Reuters has an article speculating what might happen with the North Korean ship Kang Nam. Latest news reports suggest the ship is bound for Myanmar, a country unlikely to abide by any United Nations resolution. No one really knows how this might unfold, but based on Obama's comments early last week, I think the ship will not be allowed to complete its journey. These comments in particular describe the policy.
Obama said that, in recent years, North Korea's provocations have been "rewarded" as Western countries offered fuel, food and loans in exchange for promises of good behavior that are eventually broken.When China agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 1874, I think that pretty much doomed the regime. North Korea does not have the capacity to produce every type of ammunition necessary to conduct full scale military operations, and after the Soviet Union fell, North Korea looked to China to get ammunition replacements. That would appear to no longer be an option.
"We are going to break that pattern," Obama said after a White House meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. Obama told reporters assembled in the Rose Garden that North Korea "will not find security or respect through threats and illegal weapons."
The question now is when North Korea is doomed? It is a good question, but my sense is China has informed the North Koreans that if they attack the South for any reason, the regime will fall. The 6 party talks were a failure in terms of their intended goal of stopping the North Korean nuclear program, but were a success in one regard. No one, including China, wants to fight over the carcass of North Korea. I do not see a scenario where China desires to assume control of the territory of North Korea right now, because should the regime fall and that becomes the scenario, whichever country performs that function is going to suddenly have a nearly 16 million person humanitarian mission on their hands. It could very easily cripple any regional economy, and likely would stunt the growth of China's economy.
I think the Obama administration is going to push North Korea a bit, and while the result is indeed quite unpredictable, the odds of a full scale war would not seem very high, although the odds of an incident may be. In other words, I think the Obama administration knows they have the ability to leverage some escalation control, and can test the regime a bit to get a better feel for the conditions of the North Korean military to sustain serious political pressure without the Chinese backing them up.
I don't think the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) will be boarding the Kang Nam directly, but indirectly I fully expect the destroyer to get involved once another country does the initial seizure. I have a hard time believing that if a country like Singapore seizes the vessel, North Korea's response will be to attack South Korea. In fact, I'd bet China has already made it clear to North Korea that is not a legitimate option...
Which is why I believe escalation is coming.
For those who might be curious, as best I can tell the US has 3 Carrier Strike Groups, 1 Amphibious Ready Group, and nearly every forward deployed surface combatant in the Pacific at sea in good position to react quickly to a major military escalation by North Korea. There are also a large number of forward deployed USAF air power in Alaska for Northern Edge 2009. Additionally the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group could put to sea very quickly if necessary.
The key statistic though is that the US has 33 submarines at sea, 61%, with 26 submarines on deployment, 48%. That is a very unusually high number of submarines on deployment and very important in the North Korean scenario, because North Korea does not have sophisticated sonar equipment to detect, much less to track US submarines, and can only fight submarines with minefields. I don't see a scenario where things escalate that far, but I do see the US Navy prepared for that scenario if North Korea miscalculates or overreacts.