Will Trump start a new Korean War?

David Whitehouse provides the background to the escalating conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, as Trump continues his threats to unleash the U.S. war machine.

USS Carl Vinson (Dusty Howell | Wikimedia Commons)USS Carl Vinson (Dusty Howell | Wikimedia Commons)

THE BILLIONAIRE reality TV star-turned-president seems to be enjoying his new role as a saber-rattling Commander-in-Chief, and North Korea could be next in the crosshairs.

Now that the latest North Korean missile test failed on April 16, the immediate risk of a U.S. military attack may fade, but Donald Trump's policy of "maximum pressure and engagement" promises to keep the region on a hair-trigger for some time to come.

Mainstream news coverage has emphasized the threats--including the use of nuclear weapons--issued by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. But the reports generally leave out what Kim has been responding to: the largest joint U.S.-South Korean war games ever held; threats by both the U.S. and South Korean governments to kill the North's top leadership; and a South Korean plan, made public last September, under which "the North's capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map" if "the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon."

Trump stepped up pressure on the regime on April 9 by claiming to send an aircraft carrier group to the region after the North set off four missiles a few days before.

The carrier USS Carl Vinson had actually just left the area after participating in this spring's "Foal Eagle" war games--it continued on a course to the Indian Ocean and is now on a return trip. The carrier's escort group includes an Aegis-equipped destroyer that is supposedly capable of shooting down missiles.

Because the North's latest launch failed, we may never know whether the U.S. plan was to intercept the rocket in midair. There's a chance it went down because of a sabotage program that Trump inherited from Barack Obama.

The Foal Eagle exercises will continue through April. The war games include 300,000 South Korean soldiers and 15,000 US troops. This year, the exercises also feature Navy SEAL Team Six, which is best known for assassinating Osama bin Laden on Obama's orders.

The escalated shows of force may have no effect on the North, but heightened fear of war in the South may help sway the May 9 presidential election toward the candidate who favors closer military cooperation with the U.S., as opposed to peaceful engagement with the North.

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TRUMP'S POSTURE of "maximum pressure" is the result of an accelerated policy review ordered in advance of his early April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The policy is an overt departure from Obama's "strategic patience," which was a coy way to describe an effort to increase the regime's economic and political isolation until it collapses from within.

Some of Trump's "new options" sound like more of the same, including "tougher sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system," as Reuters reported. Other options are much more aggressive, "including putting American nukes in South Korea or killing dictator Kim Jong-un," as "multiple top-ranking intelligence and military officials" told NBC News.

Trump's "new" belligerence toward North Korea is really the latest oscillation between the twin options of "containment" or "rollback" that have lain in the U.S. policy toolkit since the Cold War, which was the last time that the U.S. had nukes on the peninsula.

The real change--the problem that Trump says he will "solve"--is that decades of U.S. threats against North Korea have driven the regime to produce a more and more robust deterrent against American military action.

In 2002, George W. Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of the "axis of evil." A year later, he invaded Iraq at minimal cost of U.S. lives, precisely because the country lacked the "weapons of mass destruction" that Bush claimed it possessed.

Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, was in charge back then, and he saw the writing on the wall. He may have viewed the North's nuclear program of the previous decade as something to bargain away in return for concessions from Bill Clinton, but by 2003, he set out to build a real bomb in order to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein. Three years later, Kim Jong-il detonated the country's first plutonium device.

The North has conducted five nuclear tests so far--and has advanced significantly in developing concealable and mobile missile technology that could eventually deliver a bomb. Just this past Saturday, Kim Jong-un paraded mockups of missiles that, once built and tested, could reach the continental U.S.

The North still seems to have no nuclear weapon that it can deliver to a target, but the U.S. and South Korea don't have a realistic option of attacking and destroying the North's weapons development sites to head off the creation of such arms. "There is little chance," as the New York Times wrote, "of hitting every target."

But more than that, the North has massive conventional deterrents to hold the line against U.S. or South Korean attack. The million-strong Northern army is roughly equal in size--if not in preparedness--to the South's forces, and the North has embedded more than 10,000 artillery and rocket sites in mountains within close range of the Southern capital of Seoul.

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SO DONALD Trump can talk a tougher line, but U.S. military options have begun looking weaker, not stronger, since the North's three-decade arms buildup.

As a result--even despite his talk of going it alone against North Korea--Trump has turned to pressuring China, the North's only close ally, to intercede with Kim to roll back his weapons programs. Part of the pressure "could include 'secondary sanctions' against Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with Pyongyang," according to a Reuters report.

