North Korea has belatedly discovered one open secret of democracies: Elections have consequences. Hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un has to deal with his second American president, and he’s finding that the US has a much different approach to threats than the previous administration (as are Russia and Syria, for that matter). Alarmed at the firepower sailing toward the Yellow Sea, the Kim regime warns that the US is risking “catastrophic consequences” with its new joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 11, 2017
So says the government that used VX nerve agent to assassinate a non-entity in a (former) ally’s international airport. Any regime in possession of nuclear weapons has to be taken seriously at some level, but when Pyongyang refers to anyone as “reckless,” it gets tough to keep from rolling one’s eyes.
Besides, the messages that count come from Beijing. The deployment of the Carl Vinson task group clearly intends to send a message to China more than North Korea. Just in case that message doesn’t get picked up, Donald Trump offered a more explicit communication on his favorite diplomatic platform:
Beijing may have gotten the message … one way or another. According to Asia Today via the Huffington Post, China has deployed 150,000 troops near the Yalu River in anticipation of a Korean peninsula crisis. The surprise action in Syria has apparently delivered a message of its own:
This assertion is not an exaggeration considering the characteristics of 150,000 soldiers on the border. According to Beijing sources familiar with Chinese military information, most of them are 39th and 40th Army Groups, which are formed in the Northern Military District to guard against an unexpected situation of the Korea peninsula. The 39th Army Group is a heavy mechanized unit and the 40th is the rapid deployment force. Both of them boast the country’s best combat power and firepower. This means that China is taking the situation quite seriously.
The situation is quite serious considering the fact that the brains of the PLA ordered the entire Northern District to fully prepare for combat. Obviously, follow-up measures are being taken. First, they deployed a new Kongjing-500 early warning aircraft to the border to intensify aerial surveillance. In addition, Dongfeng-31A missiles, 12 Dongfeng-03 ballistic missiles with a range of 2,800km, and 24 Dongfeng-21 “Carrier-killer” missiles are recently deployed at the 51st Base under Rocket Unit stationed in Shenyang of Liaoning province. Aiming at North Korea, United States Forces Korea and Japan, the missiles are reportedly ready to be fired.
Mr. Dou, who retired as an instructor-level officer of the Rocket Unit, said, “The brains of the PLA were surprised by the United States’ sudden Syria missile strike. They cannot help but think the U.S. could exercise armed force against North Korea in the future. They realized U.S. threat to North Korea looking at the implementation of US-Korea military drills such as Key Resolve exercise and the reality of half of US Pacific carriers heading towards Korean Peninsula. It would be rather strange not to respond.”
This could be either a way to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang, or to demonstrate a response commitment on the Kim regime’s behalf. The buildup took place last week, at about the same time Trump met with Xi Jinping, meetings which both sides characterized as mainly positive. Fortune’s Minxin Pei later assessed that the White House overstated the effect of the summit meeting, but that the two sides did agree that North Korea poses a serious risk:
On North Korea, arguably the central national security issue on the summit’s agenda, Trump and Xi did not reach any deal, even though they agreed that Pyongyang poses a serious threat to regional peace. According to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the U.S. and China would increase cooperation to “convince North Korea … to dismantle its illegal nuclear and missile programs.” But we do not know what such “cooperation” would be. In all likelihood, Washington and Beijing have yet to determine what specific steps China should or can take in containing the North Korean threat.
Well, perhaps staging 150,000 troops on the Yalu might be one of those steps. At a minimum, China would need that kind of strength along the long border if and when a crisis occurred just to control the flood of refugees that would cross into China to escape the Kim regime. (This assumes that Asia Daily’s report is accurate, of course; previous such reports have been denied.) It could also be a commitment that would allow Trump to reciprocate in opening up talks on trade, as Trump offered on Twitter this morning.
This could be another demonstration of commitment:
A fleet of North Korean cargo ships is heading home to the port of Nampo, the majority of it fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal from the isolated country, shipping data shows.
Following repeated missile tests that drew international criticism, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country’s most important export product.
To curb coal traffic between the two countries, China’s customs department issued an official order on April 7 telling trading companies to return their North Korean coal cargoes, said three trading sources with direct knowledge of the order.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were discussing North Korea at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on April 7.
Hmmmm. April 7 is also the day that Asia Daily reports the large deployment took place on the border, too. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
At the very least, it appears that Trump wants the static position on the Korean peninsula to end. Whether it ends well will be anyone’s guess.