The U.S. and South Korea began its latest series of war games on Monday, but right now the outbreak of war is looking less likely. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways the current U.S.-North Korea détente can go sideways:
- The wild card in the White House – For the last 60+ years, the unpredictable element in the U.S.-North Korea standoff has always hailed from Pyongyang. For a man who remains conspicuously short of signature victories more than 200 days into his administration (and has a penchant for lurching from one PR disaster to another), taking a strong stand against North Korea might become more appealing day by day. And we haven’t even gotten to the Mueller investigation yet, which will most probably have Trump desperate to change the narrative any way he can.
- North Korea’s got something to prove –Kim Jong-un saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, strongmen who bluffed a big nuclear game. He has no intention of following suit.
- China under pressure – Not that China had much choice but to turn the screws on North Korea. Trump has been floating the possibility of a trade war with China for months now. Given that, China has no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea. It can’t push the Kim regime too far lest it collapse, flooding China with desperate North Korean refugees and producing two of China’s worst nightmares: loose nukes and a US military using North Korea’s collapse as a pretext for ramping up its activity in Asia.
- South Korea trapped in the middle – Some analysts estimate that the amount of North Korean it has trained on South Korea at all times could decimate Seoul (population: 10 million) in as little as two hours.
- A problem that defies solutions – The U.S. demands North Korea stop developing nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea continues to do so to ensure its survival against an enemy it’s terrified of. South Korea just wants to be left alone (Japan too). If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the principal actors involved: Donald Trump, a South Korean president [who is also new to the job], Kim Jong-un, Chinese president Xi Jinping (who’s heading into a political transition this fall). North Korea may be the single most difficult geopolitical challenge the world faces. At a certain point someone desperate could act, forcing everybody’s hand. There’s always a chance that cooler heads prevail and traditional diplomacy will work, but the world just hasn’t had that type of luck lately.
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