The Gathering Storm in the Western Pacific

The South China Morning Post, one of the favorite go-to sources for my old professor of grand strategy Harold Rood, had an interesting article about China and North Korea a couple days ago—and notice how even the Post headline editors aren’t buying the official story:

Main link between China and North Korea to be cut when Friendship Bridge closes ‘for repairs’

The closure of the Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge in Dandong, Liaoning province will only be “temporary” as the North Korean side carries out maintenance, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press conference on Friday.

Traffic will resume after the repairs are finished, Geng said.

The 944-metre-long bridge linking North Korea’s light industrial centre Sinuiju to Dandong over the Yalu River has both road and rail lines. It is the route of 80 per cent of trade and a large amount of personal travel between the neighbours.

Geng did not give the date for the closure or an estimate for how long it last, nor did he specify whether it would affect road or rail travel or both. . .

Pyongyang has begun to pull back thousands of its nationals working in China, well ahead of Beijing’s deadline to close all North Korean businesses or joint venture by January 8 next year.

This is just the kind of thing, Prof. Rood used to point out, that should be watched closely, as a possible step toward “something happening.” You’d almost think that China might want to prevent a flood of refugees from North Korea surging across their border.

Then there’s this:

U.S., South Korea Plan Joint Military Exercises Next Month

Vigilant Ace 18 drills, to be held Dec. 4 to Dec. 8, will involve thousands of troops, 230 aircraft

SEOUL—Military exercises involving hundreds of U.S. and South Korean aircraft will take place on the Korean Peninsula next month, the U.S. military said, in the latest show of force aimed at deterring North Korea.

The Vigilant Ace 18 drills, to be held Dec. 4 to Dec. 8, will involve a total of 12,000 U.S. personnel from the Air Force, Marines and Navy, and 230 U.S. and South Korean aircraft, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michal Kloeffler-Howard said Friday.

Lt. Col. Kloeffler-Howard played down suggestions that the exercises were part of a stronger-than-usual military-pressure campaign against the North, characterizing them as “annual” and “regular.”

“Annual” and “regular” are just what you’d say before exercises became “irregular.” And why might we be out of “strategic patience” with the Norks? Well maybe this:

Newly Declassified Documents Reveal Failed N. Korea Strategy

By Daniel DePetris

The situation with North Korea was getting critical. The lights, to use the worn-out phrase, were blinking red.

The State Department, the Defense Department and the White House were increasingly concerned either that the North Korean regime was hiding components of its plutonium program from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or that it would exploit any negotiating track to stall the international community while improving its nuclear capacity. The motives of the Chinese, Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner and bankroller by far, were unclear—adding more complication to a problem that was already far too complicated.

The documents also show, however, how little the North Korea discussion within the U.S. government has changed over the last twenty-five to thirty years. The talking points, policy proposals and memos that circulated throughout the interagency are composed of positions that are virtually identical to the Trump administration’s position today. Indeed, if one were to replace the names of North Korean, South Korean and American officials found in the documents with the officials who are now running things, you would find very little that is different.

Perhaps the Trump Administration and our Asian allies—and maybe even China—have come to the conclusion that this Groundhog Day policy needs to be abandoned, before the Norks are able to make us start looking for holes in the ground.

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