect--by providing a threat of retaliation that could reach the U.S. mainland.

Whatever the most rabid voices around the Trump administration say, the aim of such weapons wouldn't be offensive because, as Trump and his minions are fond of pointing out, the U.S. would respond with massive destruction within North Korea.

The DPRK already has a formidable conventional deterrent against attack--a battery of thousands of artillery pieces and rockets dug into the mountains within range of South Korea's capital of Seoul. Untold tens of thousands in Seoul could die if the North suddenly fired these weapons.

Nevertheless, the Northern regime may fear that U.S. bunker-busting bombs would limit the effectiveness of this battery. The previous South Korean government also toyed with purchasing an expensive system from Israel called "Iron Dome," which could neutralize a portion of incoming missiles.

So nuclear weapons are an insurance policy against a feared weakening of the conventional deterrent.

The real attraction of building long-range nuclear weapons, however, is that it could help the DPRK break out of the cycles of provocation with the U.S.--by creating greater parity of risk between the two parties.

For more than 60 years, the major risk of armed conflict has fallen on Koreans, North and South. A credible threat of bombs that can reach the continental U.S. could inspire American leaders to treat Koreans more like equals and stop playing around so casually with Korean lives.

The concept of parity of risk was precisely the point of Kim Jong-un's message after the mid-September missile flight over Japan. An effective North Korean deterrent would have to enable a "nuclear counterattack the U.S. cannot cope with," Kim said, according to a Korean Central News Agency article--because the "final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S. and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about military option[s against the DPRK]."

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SO HOW tense are things, really?

The U.S. and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, refer to every DPRK missile or bomb test as a provocation. In doing so, however, these states are choosing the label for propaganda purposes.

Real provocations are done for their effect on those who might be alarmed, perhaps to elicit a reaction they might regret. Sending a squad of U.S. and South Korean warplanes to skirt North Korean territory is a real provocation, designed to intimidate--and maybe to draw fire that would provide cover for U.S. retaliation.

In contrast, North Korea's weapons tests are predictable steps in a weapons program that everybody already knows about. It's not the tests, really, but the whole program that U.S. and its allies object to.

There's often speculation about the timing or placement of a test: Who is this test supposed to snub or upstage, or what anniversary is being marked?

But it seems that the DPRK is really running "full speed and straight" to the goal of creating deliverable nuclear weapons, as Kim said recently. Thae Yong-ho, a former diplomat who defected from the DPRK last year, said in May that Kim gives the "go" order for tests when they're ready, "no matter what is going on around him."

A missile flying east from the DPRK over Hokkaido may be intimidating, but intermediate and long-range missiles are bound to fly over some populated area. It would have been a real provocation to send the recent missiles south (over a different Japanese island)--toward the vicinity of Guam, which the DPRK mentioned earlier as a possible target area.

Some of the alarm from the U.S. and its allies, therefore, is really hype that's calculated to produce more alarm.

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NEVERTHELESS, NORTH Korea's weapons program--coupled with the U.S. threat of "preventive war" to stop it--has produced real concern in the region about the immediate prospects of war.

Two days after the latest bomb detonation, the Chinese Navy tested anti-missile weapons near North Korea. A Beijing analyst said the tests were meant as a warning to both Kim and Trump. Then, after the second missile test over Japan, China and Russia conducted previously scheduled joint naval drills off the Russian coast near North Korea.

There is also longer-term regional fallout--the beginnings of a new arms race based on the shift in the region's military balance.

Those politicians who want to militarize Japan have found a new pretext. South Korea's agreement to host U.S. THAAD anti-missile batteries has sparked Chinese retaliation against South Korean companies because THAAD's range extends into Northeast China.

The U.S.-DPRK conflict is also fracturing South Korean politics. Kim in the North understands that his key antagonist is the U.S., so he has ignored Southern President Moon Jae-in's overtures for dialogue. At the same time, Trump has threatened military action against the North without consulting his Southern ally.

Moon's hopes to stake out an independent position have thus been dashed by the two main antagonists' exclusive focus on each other.

The ineffectuality of Moon's position has encouraged South Korea's opposition party, and even his own defense minister, to call for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of Moon's more "dovish" cabinet-level advisers advocates a "dual freeze"--a position favored by Russia, China and North Korea--to suspend U.S.-South Korean war games in return for a halt to DPRK weapons testing.

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EVEN SHORT of fighting a "preventive war" that two-thirds of Americans oppose, Donald Trump's Asian policy has already run off the rails in his pursuit of a long shot--namely, stopping North Korea's arms program.

Trump's military options carry a high risk of massive civilian casualties, including to his key Southern ally. Meanwhile, his promises to commit mass murder of Northerners have handed Kim Jong-un a propaganda windfall--a genocidal foreign threat that can help Kim rededicate North Koreans to suffer through the sanctions for the purpose of building adequate weapons of self-defense.

Still, Trump is playing this long shot because winning this struggle is important to him in a number of ways.

Personally, he has branded himself as a "strong man" who will put "America first," and he thus can't allow another state to point nuclear weapons at the U.S.--beyond the two, China and Russia, that already do. According to a recent report in The New Yorker, Trump has told aides in private, "I will be judged by how I handle this."

It's not just personal, however. The credibility of the world's most powerful imperial state is at stake.

If North Korea can defy the U.S. and target the world's only superpower with nuclear weapons, it provides an example that others may want to follow. What's more, the legitimacy of the state as the supposed protector of ordinary Americans could also take a hit.

Corresponding to Trump's sharp focus on North Korea is his loss of focus on the goal of making the U.S. compete more effectively with China.

The key to his Asia-Pacific policy--even to his whole economic policy--was to be helping Corporate America to start "winning again" against China, whose production has grown to almost two-thirds of U.S. gross domestic product. He hoped to shape U.S. relations with other countries in the region to support his approach to this key rival.

That, of course, is not how things are working out. Trump's China policy is getting shaped by his dispute with an isolated country that boasts the world's 115th-largest economy.

Instead of pressuring China to renegotiate trade terms with the U.S., Trump is cajoling Chinese officials to enforce trade sanctions against North Korea--and he's threatening Chinese banks and businesses with retaliation for trading with the North.

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IS THERE a way out of the danger of war?

From all their actions and statements, there's nothing to indicate that negotiations could turn North Korea's rulers back from creating a long-range nuclear arsenal. The danger of war is greatest now, as the North approaches that threshold--a moment when U.S. planners think they still might be able to stop the program by military means, and before they think that the North is capable of nuclear retaliation.

During this time--which could stretch on for months, a year or even more--the danger is also heightened because U.S. officials have no will and no lines of communication to prevent an accidental outbreak of war.

One way for the danger to subside is for ordinary Koreans, most likely from the South, to rise up in a major antiwar movement. And they would have a better chance of success if ordinary Americans can do their part in solidarity.

But such movements may face an uphill climb. The other way for the war danger to subside is for North Korea to clearly pass the threshold of becoming an intercontinental nuclear power--clear especially in the eyes of the U.S. administration. Then the U.S. would have a strong reason to seek safeguards against armed conflict.

Antiwar activists and the left don't need to approve any country's creation or possession of nuclear weapons. In this case, we need to unite around the idea that the U.S. doesn't have the right to decide whether the DPRK acquires them.

This article also appears at Works In Theory.