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The deepening North Korean imbroglio

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The deepening North Korean imbroglio

The war cry, stemming from threats and counter-threats by the US and North Korea, must be avoided at all costs. Stakeholders must seek merit in dialogue as the only option. The mention of a ‘looming World War III’ must be banished from all discourses

Tension in the Korean peninsula stemming from North Korea’s sabre-rattling over a series of missile launches and nuclear tests in defiance of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and followed by US President Donald Trump’s threats to “destroy” North Korea has created a new situation in Northeast Asia that has given rise to the spectre of a major conflagration with inevitable global repercussions. The rise in geopolitical tensions has led analysts to discuss if this new situation is the precursor to a potential World War III. This calls for an analysis of the various contours of the structural stress in the international system that has led to this situation and the role of stakeholders in stopping this dangerous drift towards a major feared catastrophe. With both Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un seeming to be unyielding, the challenges for stakeholders are huge.

The Philosophy of Juche

Not many understand the psychology of North Korea and its Supreme Leader, Kim. Kim’s ideology is nothing new. It is embedded in the country’s ideology of Juche founded by his grandfather Kim II-sung, the founder of North Korea, the tenor of which is to make the country strong both economically and militarily at the same time. This has remained the cardinal philosophy of the three successive Kim regimes, and it would be immature to expect this to change dramatically overnight.

This does not mean to suggest that the policy is static; the tone does shift over time and these changes are not always reflected in open, Government-published sources for foreign audiences, but are displayed in major North Korean cities for public consumption and help promote patriotism and nationalistic spirit in its people. Such a situation has allowed Kim to pursue his cherished policy of making the country militarily strong by possessing lethal missile and nuclear capability while at the same time addressing the issue of economic development in his Korean way.

Some analysts often describe North Korea as the last surviving Stalinist state and a failed state. Such a description could be misleading because the country represents a comical combination of features, which are partly in tune with Communist states and partly with capitalistic systems. This means that while pursuing the Juche philosophy, Kim is also pursuing certain economic measures that keep the country afloat. If this is the case, no matter how harsh economic sanctions are imposed to put pressure on North Korea to abandon the missile and nuclear programme, the objectives are unlikely to be realised, though the country might feel pains to some extent. It is because of this reason that the series of tougher economic sanctions have failed to bite the Kim regime. Even here, opinions differ.

Ri Yong Ho’s claim of US war cry

The latest in the stand-off between Trump and Kim was manifested in the claims made by North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in New York on September 25 that Trump’s statements to the UN General Assembly were tantamount to a declaration of war and that Pyongyang has a right to self-defense under the UN charter and would be justified if it were to shoot down US strategic bombers, even outside North Korean territory. While the US rubbished Ri’s observation, saying such claims were absurd, Trump did not forget to warn North Korea, saying that it would no longer be allowed to “threaten the entire world with unthinkable loss of life”.

Both Trump and Kim have indulged in belligerent rhetoric and used frightening words such as “fire and fury”, “destroy” by Trump, and “sink”, “annihilate” by Kim. Executing such threats or even accidental misadventure by either could have unimaginable consequences, which is what the world fears. North Korea has fired a series of missiles in recent times, two of which flew over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in August. The US responded by flying bombers and F-15C fighters over the Sea of Japan and South Korea, the first such flights in the area this century, in clear demonstration of power and intending to send a message to Pyongyang.

This time around, Pyongyang’s response was mature. It just did not care and ignored it, thereby negating the US intentions to intimidate. But why? It is possible that North Korea used the time to study how an attack is likely to start from the US side? It was convinced that if at all, the US would launch an attack only at night and accordingly could prepare how to respond.

The situation is such that the issue is no longer confined between the US and its two Asian allies — Japan and South Korea — and North Korea. There are also other stakeholders, such as China and Russia, whose roles in the event of an escalation could be critical, not overlooking the possible role of smaller players such as India, Germany, France and others.

