AS tensions continue to mount over North Korea’s ballistic missile tests in recent months, a defence analyst has dismissed global fears that a full-blown armed conflict in the region would lead to World War III.
Prof. Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan, said while military strikes could be catastrophic for the Northeast Asian region, China and Russia would not intervene on a conflict involving South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
“I think they (Russia and China) will stay out (of a full-blown war) as much as possible,” he told a group of foreign reporters on Tuesday. “If they commit their forces on the outset (of a conflict), they will suffer in a big way.”
Narushige was responding to a question posed during a talk entitled Japan’s Security Challenges: Briefing and Discussion on Security Issues in East Asia, and the Movement for Constitutional Reform, at the institute.
The expert was briefing a group of 15 reporters taking part in the Jefferson Fellowship 2017 programme hosted by the Honolulu-based East-West Center. The journalists are in Japan this week as part of a three-week course spanning four key cities in the Asia Pacific, namely Honolulu, Tokyo, Beijing, Shenzen, and Manila.
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Narushige added, however, that for strategic reasons, China or Russia could still intervene at the end of the potential conflict.
“That would be the easiest way to maximise on the benefits,” he pointed out.
“The North Korean forces would more or less be wiped out, (and) the US and South Korea would be suffering from fatigue, both militarily as well as politically.”
He said China and Russia could then seize the opportunity to enter the region and intervene at the northern border area of North Korea to gain some influence.
“It is more likely for the Chinese to do that, rather than Russians, because there are not many Russian forces deployed in the region compared to the massive Chinese presence,” he said.
“For long, China has been considered a buffer zone so it would be rational for China to maintain its influence in the North Korean peninsula.”
He said the Korean peninsula may be an important strategic asset for the US and China, but it was not important enough to trigger World War III.
“So I think the war could be quite limited for the US and China but not limited for the North Koreans,”
However, he said the potential of a major war involving the world’s superpowers was difficult to predict due to changing circumstances stemming from emotions running high over the North’s fast-developing weapons programme.
He added China might exploit the opportunity to invade the Sengkaku islands, a cluster of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, if the US focused all its attention on the North.
“China might use the opportunity to end the (territorial) problem,” he said, adding China’s potential intervention would not be direct in the event of conflict in the Korean peninsula.
On Sunday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile that flew 700km (430 miles), days after a new leader took office in the South pledging to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang.
The missile was fired from the region of Kusong, northwest of Pyongyang, where the North in February successfully test-launched an intermediate-range missile that it is believed to be developing.
Japan said the latest missile reached an altitude of more than 2,000km (1,245 miles) and flew for 30 minutes before dropping into the sea between North Korea’s east coast and Japan.
The North has consistently test-fired missiles in that direction.
Sunday’s launch, at 5:27am Seoul time, came two weeks after North Korea fired a missile that disintegrated minutes into flight, marking its fourth consecutive failure since March.
Despite international condemnation, Pyongyang has maintained that it will continue its nuclear weapons tests.
US President Donald Trump has not discounted the possibility of a major conflict with North Korea, while China has raised concerns that the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
In a show of force, the United States has sent the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula to join drills with South Korea to counter a series of threats of destruction from North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Reclusive North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests and a series of missile tests in defiance of UN Security Council and unilateral resolutions. It has been conducting such tests at an unprecedented rate and is believed to have made progress in developing intermediate-range and submarine-launched missiles.
The US is seeking more help from China, the North’s major ally, to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development. Trump has praised Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as a “good man”.
Tension on the Korean peninsula has been high for weeks over fears the North may conduct a long-range missile test, or its sixth nuclear test, around the time of the April 15 anniversary of its state founder’s birth.
North Korea, technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, regularly threatens to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea and has said before it will pursue its nuclear and missile programmes to counter perceived US aggression.
Additional reporting by Reuters