WASHINGTON – The Obama administration may be working with China to come up with a face-saving solution that would allow North Korea’s young dictator to back down from the brink of war, where he has brought the Korean Peninsula and United States.
While the Obama administration believes North Korea is engaging mostly in bluster with its threats and warnings of war, sources close to the administration say officials may have miscalculated Pyongyang’s reaction in the recent American demonstration of force – the flight from the continental U.S. of two stealth B-2 nuclear bombers.
The tensions started rising along with the implementation of United Nations sanctions recently. Then came the American show of force in an annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise.
The B-2 flights, especially because they can carry nuclear weaponry, immediately caused North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to claim the United States intended through this exercise to launch a nuclear war on North Korea.
Analysts believe the administration may be reevaluating its approach, and a change in strategy would defuse the confrontation.
Such behind-the-scenes activities come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to make visits next week to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. Sources say Kerry is opposed to any sanctions, or making existing sanctions even more stringent.
North Korea apparently reacted with bellicose rhetoric that caught the Obama administration off guard, sources say.
The sanctions against North Korea have earned wide approval – even from China, which is supposed to be the Hermit Kingdom’s closest friend. Sources say this represented months of frustration by China trying to get North Korea to halt its missile and nuclear weapons testing.
Sources add Kim Jong-un is going against the tradition of his father, Kim Jong-il, and his father before him, Kim Il-sung – the father of North Korea – to work closely with Beijing
Yet, China appears to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place when it comes to dealing with the 28-year-old North Korean supreme leader. It must continue to provide the poor country with fuel and food and remains very concerned with the potential for millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China in the event hostilities break out.
At the same time, Beijing has a security agreement with Pyongyang to come to its assistance in event it is attacked.
At this point, China has counseled all sides in the dispute to return to the six-party talks which North Korea had abandoned, realizing its former leverage over Pyongyang is limited
The latest confrontation on the Korean Peninsula began when the U.N. Security Council recently voted to increase sanctions against North Korea for its illegal missile and nuclear tests.
Yet, Pyongyang went ahead with more tests, followed by threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland.
Sources believe that Kim Jong-un may have made the threat of a pre-emptive strike against the U.S. since its last nuclear test for miniaturization to fit a nuclear weapon on a warhead was a success.
In also threatening South Korea, a North Korean military spokesman said there could be an “explosion,” with war breaking out “today or tomorrow.” The North Korean military also said that it had received authorization to attack using “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear” weapons.
North Korea is assessed to have a stockpile of from eight to 12 nuclear weapons and some 800 short-to medium-range ballistic missiles that could rain on South Korea.
It also has a limited number of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles – the Taepodong-2 – which has a range of some 7,000 miles and could reach the U.S. West Coast. With its smaller missiles, however, all of South Korea and Japan could be hit.
In ratcheting back the display of military power, the administration hopes to subdue any further provocation.
“This strategy reportedly is based on U.S. intelligence assessments that there is a low probability of a North Korean military response to such U.S. military demonstrations because of the high priority that the regime places on self-preservation,” according to a report of the open intelligence Langley Intelligence Group Network, or Lignet.
Lignet is comprised of many analysts who formerly worked in the U.S. intelligence community.
“Now, however, some Obama administration officials reportedly have begun to question the assessments of U.S. intelligence,” the report said, “noting that it has an imperfect record in predicting North Korean behavior.”
Intelligence on the closed and isolated Hermit State is limited. While technical intelligence suggests there is some activity at various missile sites and no major North Korean troop movements, the area above the demilitarized zone has miles of tunnels in which there is no information of what is taking place.
As a result, many analysts assess that Kim Jong-un’s bellicose rhetoric is mostly bluster to win concessions at a negotiating table, and any display of U.S. military power at this juncture should be downplayed.
“The decision to fly U.S. stealth bombers over South Korea and drop dummy bombs 50 miles from the North Korean border was probably a mistake that increased the potential for military conflict,” the Lignet report said.
“Other recent U.S. military moves such as ship deployments and sending U.S. stealth fighters to South Korea for military exercises this month may also have inadvertently raised tensions,” the report said.
This and other sources say North Korean leaders didn’t react as predicted and then increased their rhetoric in response to the U.S. displays of military power beyond anything that has been seen since the end of the Korean War.
The unexpected reaction, however, also may be due to Kim Jong-un’s need to prove himself to his own skeptical military as well as attempt to keep his starving country united against a perceived outside attack.
In the past, lesser outbursts from North Korea have occurred whenever the U.S. and South Korea conducted their annual joint military exercises. But afterwards, the rhetoric would calm down.
Analysts believe that if both the U.S. and South Korea show restraint in the weeks ahead and push to resume talks with Pyongyang, this period of tensions similarly will defuse itself.
However, it will be kicking the can down the road on the overall North Korean problem, especially the development of its missile and nuclear weapons capability.