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Could North Korea Start a War Between China and the United States?

Robert Farley

Key Point: North Korea is expert at playing large powers against each other for its advantage.

War on the Korean Peninsula is almost too horrible to contemplate.

Nuclear-armed adversaries, fighting in densely populated urban terrain, could cause humanitarian disaster on a scale that the world has never seen. But the scenario might grow even worse. The last time that the United States fought North Korea, the People’s Republic of China intervened with destructive effect. The war lasted for three years, with heavy casualties on both sides. While both China and the United States have worked hard to prevent a recurrence of this catastrophe, the two great powers remain at odds over the fate of North Korea, a disagreement that might yet lead to war.

How it Happened Before:

The United States and China were not supposed to go to war in 1950. The war resulted primarily from U.S. miscalculation of Chinese intentions and capabilities; U.S. forces failed to detect the movement of significant People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces into Korea, failed to pay sufficient attention to Chinese signals, and lacked a good understanding of Communist China’s nascent diplomatic efforts. Chinese intervention was an operational surprise that should not have been, successful in throwing U.S. forces out of North Korea and restoring something close to the antebellum status quo. The first Korean War did not work out well for either country, although both the United States and China successfully maintained the independence of their respective proxies.

How it Could Happen Again:

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