On the surface, pressuring China to twist Kim's arm may seem like a good plan. China has some leverage with the North, because Kim's cash-strapped regime gets 40 percent of its hard currency earnings from trade with China.

What's more, Xi Jinping is no friend of Kim's, having never met him, and the Chinese themselves oppose the North's weapons program. North Korean weapons give the U.S. an excuse to rally South Korea and Japan in a military alliance that could easily be used against China itself.

A case in point is the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system now being deployed in South Korea. It's designed to help surveil the North and shoot down incoming missiles, but its range extends far into Chinese territory.

Anti-missile technology, often hyped as "purely defensive" hardware, would actually give the U.S. and its allies a freer hand to attack the North or China--assuming that the anti-missile systems actually neutralize Chinese or North Korean deterrents. As the conservative South Korean Chosun Ilbo put it: "Beijing believes that the [THAAD] battery is aimed at containing its military might in the region and the North Korean threat is merely a fig leaf."

Chinese officials thus see the North's weapons program as a factor increasing the risk of pre-emptive U.S. aggression against China. These officials, however, don't put all the blame on the Kim regime. As the Chinese state mouthpiece Global Times put it recently:

In the eyes of the Chinese people, the North Korean nuclear issue was not created by Pyongyang alone. The country's insistence on developing a nuclear program is without doubt a wrong path, yet Washington and Seoul are the main forces that have pushed North Korea to this path.

In any case, there are limits to how hard or effectively the Chinese can pressure the North Korean regime. For one thing, Chinese officials don't want to undermine the Northern economy to the point that the regime collapses--because of the possibility of massive refugee flows into northern China.

A collapse of the regime could also allow the South to extend its power into the North in a newly unified Korea, thus placing a heavily armed U.S. ally on China's border. Even worse, a unified, pro-U.S. Korea might hold onto the North's nuclear weapons.

What's more, the North's rulers have shown repeatedly that they're willing to risk crippling sanctions rather than bow to outside pressure.

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AS MANY commentators have noted, Trump seems to be flailing around for something to make himself look effective after the failures of his opening months in office. His "successes" in bombing Syria and Afghanistan led him to his most recent round of bluster against North Korea--but with few military options there, he's turning to a reluctant Chinese partner for help.

But even as he started to focus on North Korea, Trump had begun to doubt that China has the leverage to redirect the North's policy.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Xi set him straight about the real relations between the two Asian allies. "After listening [to Xi] for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump told the Journal. "I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea...But it's not what you would think."

In fact, as he ratchets up the pressure on North Korea, Trump also now has to be concerned about pushing China too far. Officials in Beijing have warned Trump against any further provocation against Kim, and they've sent troops of their own into the region.

Immediately after the summit with Trump, China placed two army groups totaling 150,000 soldiers at the border with North Korea. In addition, according to the Huffington Post:

China has seemingly conducted secret training for the flood of North Korean refugees, which are likely to occur in case of emergency...

The situation is quite serious considering the fact that the brains of the PLA [People's Liberation Army] ordered the entire Northern District to fully prepare for combat. Obviously, follow-up measures are being taken.

First, they deployed a new Kongjing-500 early warning aircraft to the border to intensify aerial surveillance. In addition, Dongfeng-31A missiles, 12 Dongfeng-03 ballistic missiles with a range of 2,800 kilometers, and 24 Dongfeng-21 "Carrier-killer" missiles are recently deployed at the 51st Base under Rocket Unit stationed in Shenyang of Liaoning province. Aiming at North Korea, United States Forces Korea and Japan, the missiles are reportedly ready to be fired.

With preparations like these, the Chinese seem at least as concerned about meeting a U.S.-led attack as they are about containing refugees.

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DESPITE THE limits of China's leverage, it appears that Chinese officials are dutifully carrying disarmament proposals to the North right now. Hong Kong military analyst Liang Guoliang told Taiwan's official news agency:

Pyongyang is demanding China ensure the North's security and economic gain and give a period of three years to abandon nuclear weapons. However, Beijing is reportedly asking the North to dismantle nuclear weapons within three months and to accept the offer within two to three weeks.

This report seems to reflect wishful thinking.

Kim Jong-un's father may have been wary of sharing the fate of Saddam Hussein, but the current Kim is impressed by what happened to Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, according to Yang Xiyu, Chinese former diplomat who has dealt with North Korea in the past. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in return for peace with the U.S.--and then was killed in 2011 by a rebel movement for which the U.S. provided air cover.

If Kim gave up nuclear weapons right now, he might be doing more than exposing himself to eventual betrayal by the U.S. and South Korea. Before that happened, he'd be likely to face a challenge from inside the regime.

