Is the US headed for a showdown with North Korea?

“The growth in the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable.” This is the most famous line of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Will a future historian one day write that the growth in the power of China, and the alarm which this inspired in America, made war equally inevitable?

Since the election of Donald Trump, the probability of a Sino-American conflict has soared. Last year Trump ran an aggressively anti-Chinese election campaign, repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. Trade is only one of several bones of contention. The United States remains committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China’s island-building program is designed to make that sea Chinese in fact as well as name. Trump is less committed than any US president since Richard Nixon to the “One China” policy.

But the biggest flashpoint is without question North Korea — which brings me back to Thucydides and Graham Allison’s “Destined for War,” this summer’s must-read book in both Washington and Beijing.

Small powers can cause big trouble. The initial clash in the Peloponnesian War was in fact between Athens and Corinth; war came when the Corinthians appealed to the Spartans for help. Think of the role Serbia played in the First World War, or Cuba in the Cold War. Today’s catalyst for conflict is North Korea, which last week successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile — a weapon with the capacity to hit Alaska. Experts such as my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker believe the North Koreans are just five or so years away from being able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the nose of such a missile.

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Haley on North Korea: We’ll use military forces if we must

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Wednesday that the U.S. is prepared to defend itself from the North Korean threat.

Her comments came as the UN Security Council met to debate the crisis with North Korea, in the wake of North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

“The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” Haley said, in comments quoted by CBS News.

“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” she stressed.

Haley called the missile test a “destabilizing escalation,” and said North Korea’s actions are “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”

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North Korean Crisis: Negotiations Still the Only Solution

During his New Year speech, Kim Jong Un declared that North Korea had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM),” adding that it would provide “a powerful military guarantee for defending the destiny of the nation.” Like his father before him, the 33-year-old dictator evidently believes that a nuclear-armed ICBM safeguards him from the sort of Western-backed regime change that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi.

On Tuesday, Kim presided over the firing of an ICBM that soared at an altitude of 1,731 miles, for 580 miles, before crashing into the Sea of Japan. Experts posit that such a rocket, which Pyonyang calls a Hwasong-14, could potentially travel 4,100 miles, technical wrinkles not withstanding. That puts Alaska within striking range.

Afterward, North Korean state television boasted that the regime had, in an instant, become “a full-fledged nuclear power that possesses [a] powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world.” North Korea’s official news agency KCNA quoted Kim as saying that the July 4 launch formed a “package of gifts” to the “Yankies” on their Independence Day. In a statement conceding that the launch was indeed of an ICBM, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned “a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.”

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“Murder of a U.S. Citizen”

American student Otto Warmbier, 22,  passed away in Cincinnati on Monday, only days after he returned from North Korea unable to speak, see or respond to voices. North Korea had sentenced Warmbier to 15 years hard labor based on a bogus charge.

President Trump said “It’s a total disgrace what happened to Otto and it should never ever be allowed to happen.”  The American’s death also prompted outrage from a leading Democrat.

“The barbaric treatment of Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime amounts to the murder of a U.S. citizen,” California Democrat Adam Schiff told reporters.  “The North Korean regime has shown once again that it is perfectly willing to treat Americans who visit their nation as hostages to extract concessions from the United States.” Schiff also echoed Republican calls for a ban on travel to North Korea because tourism “helps to fund one of the most brutal and despotic regimes in the world.”

Schiff is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a prime mover of the charge that “President Vladimir Putin decided to become an active participant in the U.S. election and attempt to influence its result for Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton.” This sudden display of wrath against North Korea might lead some to believe that the American left has always opposed that regime with the same vigor. Such is hardly the case.

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Analysts Sound New Alarms on North Korea Missile Threat

North Korea just conducted its seventh missile test launch so far this year. No one should expect this activity to cease, and no one should be surprised by North Korea’s progressively more advanced weapons capabilities, analysts said at a recent Mitchell Institute forum on Capitol Hill, hosted by the author.

“During Kim Jung Un’s five years in power he has done twice, perhaps three times, as many launches of missiles as his father did in 18 years,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The North Korean dictator is not showing any signs of slowing down, and he is determined to push forward the country’s program to enhance the medium and long-range missiles and nuclear warheads that now threaten the United States and its allies.

Klingner estimates that North Korea has 16 to 20 nuclear weapons. “And then, of course, the question or the debate is how far along they are,” he said. “I think it is pretty clear they’ve weaponized and miniaturized the warhead, that right now the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile is already nuclear capable.” This means U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are under a nuclear threat today, he stressed. “It is not theoretical, it is not several years in the future as some analysts or experts will tell you.”

The threats posed by North Korea are wide ranging, Klingner noted. “They’ve got, we estimate, 5,000 tons of chemical warfare agents.” And it has a sophisticated army of cyber warriors. “They are, perhaps, in the top five or top three countries in the world for cyber attack capabilities.”

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President Trump Should Extend His “Disruption” to Saudi Arabia

At an Israeli Independence Day event in Washington, D.C. on May 2, on the eve of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s meeting at the White House, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster referred to U.S. President Donald Trump as “not a super patient man,” who “does not have time to debate over doctrine.”

McMaster then said that those who call Trump “disruptive” are right, “and this is good… because we can no longer afford to invest in policies that do not advance the interests and values of the United States and our allies.”

This was echoed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates days before Trump embarked on his first foreign trip to Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Vatican — albeit in relation to Pyongyang. In an interview with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on May 14, Gates said:

“There is a need for disruption. We’ve had three administrations follow a pretty consistent policy toward North Korea, and it really hasn’t gotten us anywhere… [T]he tough talk on North Korea, the military deployments, sending the missile defense system to South Korea … [Trump has] gotten China’s attention to a degree that his predecessors have not.”

However, Gates cautioned, “[T]here’s the risk of being too spontaneous and too disruptive where you end up doing more harm than damage. And figuring out that balance is where having strong people around you matters.”

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UN Should Sanction Iranians Involved With Pyongyang’s Ballistic Missile Program

Pyongyang’s test on Sunday of a new ballistic missile highlights its cooperation with Iran on missile development — leaving the Tehran regime vulnerable to further sanctions should the UN decide to act, a leading North Korea expert told The Algemeiner on Monday.

Anthony Ruggiero – a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank and former State Department official — said that the blanket prohibition on weapons trade with North Korea, agreed to by the UN Security Council in March 2016 following a nuclear test carried out by the Pyongyang regime, meant Iranian individuals and entities already sanctioned by the US government could face further sanctions imposed by the UN.

“The Iran-North Korea missile relationship was so concerning to the Obama administration that they designated Iranian officials [for sanctions] for it the day after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” Ruggiero said. “It certainly wasn’t what they wanted to do, just as the deal was being implemented, so that gives you a sense of the seriousness of this issue.”

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