By Patrick BAERT
Beijing (AFP) March 18, 2017
The US and China pledged on Saturday to work together in addressing the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programme, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned regional tensions had reached a "dangerous level."
The language from Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart after talks in Beijing was notably conciliatory after a run-up in which US President Donald Trump accused China of doing nothing to control its rogue neighbour while Beijing blamed Washington for fuelling hostilities.
"I think we share a common view and a sense that tensions in the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level," Tillerson said after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
"We will work together to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want to make a different course, make a course correction, and move away from the development of nuclear weapons."
Tillerson arrived in Beijing earlier Saturday after visits to US allies Japan and South Korea where he said the US would no longer observe the "failed" approach of patient diplomacy, warning that American military action against the North was an option "on the table."
But Tillerson refrained from further tough talk in his joint appearance with Wang, who appeared to chide the US diplomat over his rhetoric this week.
"We hope all parties including our friends from the United States could size up the situation in a cool-headed and comprehensive fashion and arrive at a wise decision," Wang said.
Neither side indicated any concrete next steps, and Tillerson did not explicitly back Beijing's calls for negotiations with North Korea, which Washington has rejected.
- Twitter blast -
In a Friday Twitter blast, Trump had accused Beijing of failing to use its leverage as North Korea's key diplomatic and trade partner.
"North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!" Trump said.
The hardened US stance followed two North Korean nuclear tests last year and recent missile launches that Pyongyang described as practice for an attack on US bases in Japan.
Beijing is reluctant to squeeze the unpredictable North, now led by Kim Jong-Un, too hard lest it trigger a confrontation or messy regime collapse.
China, however, has accused Washington of escalating tensions by holding military exercises with its ally Seoul and deploying an anti-missile system in South Korea.
Beijing wants to resume multi-lateral diplomatic negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nukes -- which UN resolutions bar it from having. Various rounds of such talks in years past failed to deter Pyongyang.
"We both hope to find ways to restart talks and do not give up hope for peace," Wang said.
China has criticised the US get-tough approach, saying diplomacy was the "only feasible option" and challenging the Trump administration to propose a clear alternative.
- Summit looms -
One reason for the amicable tone Saturday may be that delicate negotiations are under way for President Xi Jinping's first summit with Trump next month in the United States.
Trump has been a frequent China critic, and the encounter could be crucial to setting the tone in the big-power relationship.
Tillerson was expected to meet Xi on Sunday morning.
Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang but has been accused of not fully enforcing UN sanctions.
But it took one of its toughest steps yet in February, halting all imports of North Korean coal -- a key source of income for the impoverished state -- for the rest of this year.
Wang Dong, a North Korea expert at Peking University, said it was wrong to think Beijing can control the unpredictable and head-strong Pyongyang.
"It is unreasonable for the United States to accuse China of doing nothing on the DPRK (North Korea)," Wang said.
"This is an extremely complex and sensitive issue. There is no one magic formula."
The Obama administration had ruled out diplomatic engagement until Pyongyang fully committed to denuclearisation.
North Korea insists it needs nuclear weapons for defense. It conducted its first underground atomic test in 2006, triggering global condemnation. Four more followed.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea but the country's top newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried a commentary Saturday threatening to launch a devastating nuclear attack if the US takes military action.
"Should the US government continue putting pressure on us, efforts to seek a new exit (in the nuclear impasse) would be lost forever," it sai
Pentagon options for military action on N. Korea
While war with North Korea may be unlikely for now, Pentagon planners and private analysts have given deep thought to how US military intervention with the reclusive country would play out.
Hint: There are no easy options, and the risks are enormous.
- Surgical vs. all-in -
Preemptive military action against North Korea would mean the United States and its allies won't wait until a North Korean nuclear ballistic missile is launched, even though dense defense networks could likely shoot one down.
So first question would be whether to go all in -- a la Iraq -- and push for regime change, or whether to limit intervention to surgical strikes on nuclear program targets.
Stratfor, a US private intelligence firm that recently published a paper looking at possible Pentagon options, said Washington does not want a long-term intervention in North Korea, meaning "levels of violence would be limited."
A broader military campaign would risk full-scale war, and Pyongyang would inevitably be forewarned, making it more likely it would carry out its own preemptive strikes.
Bruce Klingner, who formerly worked for the CIA and now specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs for the Heritage Foundation think tank, warned that any preemptive allied strikes or missile shoot-downs should only occur in the event of an imminent North Korean attack.
- War hardware -
The United States has an "ironclad" alliance with South Korea and has stationed thousands of troops there since the end of the Korean War, with about 28,000 currently based in the South.
The two countries are also currently running joint military drills called the Foal Eagle exercises.
A strike on the North would likely come via US stealth bombers, which can penetrate deep into enemy territory without leaving a significant radar trail.
While North Korea has good air defenses, these would be no match for stealth planes like the B-2 bomber, the F-22 fighter and, eventually, the F-35.
America also has ships and submarines in the region, so firing cruise missiles from unexpected locations is also an option.
- What to strike -
B-2 stealth bombers carrying Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs and other armaments could easily incapacitate North Korea's known nuclear production sites and weapons storage facilities.
Stratfor says an initial wave of bombing could be followed up by a massive barrage of F-22 strikes and cruise missiles that would focus on wiping out North Korea's weapons delivery vehicles.
Pyongyang has about 200 of the so-called Transporter Erector Launchers (TELs) dotted around the country.
But destroying Pyongyang's obvious military targets does little to prevent North Korea delivering a nuclear device through other means -- perhaps via a civilian fishing boat -- that would be detonated by a suicide operative.
- The North's response -
Leader Kim Jong-Un is well aware he has limited -- but powerful -- options when it comes to retaliation.
An all-out attack on South Korea, Japan and US military bases would most likely bring about a massive international response and hasten the end of his regime.
But even a limited response would be devastating.
North Korea has amassed artillery units along its border with South Korea.
The capital, Seoul, is only about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away and some of the canons could rain shells onto the city of 10 million.
Even limited shelling and rocket fire would likely lead to mass casualties.
But that would end badly for the North, said Stratfor analyst Sim Tack, who co-authored the report.
It would put "the United States and its allies into a position where they have no choice but to come in and try and destroy the entire military capability of North Korea," Tack told AFP.
- Unknowns -
Stratfor warns the US and its allies lack perfect intelligence on North Korea, so they would not be certain they had destroyed all nuclear devices and delivery vehicles.
"The longer the North Korean program evolves, the more this becomes a reality," the Stratfor report states.
"Realistically, absent the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies are already at a point where they cannot guarantee the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack."
Another big unknown is China.
Beijing likes having North Korea as a buffer between itself and US-allied South Korea, but also has shown signs of impatience over North Korea's continued nuclear testing.
Seoul (AFP) March 17, 2017
Washington's top diplomat visited the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas to gaze on the North for himself Friday, a day after he declared 20 years of efforts to denuclearise it had failed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Asia for his first foray into crisis management, and was to hold talks with South Korea's Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn later, after China challenged him to ... read more
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