Role play any potential United States action against North Korea and you soon see the limited choice they face. So what should the US do? What role can China play? And what's best for New Zealand?

What is the current North Korea dispute about? Is it really about North Korea testing missiles and perhaps a nuclear weapon? Or is it actually about the relationship between China and the United States?

Under the Obama administration there was a general acceptance that North Korean missile tests would not result in military action against North Korea.

Similarly any sanctions were not intended to destroy the regime; rather they were to demonstrate that there was a cost in breaching the United Nations Security Council resolutions on missile tests.

We now seem to be in a new era. The Trump administration seems determined to roll back North Korea's ambitions. It has not ruled out military force to do so. It has proposed sweeping sanctions, including an oil embargo and a virtual prohibition on any exports. The administration summoned the ambassadors of the United Nations Security Council to set out its expectations. There can be no doubt that sanctions on such a scale with cause extreme hardship to the people of North Korea.

More significantly the Trump administration seems to expect that China will meekly do its bidding in imposing such sanctions, and to also acquiesce in the prospect of military action against North Korea. It is hard to imagine that the administration is so naïve to believe that China is actually so pliable.

The United States knows that China lost as many as 400,000 soldiers in defending North Korea in 1951 to 1953. They know that North Korea is an ally of China. In such circumstances the United States must know that military action against North Korea would be testing Chinese tolerance, possibly beyond the limit.

In any event any military action, even a limited surgical strike, has enormous risks. Such a strike could not be as minimal as the recent attack against Syria. The North Koreans have spent decades hardening and defending their military installations. To make an appreciable military impact would require days, if not weeks, of intensive bombing. It is inconceivable that North Korea would not retaliate. Even if their counter attack using artillery and rockets was limited to military targets in South Korea, there would be thousands of casualties. North Korean submarines would test any South Korean or United States naval vulnerabilities.

What would the United States then do?

A full scale invasion of North Korea is simply not possible. To begin with the North Korean Army would not fold like Saddam Hussein’s Army in 2003. China might also feel bound to assist its ally. There cannot be too many American professional soldiers who would willingly contemplate such risks.

Perhaps it is best to examine the entrails of the recent China-United States summit. President Xi Jinping visit to Mar de Largo was particularly interesting for what was not said about the discussions. President Trump had indicated prior to the meeting that it would be his toughest yet, but you would not know that from the publicly disclosed information about the meeting. In fact following the meeting the United States announced it did not regard China as a currency manipulator. The implication was that the Chinese United States bilateral trade flows would be unaffected. The United States also indicated it expected China’s support to reign in North Korea.

But what does that mean?

It is unlikely to be Chinese acquiescence in punitive United Nations sanctions against North Korea that would paralyze the economy and generate wide scale hardship. More likely China will be counselling North Korea to reduce the scale of its provocative actions.

China is a rising power, second only to the United States. China will not readily accept that it must follow the bidding of the United States in its own backyard. In fact, if the United States pushes too hard, China may feel forced to publicly support its ally, at least in response of any military action.

New Zealand has its own role to play. This is a particular occasion where we would expect full compliance with United Nations Security Council procedures, and with the United Nations Charter. This is especially the case given that the Korean War, and our role in it, had the direct authorisation of a United Nations Security Council resolution. In such a case pre-emptive military action will not be possible, since it will not get Security Council approval.

The self defence provisions of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter (which do not require Security Council approval) would only apply if there is a direct attack by North Korea. The usual North Korean blustering, or missile tests, or even a nuclear test will not meet the threshold of Article 51.

The Korean situation is precisely the sort of situation that the United Nations legal and political apparatus is designed to deal with.

It is in New Zealand’s interest that they be fully respected.

Comments (14)

by Tom Semmens on April 28, 2017
Tom Semmens

Not enough emphasis IMHO has been put on what I see as the strategic the game changer here. The thing that has changed everything is North Korea announcing it is testing a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. That puts a North Korean nuclear misile with little to no warning of launch within range of Pearl Harbour, Guam, the entire US Western seaboard and yes - even targets like Singapore, Sydney and Auckland from the mid-Pacific. Deploying such a weapon is incredibly destabilising, because it reduces the warning time the US might have and by opening a huge number of potential targets defeats any area ABM system the US might deploy. It raises from a possibility to a probability that the US will strike first with nuclear weapons if it feels North Korean might be about to attack using SLBMs.

