Is There a New Korean War on the Horizon?

Benjamin Lai is an expert on modern Chinese military and the author of  The Dragon’s Teeth. Here, he analyses the possibility of a war taking place on the Korean peninsular.

USS Carl Vinson Battle Group on her way to Korea. Does this mean war?This is a display of muscle rather than a declaration of war. After all, the THADD anti-missile system has only just arrived in Korea and the US cannot launch anything until this system is operational.

In the last few months, war clouds have been gathering over the Korean Peninsula. Is there a chance that President Trump is going to launch a military strike on North Korea?

The general consensus among many pundits and commentators in the West is that China needs to do more to rein in her increasingly out-of-control neighbour; after all, according to many western observers, it was China who created this monster. In my previous blog on North Korea (13 Feb. 2017), China’s position on North Korea is increasingly between a rock and a hard place. In one sense she does need North Korea as a buffer zone to the United States but this buffer is now out of control. No one wants to see a nuclear North Korea, least of all China, with the China/North Korean border just 379 Km miles from Shenyang, a large industrial city in NE China with more than 8 million inhabitants. While China can exercise pressure on North Korea diplomatically and economically, North Korea depends on China for almost all of her oil, an estimated 270,000 tons of finished products and another 520,000 tons of crude oil at fire-sale prices. Recently however, the North Korean official communiqué has been less than diplomatic causing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing to rebuke North Korea directly.

China’s top North Korean envoy, Mr Wu Da-wei (R) was recently snubbed by North Korea who refused a meeting requested by the Chinese. This shows the Sino-Korean relationship has soured.

However one must remember that China and North Korea are both sovereign independent countries and there is a limit to how much North Korea will be willing to follow China’s line despite putting on the squeeze. China knows that if this is not handled carefully the consequence is dire. The last time the United States tries to slap an oil embargo on an Japan, Pearl Harbour soon followed. So turning the oil tap off may be a double edged sword and it will be China, not the United States who has to bear most of the consequences. 

The looming crisis in North Korea can be interpreted as a failure of diplomatic policy of the United States and South Korea. Years of attempting to intimidate the North Koreans has made them more willing to fight for the survival of the Kim dynasty. The brief hope of a settlement launched by Clinton was dashed by George W. Bush. Now, Trump fresh from his commander-in-chief role is once again flexing his military muscles, a strategy that has proven not to work before to unlock the North Korean enigma.  Without any new ideas, the United States are now pushing for China to fix the situation.

The only possible solution is to talk and hope that an Iranian-style settlement or even some sort of aid for no-bomb deal can be reached. There must be some sort of guarantee to North Korea on non-first use of WMD’s. 

The Chinese word “crisis”, is made up of two characters: “danger ” and “opportunity ”. True to this eastern wisdom, Abe Shinzo the Japanese Prime Minister is hoping to turn this into an opportunity to push for change in the Japanese Constitution. His focus is to strike off Article 9, allowing Japan to exercise war as a sovereign right and remove the promises of not maintaining a land, sea, and air force. If I was Japanese, I would be very worried indeed about what Abe is planning. No wonder the Chinese are up in arms; after all, it was China who bore the brunt of most of the Japanese aggression in the 20th Century.

For more about the China’s relationship with the United States and North Korea, check out Benjamin Lai’s latest book, The Dragon’s Teeth: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army—Its History, Traditions, and Air Sea and Land Capability in the 21st Century.

Published by Casemate Books, The Dragon’s Teeth is available from:



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