How do you solve a problem like (North) Korea?

Role play any potential United States action against North Korea and you soon see the limited choice they face. So what should the US do? What role can China play? And what's best for New Zealand?

What is the current North Korea dispute about? Is it really about North Korea testing missiles and perhaps a nuclear weapon? Or is it actually about the relationship between China and the United States?

Under the Obama administration there was a general acceptance that North Korean missile tests would not result in military action against North Korea.

Similarly any sanctions were not intended to destroy the regime; rather they were to demonstrate that there was a cost in breaching the United Nations Security Council resolutions on missile tests.

We now seem to be in a new era. The Trump administration seems determined to roll back North Korea's ambitions. It has not ruled out military force to do so. It has proposed sweeping sanctions, including an oil embargo and a virtual prohibition on any exports. The administration summoned the ambassadors of the United Nations Security Council to set out its expectations. There can be no doubt that sanctions on such a scale with cause extreme hardship to the people of North Korea.

More significantly the Trump administration seems to expect that China will meekly do its bidding in imposing such sanctions, and to also acquiesce in the prospect of military action against North Korea. It is hard to imagine that the administration is so naïve to believe that China is actually so pliable.

The United States knows that China lost as many as 400,000 soldiers in defending North Korea in 1951 to 1953. They know that North Korea is an ally of China. In such circumstances the United States must know that military action against North Korea would be testing Chinese tolerance, possibly beyond the limit.

In any event any military action, even a limited surgical strike, has enormous risks. Such a strike could not be as minimal as the recent attack against Syria. The North Koreans have spent decades hardening and defending their military installations. To make an appreciable military impact would require days, if not weeks, of intensive bombing. It is inconceivable that North Korea would not retaliate. Even if their counter attack using artillery and rockets was limited to military targets in South Korea, there would be thousands of casualties. North Korean submarines would test any South Korean or United States naval vulnerabilities.

What would the United States then do?

A full scale invasion of North Korea is simply not possible. To begin with the North Korean Army would not fold like Saddam Hussein’s Army in 2003. China might also feel bound to assist its ally. There cannot be too many American professional soldiers who would willingly contemplate such risks.

Perhaps it is best to examine the entrails of the recent China-United States summit. President Xi Jinping visit to Mar de Largo was particularly interesting for what was not said about the discussions. President Trump had indicated prior to the meeting that it would be his toughest yet, but you would not know that from the publicly disclosed information about the meeting. In fact following the meeting the United States announced it did not regard China as a currency manipulator. The implication was that the Chinese United States bilateral trade flows would be unaffected. The United States also indicated it expected China’s support to reign in North Korea.

But what does that mean?

It is unlikely to be Chinese acquiescence in punitive United Nations sanctions against North Korea that would paralyze the economy and generate wide scale hardship. More likely China will be counselling North Korea to reduce the scale of its provocative actions.

China is a rising power, second only to the United States. China will not readily accept that it must follow the bidding of the United States in its own backyard. In fact, if the United States pushes too hard, China may feel forced to publicly support its ally, at least in response of any military action.

New Zealand has its own role to play. This is a particular occasion where we would expect full compliance with United Nations Security Council procedures, and with the United Nations Charter. This is especially the case given that the Korean War, and our role in it, had the direct authorisation of a United Nations Security Council resolution. In such a case pre-emptive military action will not be possible, since it will not get Security Council approval.

The self defence provisions of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter (which do not require Security Council approval) would only apply if there is a direct attack by North Korea. The usual North Korean blustering, or missile tests, or even a nuclear test will not meet the threshold of Article 51.

The Korean situation is precisely the sort of situation that the United Nations legal and political apparatus is designed to deal with.

It is in New Zealand’s interest that they be fully respected.