Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Empty US threats over North Korea are serving Beijing’s interests

Reading Time: 6 mins
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and South Korean Ambassador to the UN Cho Tae-yul speak after a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch by North Korea at UN headquarters in New York, United States, 5 July 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar).

In Brief

When North Korea tested a ballistic missile back in February, the Trump administration threatened military action. They did the same thing when Pyongyang tested again on 4 July.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

But each time, after a few days of ­rising anxiety, the tough talk evaporated. Washington went back to the same old measures — sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions — which have so plainly failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs for so long.

That leaves North Korea’s weapons program intact and steadily growing. Worse, it leaves America’s strategic credibility seriously weakened — and that has implications far beyond the North Korean nuclear issue itself. It erodes the basis of the entire regional order in Asia based on US power, and helps to reinforce China’s challenge to US leadership.

Credibility matters so much ­because the US’s leading position in Asia has depended ultimately on the belief, among allies and potential adversaries alike, that it is both willing and able to defend its interests and fulfil its commitments by force if need be. It is the strength of that belief that has made the actual use of force unnecessary, because no one has doubted what the outcome of a military confrontation would be.

But those doubts grow every time the United States threatens military ­action and then fails to follow through. Allies increasingly fear, and rivals increasingly hope, that Washington will not stand by its commitments in a crisis.

As that happens, US leadership erodes, and in Asia today that means Beijing’s bid to build a new Chinese-led order moves ahead.

So Washington needs to stop making these empty threats. It must either resolve to use armed force to destroy North Korea’s ­nuclear and missile programs, or it must learn to live with them.

The problem with using force is that there are no credible military options.

There is no reasonable chance of destroying or even significantly degrading North Korea’s weapons programs without ­provoking a major war on the Korean peninsula, with a very grave risk that nuclear weapons would be used.

That’s because there is no quick cheap ’surgical strike’ option. Any idea of a limited series of precisely targeted strikes to destroy the critical elements of Pyongyang’s ­nuclear and missiles programs runs up against two stark realities.

First, there is no reliable intelligence on the locations of many of the key facilities, so it is impossible to know what to hit. Second, many of them are deeply buried in tunnels and thus impossible to destroy, even if they could be found.

That means any limited strike campaign would have little chance even of significantly degrading, let alone eliminating, Pyongyang’s weapons programs. Moreover, it would certainly provoke major ­retaliation by the North against South Korean, Japanese and US targets.

And that would leave Washington with a tough choice about how to respond in turn to such retaliation. To do nothing would look weak, but to counter-retaliate would risk a spiral of escalation leading swiftly to full-scale conflict.

So the problems with using force are clear. The problem with not using force is that nothing else seems at all likely to work to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Trump has looked to Beijing to use its unique position as Pyongyang’s major trading partner to impose the kind of devastating economic pressure that alone seems likely to bring Kim Jong-un to heel.

But China has no intention of doing that. The most obvious reason is that economic pressure strong enough to force Kim to back down would also be strong enough to risk the collapse of his regime, and Beijing does not want to deal with the chaos that that would create.

The deeper reason is that the current situation works to Beijing’s advantage.

Of course China would much prefer that Pyongyang did not have nuclear weapons, but it seems willing to live with them, confident that its own nuclear forces will deter any North Korean attack against itself. And, more importantly, the North’s growing nuclear forces serve China’s interests precisely ­because they pose such an insoluble strategic problem for America.

In the ruthless zero-sum strategic contest now under way between them over strategic primacy in Asia, Beijing wins when Washington’s ­inability to disarm North Korea makes the United States look weak.

This is especially true now that the North seems on the threshold of developing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) that could mount a nuclear attack on the US itself. A North Korean ICBM poses no new threat to China, because it is already within reach of the North’s shorter-range missiles, but it fundamentally transforms the risks for the United States.

That is not just because of the danger that Kim Jong-un might order an unprovoked attack on US cities — the certainty of massive US nuclear retaliation makes that extremely unlikely.

More importantly, Pyongyang’s ability to target the United States directly undermines the confidence of US allies like South Korea and Japan that the US would be willing and able to protect them from Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.

And that serves Beijing’s interests. It undermines these critical US alliances that are central to the US’s strategic position in Asia, and correspondingly advances China’s bid to replace the US as Asia’s leading power.

It is thus very unlikely that China will do much to help the US solve its North Korea problem.

All this shows how deep and complex are the strategic challenges facing the United States in Asia today. They will only be made worse by the kind of empty bluffing we have seen so far over North Korea from the Trump administration.

A much more considered policy is needed. And that must start with a fundamental re-examination of US aims and objectives in Asia, and a coldly realistic assessment of the costs and risks that they would entail.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

An earlier version of this article was first published here in the South China Morning Post.

3 responses to “Empty US threats over North Korea are serving Beijing’s interests”

  1. Thanks for a succinct analysis which consolidates what other observers have also noted to varying degrees. I hope Mr. White and/or others who contribute to EAF will offer more specific suggestions as to how the USA and its allies in the Asia Pacific can do to alter their approach to the North Koreans. Empty military threats and/or sanctions will not work. What will stabilize the ‘deep and complex’ dynamcis which are operating in NE Asia now? Is there some way to reassure Kim et al that their survival is not threatened? Can/will Trump do this?

