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U.S. Moves Nuclear-Capable B-2 Bombers to Keep North Korea in Check

The weekend’s crisis on the Korean peninsula ultimately ended with North Korea expressing “regret” over the severe injury of two South Korean soldiers by land mines in the DMZ, while South Korea agreed to turn off the propaganda loudspeakers that had infuriated the North and led to declarations that it was preparing for all-out war.

A fleet of fifty North Korean submarines which had ominously vanished from South Korean surveillance began returning to their bases on Monday.

The Pentagon, on Monday, confirmed that it was sending three nuclear-capable B-2 bombers to Guam, putting them in range of North Korea. There has been speculation the move is intended to send certain signals to Pyongyang, although the bomber rotation is said to have been scheduled some time ago—perhaps after North Korea’s troubling ballistic missile tests earlier this year.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh took pains in a Monday press briefing to present the bomber assignment as a significant, but not a radical, departure from normal operations. When he was directly asked about putting B-2s on alert in the region, Welsh confirmed that the Air Force was “in the process right now of deploying three B-2s on a scheduled rotation to Andersen Air Base in Guam,” where they would become part of a “continuous bomber presence” the United States has maintained “for some time now.”

“We continue to have airmen stationed on the Korean peninsula who are there full time who are ready for whatever might happen, and they’re ready every day. And there has been nothing additional beyond that,” the general said.

Later in the press conference, Welsh said there were “a lot of worrisome things about Korea,” but added that he didn’t think any of it was “new news.”

“I don’t know where they are relative to developing nuclear weapon or mating it with a delivery system. I don’t know exactly what their intentions are with ballistic missile… ballistic missile strike capabilities, but we know where they’re going toward… where they’re moving towards, and so we have to ready for that eventuality as well,” said Welsh.

He then mentioned one rather alarming goal North Korea might have been going toward: “They may have a missile that’s capable of reaching the West Coast, and I’m talking… this is from newspaper articles, I don’t track this day-to-day, but whether they have the capability to do anything other than fire the missile is beyond my understanding.  Certainly, they have a missile that can reach Hawaii or U.S. facilities in the Pacific, so that’s really what we’re most worried about.”

That seems like a studiously nonchalant way to discuss a matter the Pentagon most likely is not monitoring by occasionally reading newspaper articles. Hi there, Mr. Kim! How’s that long-range missile program coming along? We read in the papers that you’re hoping to fly one of those birds all the way to Hawaii. Say, what do you think of these B-2 bombers? Pretty awesome, huh? They can make it all the way to Hawaii… or Pyongyang, or wherever…

The thing about North Korean brinkmanship is that it’s not entirely clear Kim Jong-un knows where the brink is. Every Korean crisis features bloodcurdling threats and assurances that total war is but hours away. U.S. and South Korean planners are obliged to take these threats seriously—they certainly did last weekend—because a long string of false alarms and climb-downs doesn’t mean there won’t be a live round in the chamber the next time Kim wants to play Russian roulette.

The best we can do is demonstrate both resolve and capability without undue provocation, while Pyongyang demonstrates capability and provocation but leaves us guessing about resolve. B-2 bombers are a healthy variable for Kim to factor into his calculations.

Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner, writing at the Washington Post, tried his hand at guessing those calculations on Monday and didn’t like how the numbers came up. Among other factors, Drezner notes that Kim has executed quite a few of his military leaders lately, leaving the rest of them eager to demonstrate aggressiveness, ideological purity, and personal loyalty. Conversely, North Korea’s third-generation dictator is worried about looking weak and inadequate to the example of his predecessors.

Also, Pyongyang is losing its strategic leverage over Seoul, as evidenced by the fact that the North blinked first in the weekend confrontation, backing down just hours before its doomsday deadline for unconditional South Korean capitulation on those propaganda loudspeakers.

With this in mind, what Drezner suggests worrying about in future confrontations (or Part 2 of this one, if it’s not really over) is not North Korea’s response, but China’s. “In case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t been a great month for Xi Jinping,” Drezner writes. “The last thing Xi needs right now is for a fellow communist regime — yes, even one as crazy as North Korea — cracking up.

Authoritarian regimes tend to get very tetchy when neighboring authoritarian regimes start to buckle. North Korea is particularly vexing for China. Despite the nominal alliance, Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang has waned in recent years.” (He’s certainly right about that—reports from late last week indicated that Pyongyang rebuffed China’s efforts to mediate the landmine-and-loudspeaker crisis.)

Drezner suggests China might welcome the opportunity to manipulate a Korean crisis into a “nationalist rally-round-the-flag opportunity.” Other analysts have suggested one of China’s greatest fears is a refugee wave pouring in from a disintegrating North Korea. The Chinese won’t relish the spectacle of a psychotic dictatorship with nuclear weapons having a nervous breakdown any more than South Korea and Japan will.

So maybe those B-2 bombers aren’t flying to Guam for only North Korea to admire them.

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