Imagine this nightmare scenario - the probable launch platform would be a modified (Project 629 style), North Korean built copy of the Chinese Type 033 Submarine - itself a copy of the Soviet Romeo class, a 1950s diesel sub derived from the late war German type XXI design. The United States would be easily able to tack these boats with their far more advanced submarine fleet. What would happen, then, if in a period of high tension the US detected and tracked North Korean missile boats on a clear course to launch positions in the mid-Pacific, where they could strike anywhere from Pearl harbour to Los Angeles to Auckland? The US (and it's allies) would be crazy to not to a) make it crystal clear to the North Koreans what reaction such a deployment would bring and b) immediately act and attack and sink any North Korean missile submarine that even began to approach a launch position. the risks of nuclear attack on the US west Coast would simply be to high not to. Logically, the US would have to follow up such sinkings with a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea itself, to try and prevent it attacking Tokyo and Seoul with shorter range weapons.

by Andre Terzaghi on April 28, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

China's relationship with North Korea appears fairly costly to China, both financially and politically, so China must feel they're getting something valuable in return. Is it anything more than just having a buffer so they're not sharing a land border with a relatively free and prosperous strong US ally?

by barry on April 28, 2017

Firstly: NZ has ruled itself out of playing any constructive role by our Minister fo Foreign Affairs calling N Korea evil.

Secondly: China has no more options than America.  They stand to lose a lot in case of any war, even if they stay neutral.  There could be 10 million refugees on their doorstep.

Thirdly: A lot of pople (world wide) think N Korea is being bullied, and that arming themselves is a sensible reaction to being threatened.  Without nuclear weapons and missiles they would be easier prey.

Fourthly: the hypocrisy of a nuclear power which test missiles whenever they want imposing sanctions on and threatning a minnow like N Korea for much lesser infractions is staggerinng.  Yes I know that hypocrisy is natural for humans, but it still is worth commenting on.

by Chuck Bird on April 28, 2017
Chuck Bird

Barry, you would not be a supporter of the Opportunist Party by any chance?

Have you not read of the number of Fat Kim’s relations he has murdered including the last one in a foreign country using nerve gas?

The man is clearly evil.  You cannot negotiate an evil, psychopathic dictator or a group such as ISIS.

If Trump did nothing like his predecessor NK would some be able the hit the US and almost any country with a sub launched missile.

Not worth wasting more time responding to such nonsense.  We will see if anyone else supports your view.   

by Rich on April 28, 2017

Well, the policy of containment has worked well with North Korea for the last 64 years.

I think it must be clear to the NK leadership that any substantial act of agression would lead to a war that neither their state or their persons would be likely to survive.

The only strategy that might work for them would be to swarm across the border using human wave tactics and move some of their nuclear missiles into the suburbs of Seoul, where the US is likely to be contrained in mounting a nuclear counterstrike. They'd then rely on the body count forcing the US into an accomodation - although it's hard to see how this would be more favourable to them than the status quo ante.

It's thus likely that they won't strike first, and a continuation of containment is the only safe policy. Eventually, the Kim dynasty will either collapse internally or produce a successor who seeks to reintegrate NK into the world of semi-normal states.


by Wayne Mapp on April 28, 2017
Wayne Mapp

The latest news seems to indicate that the Trump administration is now focused on the UN sanctions pathway. And the question is how far will China be prepared to go in this regard.

No doubt China is intensively talking to North Korea. Obvoiusly the more that North Korea backs down, the lighter the sanctions. In fact if they do enough, the current sanctions could be lessened.But if they don't back down then sanctions will be trightened, but to what extent?

Unlike Chuck Bird, I beleive the North Koreans seem to be rational actors, even if they are brutal. The US also thinks so, as explicitly stated by Secretary of State Tillerson today.