  2. Mr White believes that all talk of military action against North Korea is bluff; however I am not that sure. He claims there is no “reliable intelligence” on the North’s weapons systems. I did not know he had a top secret US clearance and access to all of America’s intelligence. Thirty years ago it was claimed US spy satellites could read newspaper headlines from space and I believe technology has gotten a little better since then. The US knows where the 1000 uranium centifuges are along with the plutonium enrichment site. The US could very easily end the North’s ability to make more nuclear weapons. The US could do tremendous damage to Kim’s missiles systems and the production of more missile systems and maybe take out 70 per cent of the longer range missiles. The question and fear is what would Kim do. If he undertook any major retalition it would be the end of his regime and likely his life. Yet he would have to respond. People fail to understand the massive changes that have happened in the North in the last 20 years. The famine in the 1990’s and the massive changes to the economy have radically changed the North. In the 1980’s the people of the North loved the Kims; that number now is probably in the low single digits. Also I do not see how anyone can say what Trump will do, the daily chaos that spins out of DC would not be believed if it was written by a fiction writer 6 months ago. I for one do not favour military action, because of the uncertainty of the North’s response; I favour forcing China to force the removal of the North’s nukes and long range missiles. After the latest missiles test the US stated that Kim was at the site for 70 minutes and the US could have taken out the missile and Kim. I assume Kim must be very paranoid, that claim can’t be helping and it is claimed Kim has gone into hiding in the last week. It would also help if Mr White would state clearly what he thinks should be done. The stated time line for the US is said to be in the fall a few months from now. Also will the North Korean elites allow Kim to drive them off a cliff, I do not know but if I sold life insurance I wouldn’t sell a policy to Kim Jong-un. Trump will not just continue the Obama policy of doing nothing for another 3 1/2 years.

  3. The analysis by Prof White is insightful but here are additional inputs that should be added into the ominous equation:

    First, the North Korean leadership had witnessed with alarm how the US and “the Coalition of the Killing” from the warmongering democratic West bombed and invaded Iraq in March 2003 with impunity, based on lies of WMD, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, who was on the verge of selling crude oil in euro, thus endangering the US dollar, aka the Petrodollar and how the US also bombed and destroyed Libya on March 19, 2011 to get rid of Col Muammar Qaddafi, who was on the verge of introducing a Gold Dinar currency in North Africa, also an unacceptable act which could endanger the tenuous legitimacy of the US dollar as the de facto world’s reserve currency, (tenuous because the US dollar is backed by nothing but only a promise to pay America’s US$20 trillion national debt, making the US dollar the proverbial Achilles Heel of the United States).

    Second, to prevent the DPRK from being bombed into oblivion, the North Korean leadership has really only ONE option and that is to make it excruciatingly painful for Uncle Sam to launch the surgical ‘First Strike’ to decapitate the DPRK leadership, by having a credible nuclear deterrence and the ability to destroy US military bases in South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii, resulting in a catastrophic loss of tens of millions of Asian and American lives. (Note: the total population of Seoul and Tokyo is about 42 million, a staggering number which is almost twice the population of Australia).

    Third, from the evidence, we have seen that the DPRK leadership has not only achieved its aim of a credible nuclear deterrence but it can now also afford to play ‘wayang kulit’ (a classical Indonesian puppet-shadow play) with Trump, who is relegated to making empty threats of ’fire and fury’ since Congress is unlikely to declare war unless the DPRK launches the ‘First Strike’.

    Fourth, the DPRK leadership is not stupid or suicidal to launch the ‘First Strike’ against the US or its allies. Why? Because it will go down in history as another ‘Day of Infamy’, like the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on the morning of December 7, 1941 without provocation and ignited the Pacific War. We know how badly that war ended for Japan after one atom bomb each dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, on August 6 and 9 respectively.

    Fifth, should the DPRK leadership be so insane as to launch the ‘First Strike’, the US Congress (not Trump) will declare war against the DPRK. Since the US has more than 6,000 nuclear bombs vs 60 in the DPRK and the requisite ICMBs and bombers to launch them, this time with justification and from a moral high-ground, the DPRK will be pulverized with real ‘fire and fury’. China and Russia are likely to look the other way, UNLESS it is the US which makes the ‘First Strike’ to remove Kim Jong Un. See a Reuters report below:

    Sixth, the planned-testing by the DPRK of ICBMs in mid-August into the waters near Guam does not warrant the US Congress to declare war on the DPRK. No moral equivalency here. In fact, the US has, in the past 6 months alone, tested 4 ICBMs across the Pacific Ocean, from California into waters of the poor people of the Marshall Islands, where, to add insult to injury, the US military had already tested 67 nuclear bombs from 1946 to 1958, causing cancers and deformed births and making these islands arguably, by far, the most contaminated places on Planet Earth.

    Seventh, if Trump is foolish enough to launch the ‘First Strike’ on the DPRK and places his bets with the lives of at least 42 millions innocent people, he could pave the way for his own impeachment, which will, no doubt, be cheered by the US media and the implacable Democrats in Congress.

    Eight, so how will it end without each side losing credibility? In my view, the best option is a) for the US to accept the harsh reality that the DPRK is now a nuclear state (or as Prof White puts it plainly “it must learn to live with them”) b) for the US and South Korean forces to stop threatening the DPRK with extinction c) for the US to remove the THAAD deployment in South Korea d) for the the DPRK to reciprocate by stopping nuclear and ICBM tests and e) for the UN to reconvene the 6-party talk to bring back peace to the Korean peninsula.

    Ninth, wouldn’t that make the US lose credibility among its Asian and Australian allies? No. In fact, the US Foreign Secretary, Rex Tillerson, recently announced in Manila that North Korea is not the enemy and that the US is not planning a regime change there.

    Tenth, now that begs the $64,000 question as the plot thickens: Who is the enemy?

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.