Behind the Korean Crisis, Dangers of a US-China Clash

11/29/2010 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The latest Korean crisis continues to boil, as North and South Korea exchange verbal blasts and threats of war, and a powerful US Navy battle group led by the carrier USS George Washington cruises menacingly in the Yellow Sea.

After South Korea staged live fire exercises in coastal waters claimed by North Korea, the North's heavy guns pounded a small South Korean island, killing four and sparking worldwide alarm. South Korean artillery fired back.

US forces from Japan, Okinawa and Guam are on high alert.

Why did North Korea's ruler Kim Jong-il ignite this crisis soon after revealing his nation was enriching uranium that could produce nuclear weapons?

The obvious answer: the old North Korean shake-down designed to get South Korea, Japan and the United States to pay Pyongyang to be good. It has worked before and will likely again. Efforts by North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il to boost his hitherto unknown youngest son, Kim Jong-un, into power could have played a role in the attack.

But there was also a deeper reason. Kim Jong-il and South Korea's rightwing president, Lee Myung-bak detest one another. Kim brands Lee an American "stooge." South Korea's president denounces Kim as a tyrant and demented despot.

The sinking last March of a South Korean naval vessel by what most believe was a North Korean midget submarine hugely embarrassed Lee and his US patrons.

Yet they could not retaliate because North Korea's long-ranged guns dug into caves in the Demilitarized Zone could turn Seoul, only 37km away, into what Kim threatened, "a sea of fire." So long as Seoul is held hostage by the North, there is not much South Korea or the US can do -- so long as North Korea's patron, China, protects the North. In addition, North Korea keeps threatening to target South Korea, Okinawa and Japan with its substantial missile arsenal if it is attacked.

The March sinking brought down public condemnation of President Lee. He was blasted as inept by many South Koreans and the media, and lost huge face.

Now, it's happened a second time. Score: Kim 2/Lee and the US 0.

This face contest is very important in Asia. North Korea claims to be the only "authentic Korea," and denounces the south as an "American colony" occupied by US forces.

It is a little-know fact that until last year, South Korea's 687,000-man armed forces were under overall US command (and are still in wartime). This makes some Koreans give credence to Kim's charges. Nor should we forget that seriously ailing "Dear Leader" Kim has vowed to "liberate" South Korea before his death.

Most of the now ritualized North-South Korean crises soon subside. But much will now depend on the US response. After last March's South Korean warship sinking, the US rushed a carrier battle group to North Korea's eastern coastal waters. North Korea made rude gestures at America's naval might -- and then ignored the US fleet which steamed about impotently.

This time around, enraged Washington may opt for more aggressive measures. These could include air and missile strikes, mining North Korean ports or seizing North Korean vessels on the high seas. But all such actions are likely to provoke bombardment of Seoul and heavy land fighting. President Obama already has two failing wars on his hands.

The US Navy, always renowned for boldness and élan, is operating in the eastern reaches of the narrow Yellow Sea that is three-quarters surrounded by China, Korea, and southern Japan. This show of force seems an odd contrast to Washington's calls for calm and deliberations.

The northern end of the Yellow Sea is one of China's most sensitive, strategic areas, giving access to southern Manchuria, Shandong Province, the port of Lushun (formerly Port Arthur), with its nuclear submarine base, and the maritime approaches to the Tianjin-Beijing region.

Manchuria, bordering North Korea, is a key Chinese military-industrial region. This vast, resource-rich region was the epicenter of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that changed the face of Asia and sparked Russia's 1905 Easter uprising and the 1917 Revolution. Manchuria lies at the nexus of China, Japan, the Koreas and Russia's Far East -- few regions on earth are of more strategic importance.

With US warships and aircraft operating near this sensitive area, chances of a China-US clash are increasing. It's even possible North Korea might move to provoke a clash, or lash out at South Korea and spark a wider war that draws China and the US into direct confrontation.

In any event, China cannot allow a US fleet to long operate in its most important waters, any more than the US would permit a Chinese fleet to demonstrate in Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

Washington is wisely pressing China to rein in its excitable North Korean ally. Beijing has no desire for war at this time and has been openly urging calm on Pyongyang.

China's strategy is to shore up North Korea to prevent its collapse and takeover by South Korea -- which would transform the north into another US military base pointed right at the "Dongebi," China's northeastern flank. Japan does not want a united Korea, either, that would become an even more serious commercial and military competitor. Both Japan and South Korea deeply fear a collapse of North Korea that would flood them with millions of starving refugees.

South Korea's 687,000-man armed forces should be capable of blunting even a major offensive by North Korea's 1.1 million-man army that is equipped with obsolete arms. I have been on the DMZ with South Korean troops. They are well-equipped, highly motivated, very professional and extremely tough.

Whether nearly 30,000 US troops are really needed in South Korea remains debatable. But right now, most of them are in harm's way.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010