Concerns over armed conflict overblown

A U.S. Marine soldier conducts the U.S.-South Korea joint Exercise Operation Pacific Reach in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, Tuesday. North Korea is vowing tough counteraction to any military moves that might follow the U.S. move to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula. / AP-Yonhap

By Jun Ji-hye

Military experts downplayed any possibility of an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula in the near future, Tuesday, despite rumors of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea by the United States.

They said it was unlikely that Washington would actually launch a military attack on the Kim Jong-un regime in consideration of reactions from China and Russia, as well as the fact the North possesses a nuclear capability unlike Syria.

“China and Russia are strongly opposed to a pre-emptive strike against the North, which can be construed as implying that military intervention by Beijing and Moscow could also follow if the U.S. launched such an attack,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “So, the U.S. might not be able to push for the strike.”

Yang said if the U.S. were really willing to attack Pyongyang, it would not mention such a possibility openly.

The Donald Trump administration has said it will mobilize “a full range of options” to remove the North’s nuclear and missile threats, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson openly mentioning military action during his visit to South Korea last month.

The U.S. Pacific Command also sent a Navy strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to waters close to the peninsula, with its spokesman Dave Benham calling the North “the number one threat in the region” Sunday.

Tension over Washington’s possible use of military force against the North has also escalated following the surprise U.S. strike on an air base in Syria last week in response to the latter’s use of deadly chemical weapons against civilians. Tillerson said Monday the strike was a warning to other nations, including North Korea, that “a response is likely” once any nation poses a threat.

Following Washington’s hawkish remarks, rumors of “U.S. strikes against the North in April” or “a war crisis within the coming weeks” have spread through social network services here.

Pressure on China

But experts said Washington’s recent move is actually seen as aiming at China over pressing issues, including the North’s nuclear ambitions and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“Washington’s intension is apparently to pressure China in a roundabout way,” Yang said.

Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, also said the U.S. has been talking about unilateral measures to counter the North Korean threats, but a top priority of such measures would be to pressure China, the North’s sole ally.

“It is necessary for the U.S. to pressure China to more effectively implement sanctions against the North,” he said during a cable TV appearance. “Even if Washington chooses the military option, it is likely that measures that can be used to pressure China will be mobilized, rather than those aimed directly at attacking the North.”

After the U.S.-China summit last week, Tillerson told reporters that the U.S. is “prepared to chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us.”

Regarding the growing tension, Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said during a media briefing Tuesday that people should not be misled by exaggerated rumors spreading through social network services.

When asked if the U.S. can take military action against the North without the consent of South Korea, Moon said, “(Any military operations) will be conducted under the ironclad South Korea-U.S. combined defense posture and the two sides close cooperation.”

For its part, the North vowed Tuesday to take the “toughest” counteractions, referring to the dispatch of the Carl Vinson Strike Group.

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