Tom raises an interesting point. Submarines, when under water, can be sunk secretly. If the North Koreans did send a sub and it looked like it was going to launch (this is more than simply being off Guam or elsewhere, there are particular actions a missle sub has to do before it can launch a missile) I imagine that is what would happen.

Would the North Koreans retaliate? Perhaps not, it might suit them not to react at all. Both parties may choose to say nothing publicly. But the North Koreans would know they had crossed a red line.

by Joseph Cook on April 28, 2017
Joseph Cook

[Ed: You are messing up comment threads. Please don't do this.]



by Charlie on April 29, 2017

Well, that's strange! Looks like someone's been hacked.

Meanwhile back on topic:

Discussing this at length with my Chinese colleagues, they say NK today is a bit of an embarassment to the Xi administration because it's a sad reminder of Mao days. The Chinese want the Kim regime gone too because it's clear they're out of control - Kim doesn't respond to calls from Beijing any more!

The Chinese have two fears:

1. In the short term, millions of NK refugees pouring over the border in the event of regime change.

2. US forces moving up to the border of China after the end of the Kim regime.

So a deal would have to involve a) bombing NK with food to keep the people from spilling into China b) A general demilitarization of the peninsula, which I'm sure the US would gladly accept.

There are two things we don't know:

Firstly, what intel do the US and China have that they're not telling us? What was shown to the US Senate recently? Because surely it wasn't just a chat they had behind closed doors.

Secondly, what sort of deal was done by Xi and Trump during their recent meeting? Whatever it was, it's clear they're acting in unison because the Chinese subsequentlly moved 150,000 troops to the NK border (to prevent the spillover I mentioned above?) and then turned back NK coal shipments (an act which severely cripples NK revenue). 

Interesting times! All we can hope is that Koreans on both sides of the fence stay safe.

by barry on April 29, 2017


I wonder if you wouldn't be happier commenting in another blog, where personal abuse, mangling of names and haughtily announcing that you will ignore someone are more common.  Generally, I come here because of the standard of debate, and you seem to be lowering the tone.

You could, of course, respond to the actual content.  I don't necessarily expect people to agree, but the more different points of view, the more likely we are to approach the truth.

On the "opportunist" party:  Gareth Morgan has actually been to N. Korea and may be worth listening to.    I don't know where you get your information from, but I think you need a wider source and not to be so dismissive of people who don't agree with you.

by Chuck Bird on April 29, 2017
Chuck Bird

Wayne, I said “You cannot negotiate an evil, psychopathic dictator or a group such as ISIS.”

How do you manage to claim that means I said Kim was in no way rational.

There are and have been plenty of evil, psychopathic dictators.  Bashar Hafez al-Assad is a doctor and would have above average IQ but that does not change the fact that he is a psychopath and the only way to negotiate is from a power of strength and be prepared to use superior power.

President Trump and his military advisors in his latest announcement that the US is prepared to go to was with NK is the correct stance.  Allow NK the chance to be able to hit Japan with an ICBM or the US with a sub launched missile is not a rational option.  Trump has made the world a safer place.

BTW – do you support Barry’s position that NZ has ruled itself out of playing any constructive role by our Minister fo Foreign Affairs calling N Korea evil?

by Chuck Bird on April 29, 2017
Chuck Bird

Barry, what other blog are you on - The Standard?  I say let others decide if your idea about NK being allowed nukes and ICBMs is makes any sense at all.  I would be surprised if Wayne Mapp agrees with you. 

You are quite happy to make unreasonable criticism of our Minister or Foreign Affairs.

The facts are simple.  NK is an evil regime.  Everyone but you has made reasonable comments on this issue.  That does not mean I agree with what all of what they say but they comments are reasonable.

Your claim that NK is some sort of victim and is being bullied by the US is frankly ludicrous.  You are the odd one out.

[Ed: As Wayne says below, please adjust your tone. Disagreement is fine. Robust expression of ideas is fine. But our blog, our rules ... keep it civil.]

by Wayne Mapp on April 29, 2017
Wayne Mapp


You need to tone down your comments a bit (see the 4th comment "not worth responding to such nonsense" and the 11th comment "Your claim is...frankly ludicrous. you are the odd one out"). Pundit is not like Kiwiblog, The Standard or Whaleoil, where pointed attacks on other commenters is virtually the norm. We expect people to properly debate the issue, not get into ad hominen attacks.