The position of other countries

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seeking another opportunity at the hustings on October 22, has made a fervent plea to the international community to build solidarity to cope with the North Korean challenge. Fully understanding Japan’s vulnerability if war breaks out, Abe has prioritised diplomacy and the importance of dialogue with global solidarity as the preferred option to talk with Kim Jong-un, to explain the perils of the course he has chosen and persuade him to go along with the international community and live with respect and dignity.

As regards India, it maintains diplomatic relations with both Koreas and has voiced its disapproval of Pyongyang’s recent conduct, going along with the global community. North Korea’s nuclear nexus with Pakistan is worrying to India. India has also scaled down its limited economic ties with the North. Since India enjoys considerable goodwill in both the Koreas because of historical links as well as its mediatory role (including medical help) in the 1950-53 Korean War, it is desirable that India pursues a more proactive role in addressing the North Korean issue. This is what other stakeholders also expect from India.        

The truism that China is North Korea’s only international ally is well-established. Both China and Russia share common viewpoints on how to deal with the North Korean issue that is at variance with that of the US. That is unlikely to change. Both China and Russia move troops in massive numbers to borders they share with the North. When Russia tested a new ICBM in late September, it was rumoured if both China and Russia were getting ready for a possible war with the US should either the US or North Korea make the first move. If either nation uses nuke in the event of a war, the radioactive materials shall quickly spread far and wide. This would mean full thermonuclear war on a global level. The situation shall no longer remain confined between the US and North Korea, and other powers would inevitably be drawn into the conflict.

The other argument is that even if a war breaks out between the US and North Korea, nuclear weapons are unlikely to be used by either party. The votaries of this argument say that both sides are aware of the consequences of nuclear weapons and therefore this fear itself shall deter them from actual use. North Korea has always maintained that it is unprepared to barter its nuclear in exchange for any attractive offer. Kim knows that possession of nuclear weapons is the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime. If this is the case, can one expect any headway even if Trump gets the wholehearted cooperation of China and Russia to rein in the North? With both Trump and Kim being impetuous and unpredictable at the same time, the risk of use of nukes in the event of war breaking out cannot be ruled out.

North Korea as a nuclear state?

There is yet another view that could seem convincing. Those who hold this view argue that the world today — since the end of World War II — with several countries in possession of nuclear power is a much safer place than when only one country (the US) was in possession and used it. In a world that is under the shadow of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the holders of this view argue that the US and other world powers ought to accept the reality that North Korea is already a nuclear power and be allowed to live with it. Such a situation shall have a domino effect and would inevitably trigger debate in Japan and South Korea or even Taiwan if time is ripe for them too to revisit their nuclear option. If that happens, Northeast Asia would become the most nuclearised part of the world. Accepting North Korea as a nuclear state would surely heighten the threat perception in the neighbouring nations. Supporters of this view cite the example of India and Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons but neither has ever hinted at actually using it even in very tense situations.

However, here lies the difference. India fiercely upholds the view that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is discriminatory and therefore refused to sign it. It also stands by its commitment to maintain moratorium on future nuclear tests. With such a principled stance, it has been able to convince the world and earned the trust that its nuclear power is purely meant for peaceful use. Retaining the nuke, therefore, is legal.

Such is not the case with North Korea. North Korea first signed the NPT and subsequently withdrew from it in 2003. Since then, it has conducted six nuclear tests and could conduct some more. The subsequent Six-Party Talks brokered by China between the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea, which started in 2005, showed a temporarily flicker of hope but finally died after North Korea walked out of it in late 2008. Efforts to revive this have failed, but still remain relevant as the only means to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Since then, the world has seen a relentless surge in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, which started with the first nuclear test it conducted in 2006.

Does it mean that for North Korea, possession of the nukes is only for deterrence? Pyongyang gives no guarantee that it would not use it if necessary. North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong Ho — who became the seniormost North Korean diplomat to defect in August 2017 since the Ambassador to Egypt sought asylum in the US in 1997 — was reported to have told the press that Kim Jong-un is pursuing to develop nuclear weapons and miniaturise to fit into a missile for actually using it. The firing of the two missiles in August that flew over Japan’s air space over Hokkaido proved Thae’s claim of Kim’s real intentions. So, Kim is not keeping the toys just for fun. This leads to the situation that North Korea cannot be trusted and therefore ought to be pressured by both use of stick and carrot to eliminate risk, which is what Trump is vigorously pursuing, though unsuccessfully so far. The question is, can Trump tame Kim?

