Although Kim Jong Un and the rest of the North Korean leadership are probably delusional, they also possess a cold rationality in making assessments. Undoubtedly they realise that the USA simply cannot economically afford another major war at present without triggering an American, and hence worldwide depression. Although they are massively expanding the quality and quantity of their nuclear arsenal and delivery missiles I am sure this is there doomsday card. It is a backstop against the total defeat of their regime. However, I am equally sure they will not use their nuclear weapons in any first strike.
They probably calculate that neither China nor Russia will help or even defend them. Nevertheless, it is likely they could launch a major conventional attack on South Korea without the U.S. even considering a nuclear response. Given the size of the opposing military forces it is likely that the North would be able to complete a conquest of the South this way. Basically, the USA would be totally hamstrung. To use nuclear weapons would be to invite the unthinkable. To defeat North Korea’s military with conventional forces would devastate the USA’s economy and that of the rest of the world. It appears to me that the North Korean leadership realise full well all of the chips on the table in this nasty game of poker. It is apparent that they will do anything to avoid their regime being overthrown.
Without China offering to step in and defend South Korea against the North Kim Jong Un’s strategy could well succeed. What would China do? That is the $64 question. If they sit on their hands as they did with Syria then the two Korea’s are likely to be united by force under the control of North Korea?
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