Kim is a third-generation dictator who came to power in late 2011 as an unknown 20-something with no personal power base. He immediately set out to make a reputation as a tough guy among the generals who had been loyal to his father.

To consolidate his position, he has carried out some 100 executions of high-level officials, including his uncle, and he is the prime suspect in the assassination of his half-brother in February. Those aren't the actions of somebody who feels secure in his power.

The country's ruling establishment understands as well as Kim does that heavy arms are key to guaranteeing the survival of the regime. He would quickly become disposable if he gave up nuclear weapons under pressure from the U.S.

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AS IS so often the case when tensions flare between the U.S. and North Korea, commentators have looked at the role of South Korea as an afterthought. This time, that would definitely be a mistake.

It has been a year of major upheaval in South Korea as a millions-strong, left-leaning movement brought down President Park Geun-hye, the corrupt daughter of a former dictator and the recipient of tens of millions of dollars in bribes from South Korea's mega-corporations.

Park, like her father Park Chung-hee, was a close collaborator with U.S. imperial forces in putting the squeeze on the North. Last year, following a Northern missile launch in February, Park shut down the Kaesong industrial park, a venture of 124 South Korean light manufacturers employing 55,000 North Korean workers.

Just six miles north of the demilitarized zone between the two countries, Kaesong was a project of a previous, liberal president who hoped to build up North Korea's economy in advance of national reunification, rather than strangling the country and hoping for its collapse.

But in April last year, Park said that there would be "no future" for North Korea if it conducted another nuclear test.

Then, in September, the state-funded news agency Yonhap quoted a military source saying that "South Korea has already developed a plan to annihilate the North Korean capital of Pyongyang through intensive bombing in case the North shows any signs of a nuclear attack." From the same article: "Another source indicated the military has recently launched a special operational unit in charge of destroying the North Korean military leadership."

Park was also a strong advocate of building the THAAD anti-missile system, which began installation in the past month.

But Park's hostility to the North was not the immediate source of the opposition movement. According to a representative of Workers Solidarity, a South Korea socialist group, three factors played a major role in building this past year's mass movement. He spoke at a forum in Berkeley on April 1.

First, there was the trade union movement, grouped in the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions), which mounted several strikes against the restructuring of the economy at workers' expense. Temp workers now number 30 percent of the workforce, and 41 percent of women workers are casual.

Second, there was Park administration's inaction in the face of a ferry accident that killed 300 people in 2014, including 250 students. Park then sent riot police against families of the victims--who began to radicalize and joined up with the KCTU last fall when the bribery scandal broke.

The third factor in Park's downfall was the scandal itself, in which Park's mystical spiritual adviser helped extort tens of millions of dollars from corporations that have long been closely tied to the government, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

In December, nearly 2.5 million South Koreans marched in Seoul to demand Park's ouster, and the national assembly complied by impeaching her and suspending her from office. The influence of the left in the movement led to the protests adopting feminist, pro-LGBT and anti-THAAD positions.

This last demand was the hardest fought in the 1,600-organization coalition, as South Korean public opinion was evenly divided over deploying the system.

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THE MOVEMENT for Park's final removal and subsequent arrest reached victory when the constitutional court confirmed the impeachment in late March. The country is now holding a campaign to elect a new president on May 9.

At first, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea--a protégé and colleague of liberal former President Roh Moo-hyun--looked like he would sail into office on the momentum of the left-leaning anti-Park movement.

Moon opposes the deployment of THAAD, favors the reopening of Kaesong and has promised to visit North Korea for direct talks. In these respects, Moon wants to follow in Roh's footsteps as "a president who can say no" to the U.S.

In the current atmosphere of war tensions, however, Moon's poll position has slipped to the point that a more conventionally pro-U.S. candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, has pulled even in the race. Some polls have him ahead of Moon, even though his party has only 40 seats in the 300-member assembly.

Ahn has little political experience and shares many positions with Moon, but he favors the deployment of THAAD. As a result, the political right--which had no viable candidate this time because of Park's disgrace--is shifting its support to the centrist Ahn.

THAAD has become a stickier issue in the election because China stoked Korean nationalism by retaliating against South Korean businesses in China for the deployment of the system.

"Moon is threading the needle on the issue," Fortune magazine reported. "In a debate...he said that while he wanted to resolve the dispute diplomatically, Beijing should 'immediately stop' punishing South Korean companies in China over the issue."

So the upshot of Trump's recent belligerence in Asia may be to sharpen North Korea's resolve and give Chinese officials jitters about Trump's intentions on the one hand--but, on the other, to help promote a new yes-man to the presidency of South Korea.