Choices before Trump

Notwithstanding the differing positions that China and Russia take vis-à-vis the US on North Korea, Trump shall have no choice than to continue seeking cooperation of both, without which mere belligerent rhetoric would not work to seek North’s compliance. If Trump’s belief that North Korea has the ability to reliably hit the US with nuclear weapons is correct, then its attempts to prevent it from happening merit support. It is unclear, however, what means he finally intends to adopt. On August 8, he threatened strong military action without giving any thought that South Korea, its ally, shall face the immediate retaliation by the North, the consequences of which could be unimaginable. The choice before Trump, therefore, remains limited: Continue to seek cooperation from China and Russia to put maximum pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Trump expects that if this first step is achieved, Kim could be willing to trade away or at least freeze its nuclear and missile programmes. Such optimism rejects the reality that the Kim regime would want to retain the ability to hit the US at all cost and therefore no package of incentives that would be acceptable to the US and South Korea would lead Pyongyang to abandon its goal. 

Probable scenario

The probable scenario could be that Pyongyang shall continue to retain the strike capability without actually launching the first strike. It would not abandon its nuclear path and keep it in order to deter the more powerful US from launching a nuclear or conventional war against it. But why Kim Jong-un remains paranoid and fears an imagined attack by the US defies logic. Here, with examples of Libya and Iran before him, his deterrence logic to have nukes makes sense. For Kim, it is not about bargaining, but survival. He knows the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and sees nuclear missiles as his life insurance. For Pyongyang, the lesson is clear: If you surrender a nuclear deterrent, you embolden your enemies. While China has its own strategic compulsions which limits its role, Kremlin understands Kim’s psychology and pains.

China does feel frustrated with North Korea’s defiance and behaviour. Though China supported the UN Security Council resolutions in imposing tougher sanctions and also stopped importing coal till the end of 2017, it is no secret that clandestine trade has been going on all these years between China and North Korea. Destabilising North Korea shall be against China’s interests as it fears millions of refugees crossing the border into its territory, causing social problems. So, maintaining status quo is the best possible option for Beijing. But even this might remain unsustainable for long. Regrettably, Trump lacks understanding of this reality.

When his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson travelled to Beijing on September 30 to probe a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off, Trump chided Tillerson for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”, forgetting that he was there also to prepare Trump’s upcoming visit to China in November. He is more interested in military action. Earlier, Trump showed diplomatic immaturity in launching a verbal tirade against China on trade issues, triggering fear of a trade war and accused Beijing for not doing enough to convince the renegade Kim regime to give up its nuclear ambitions. Beijing was surely not happy with this turn of events and now Trump must make amends when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping. As said, though Beijing backed a slew of new UN sanctions, it still remains North Korea’s main trade partner. Trump’s expectations from Beijing shall, therefore, remain limited. Trump must not overlook the fact that Kim is not going to back down.

As a first step, both Trump and Kim need to scale down their bellicose rhetoric so that fear of a conflict is minimised. Though China declared its decision to close down North Korean firms on its territory by January 2018 and confirmed to limit exports of refined petroleum products from October 1, besides banning imports of textiles from the North, such punitive measures are mere cosmetic and shall have little impact on North Korea.

Continue diplomatic solution

China has advocated suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of US-South Korea annual joint military exercises. In the light of North Korean threat, such a proposal is unacceptable to both the US and South Korea and was thus rejected. A possible way out could be if the US and South Korea agree to make adjustment in the scale, composition, timing, or location of the exercises without compromising the allies’ readiness and training objectives. Given such complexities, war cry must be avoided at all costs and all stakeholders ought to get on the business of seeking merit in dialogue as the only desirable option. The spectre of looming World War III needs to be banished from all vocabulary.

The writer is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com




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