Treaties, uncertainties over Pyongyang’s nuclear readiness, and the sheer scale of armaments on both sides maintain a delicate truce on the Korean peninsula
US President Donald Trump’s sudden strike on Syria and Washington’s doubling down on aggressive military posturing has led to wide speculation that Pyongyang could be the next target for unilateral action.
Even though the administration has indicated that military option is among the options under review, there are many signs that North Korea is not Syria – as military action against the former carries far greater risks.
- Why can’t the US attack North Korea like it did Syria?
The Korean Peninsula technically remains in a state of war. Fighting halted on July 27, 1953 under an armistice signed between Washington and Beijing. If the US initiated an attack, it would break the treaty endorsed by the United Nations.
- What are the most important differences between North Korea and Syria?
While Syria is believed to have pursued nuclear weapons, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities have matured in recent years. Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests and claims it has successfully “miniaturised” nuclear warheads – though such claims have never been independently verified. It experienced a series of embarrassing failures while launching the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile last year. Despite that, military experts believe that North Korea learnt from those setbacks and might even be able to develop a nuclear-tipped, intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States within the coming four years, during Trump’s presidency.
3. Why must China stand by North Korea if it is attacked by the US?
China is North Korea’s ally. In 1961, the two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, in which both parties are obliged to offer immediate military and other assistance to the other in the case of an outside attack. This treaty has been prolonged twice, and is valid until 2021.
- Why does China insist on a peaceful resolution and oppose military option floated by the US?
China is concerned that its border provinces would be inundated with North Korean refugees if the Kim regime collapsed. From a geopolitical point of view, Beijing views North Korea as a buffer zone from the potential encroachment by powers are aligned with the US, including Japan and South Korea.
- Besides China, which other countries oppose a military strike against Pyongyang?
Both South Korea and Japan prefer non-military option. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is only about 40km from the border and is particularly vulnerable to North Korean attack. Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel, was quoted by an interview by The Atlantic magazine as saying the US “cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first 24 hours of a war, and maybe for the first 48”. Even though former US president Bill Clinton seriously debated bombing the Yongbyon reactor in 1994, he was convinced by his defence officials that the intensity of combat with North Korea “would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War”.