Anyway back to the issue.

I think the currents threats of military action by the Trump administration have a high degree of risk, for the reasons set out in my article. North Korea is not as weak as Syria or Iraq. Plus they are an ally of China, which would not simply ignore miltary attacks on North Korea. However I note that the threats of such action have been toned down a bit in recent days, so it seems that military action would be in response to an actual attack, not for instance a sixth nuclear test. 

Do I think it desirable that North Korea have nuclear weapons, No. But I don't think they will unilaterally give them up. It would require a comprehensive peace settlement. 

Is such a settlement possible? Yes it is, and in fact I get the impression that is China's objective. As I said in my article, China will not follow the US playbook in terms of sanctions. China has their own agenda and their own interests, which are more likely to be fulfilled by a broader settlement on the Korean penninsula. 

I would agree that the Trump administration has focussed China's mind on the issue, but they won't be following the US agenda.

I think it is possible that a broader settlement could be negotiated. That will be driven by China. The US will then have to decide whether it is in their interests to do so. The likely new South Korean President looks like he will be oipen to such a deal.

In my view the likely shape of such a settlement would be the denuclerisation of North Korea. It would involve a large level of normalisation of relations between North and South Korea. This was occuring in the late 1990's, so it is not impossible. It would involve a large reduction of US troops in South Korea, but certainly not to zero. The peace deal would have China and the US as joint guarantors of the peace deal.

Would North Korea survive such a deal? I imagine North korea would have to progressively evolve toward the Chinese or Vietnamese model. Since both those countries have adapted to the contemporary world, it would seem to me that North Korea could also do so.


by barry on April 29, 2017


It does seem that The US is backing off threatening military action, although going to the UN asking for sanctions because of a missile test could be a bit of an own goal.

There is still plenty of scope for miscalculation with provocative actions and brinksmanship from both sides.

I agree that the N Korean leadership is rational and will not want all out war either, although they will probably destroy the peninsula rather than hand it all over to the US.  A problem for Kim is that he has to keep the military happy to stay in power. Use of extreme language (like calling them "evil") gives ammunition to the more belligerent.

So what would success look like?

Unification is unlikely (unless there were some sort of coup).

Denuclearisation may be possible, but there would have to be realistic guarantees (otherwise N Korea fears ending up like Iraq).  It is hard to think what would be enough.  Clearly they don't want to rely on China for security.

A peace treaty will be required, countries that are technically at war are not good neighbours.

Sanctions will have to be lifted.  Trade is required before they are likely to go the way of China or Vietnam. 

How much US military involvement would be acceptable.  We are asking N Korea to take a huge risk, probably S Korea will also have to show a high amount of trust in return.  Exercises that look exactly like an invasion of N Korea should stop.  Probably the US military would have to draw back to Japan.  Perhaps they could retain a naval base in Busan.

To work, the deal would have to NOT be one sided.  No-one can expect the N Korean leadership to unilaterally disarm even if it would be their best option.

by Joseph Cook on April 29, 2017
Joseph Cook

Accidentaly pasted data in my previous post, and cannot find a way to delete the comment.  Hopefully a moderator will be able to. 

What should the US do?  Take a less beligerent and threatening position, and defuse the situation.  There is no need to return to the cold war tensions either.  Rather the US should focus on it's defence and stop expansionism. 

China can play a diplomatic role, should the US present an interest to peaceful negotiation of mutual benefit. 

New Zealand should take a neutral perspective.  Nothing beneficial to New Zealand being involved except in a neutral and peaceful manner.

In fact the only beneficial perspective to all nations is to achieve sovereignty of it's people, then, for example, democracy could indeed become a good model to emulate.  So good that it would spread without any need for conflict.   On the other hand, communism could also finally become the good model to emulate.  Neither communism nor democracy have been achieved, this is why nations are held in an untenable situation by their mediocre and corrupt governments.

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