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How North Korea Could Start the Unthinkable: War Between America and China

War on the Korean Peninsula is almost too horrible to contemplate.

Nuclear-armed adversaries, fighting in densely populated urban terrain, could cause humanitarian disaster on a scale that the world has never seen. But the scenario might grow even worse. The last time that the United States fought North Korea, the People’s Republic of China intervened with destructive effect. The war lasted for three years, with heavy casualties on both sides. While both China and the United States have worked hard to prevent a recurrence of this catastrophe, the two great powers remain at odds over the fate of North Korea, a disagreement that might yet lead to war.

How it Happened Before:

The United States and China were not supposed to go to war in 1950. The war resulted primarily from U.S. miscalculation of Chinese intentions and capabilities; U.S. forces failed to detect the movement of significant People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces into Korea, failed to pay sufficient attention to Chinese signals, and lacked a good understanding of Communist China’s nascent diplomatic efforts. Chinese intervention was an operational surprise that should not have been, successful in throwing U.S. forces out of North Korea and restoring something close to the antebellum status quo. The first Korean War did not work out well for either country, although both the United States and China successfully maintained the independence of their respective proxies.

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How it Could Happen Again:

War in Korea could resume for any number of reasons; even a collapse of the North Korean regime could start a race for Pyongyang that produced great power conflict. Over the past year, however, tensions have grown over the extent and progress of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The United States sees these (and North Korean bombasticity) as a threat, and the North Koreans see U.S. threat-mongering as the potential prelude to war. This leaves both sides with ample incentive to launch a preemptive war against the other. Thus, war between the U.S. and the DPRK could plausibly begin with either a North Korean attack on South Korea or Japan, or a U.S. attack on North Korea.

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China is unlikely to view U.S. response to a North Korean attack as legitimate cause for war, unless that response crosses certain red lines. These red lines could be similar to those that the PRC laid down in 1950, although both Chinese fear of the United States and Chinese affection for North Korea have declined over time. Similarly, the United States probably will not see any upside in pre-empting Beijing’s response by directly attacking China. Still, Beijing has little interest in seeing U.S. forces along the Yalu River. If China believes that the United States foolishly blundered into a war, or pushed North Korea into a pre-emptive war through brinksmanship, then Beijing’s attitude could become more belligerent. Moreover, China might view a U.S. attack on North Korea as an indicator of incorrigible aggression, evidence that the United States truly is a “rogue nation” as likely as not to attack China at some point in the future.

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As a prelude to intervention, China would begin to signal its disfavor by elaborately visible military preparations, as well as diplomatic condemnations. The Trump administration undoubtedly runs some of the same risks of misinterpreting Chinese statements as the Truman administration did in 1950. The US could properly read these signals as indications of China’s willingness to commit, or it could misread them as bluster. At the same time, if Beijing was serious, it would begin quietly redeploying long-range assets away from Korea, into relatively safe locations in China’s interior. The PLA faces the dilemma of needing to reduce the chance of war, while at the same time maximizing its chance of victory.

How it Could Play Out:

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