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US and North Korea set for head-on collision

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US and North Korea set for head-on collision

North Korea recently fired an ICBM that flew both higher and longer than previous such launches, in an obvious act of defiance against the US President Donald Trump after he put the country back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Under these circumstances, is there still room for dialogue or are the two countries hurtling towards a military conflict?

In a move toughening his stance on North Korea, US President Donald Trump on November 20 put the country back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which now allows the US to impose additional sanctions and risks inflaming tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programmes. Trump’s decision — after his 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia — came in continuation of his resolve to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. This was at the core of his discussions throughout his Asian odyssey.

Shortly, in a provocative response to Trump’s announcement, North Korea fired an apparent long-range missile — possibly the longest-range yet — injecting fresh uncertainty into the nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula. Trump has now vowed to “take care of it” after North Korea claimed to have successfully tested the new intercontinental ballistic missile that it said was capable of striking any target in the US. The US President was briefed while the missile was in the air, the White House said, and later declared: “It is a situation that we will handle.”

The announcement of the new Hwasong-15 missile came hours after a long-range missile was fired into waters off Japan in what was believed to be its longest-range test yet. Kim Jong-un’s rogue regime launched the missile, its first for more than two months, in the middle of the night and it flew for around 590 miles, reaching an altitude of 2,781 miles  — more than 10 times the height of the international space station — and splashing down 53 minutes later in the Sea of Japan.

The missile ended up within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast. The dictator later declared that his country had achieved full nuclear statehood.

The question that arises now is since North Korea is already facing heavy sanctions under the UNSC resolutions, can additional sanctions have an impact on Pyongyang? If Trump thinks so, that would be mere kite-flying. The best he can expect is to send a message to the countries that are directly or indirectly supporting the Kim Jong-un regime or trading with it clandestinely. Even that could be too minimal. It may be recalled that the US has designated only three other counties — Iran, Sudan, and Syria — as state sponsors of terrorism but with little success. Yet, the Trump administration was convinced that Pyongyang repeatedly provided support to acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.

The bigger question is: Did Trump have enough reason to designate North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism? The truism is that to designate a state as such requires evidence that it has repeatedly provided support to acts of international terrorism, which North Korea — despite its nuclear and missile programmes — has done or is there any evidence though suspicions exist? So, the basis for the designation is arguable, and therefore, Trump’s decision could backfire.

Given that Kim Jong-un reacts aggressively, he is now likely to respond in a number of ways, including renewing missile or nuclear tests in “a very volatile environment”. China might as well be miffed and Trump’s hopes for China’s cooperation in pressuring North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests might flounder. The Trump administration is linking Pyongyang’s complicity in the murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017 to justify that North Korea is sponsoring terrorism. North Korea was probably responsible but without any firm evidence it could lack justification to charge solely the Kim regime to be responsible. Normally, one defines terrorism as involving non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda, not state agents. But the Trump administration used the term “clandestine agents” to justify its action. Thus, the Gaddafi regime’s bombing of Pan Am 103, which involved Libyan intelligence operatives, counted as terrorism rather than an act of war.   

It is not the first time North Korea has been put on the US terrorism sponsor list. It was earlier done after the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed 115 people aboard. The administration of George W Bush, a Republican, removed Pyongyang from the list in 2008 in exchange for progress in denuclearisation talks. The China-brokered Six-Party Disarmament Talks collapsed a short time later and North Korea declared the nuclear deal void. It has since conducted six more nuclear tests and steadily ramped up its ballistic missile programme in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. Trump felt that since North Korea seems to have the graphite-moderated reactor back in service, it is a fit case to be back on the list.

Opinions inside the US were divided on whether to put North Korea back on the list or whether it meets the criteria of actively sponsoring international terrorism. While the supporters of putting North Korea back on the list hoped that Trump’s decision shall help in putting more diplomatic and financial pressure on Kim Jong-un regime, those who opposed it held the view that the designation “ratchets up the rhetoric”, but does nothing to hold North Korea accountable for its weapons programme. 

Under the US law, a Government must have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” to be included in the list. True, North Korean regime is opaque and has the reputation of being the most oppressive, but whether its involvement with international terrorism exists is arguable. Those who endorse the view that North Korea fits to be listed in the category of states sponsoring terrorism cite the cases of the 2014 attack against Sony Pictures for producing a film critical of Kim Jong-un, and North Korea’s complicity in the assassination of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia. The alleged human rights violations are also cited in support of this argument. The supporters also add the case of the American college student, Otto Warmbier, who died in June 2017, shortly after being released from North Korean custody. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for the alleged theft of a propaganda poster from his North Korean hotel. But whether Warmbier’s case, though tragic, meets the statutory criteria for international terrorism is debatable.

China neither endorsed nor openly opposed Trump’s decision, but the response it hoped for underpinned its discomfort with the way Trump deals with the North Korean regime. In contrast, South Korea’s reaction was more vocal. Welcoming the decision, its Foreign Ministry hoped Trump’s decision would contribute to the peaceful denuclearisation of North Korea. However, it observed that Trump’s announcement will not change the joint stance of South Korea and the US of trying to bring North Korea to the dialogue table. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed Trump’s decision. Pre-empting a North Korean response with more provocative actions, Japan’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, announced his country’s readiness to “firmly respond with a sense of tension” and “strengthen surveillance”. 

What it means in real terms is that North Korea would be subject to greater restrictions on the US assistance, defence exports and sales, and other financial transactions. Since none of these are there in the first place, the strategic value of Trump’s move is purely symbolic. Technically, if a country that puts another country on the list cannot vote on a World Bank loan and cannot sell military equipment, but in North Korea’s case, this question simply does not arise — whether or not it is put on the list.

Not surprisingly, Pyongyang reacted to Trump’s decision as a “serious provocation” that justifies its development of nuclear weapons. It said that it “does not care whether or not the United States places

the hat of terrorism on (our) heads”, and firmly resolved to continue to “grab the

treasured nuclear sword” to protect itself from American hostility. The overwhelming expert opinion is that the decision to put North Korea back on the terror backlist

will have limited practical effect, and will make a diplomatic solution on the nuclear standoff more difficult, and that Trump might have erred on this.

What could be the after-effects of Trump’s decision? For one, North Korea is not expected to remain silent and can react in a more belligerent manner — as proved by the firing of a long-range missile recently. Its first reaction was threatening to annihilate Japan as a means to provoke the US.

Does that mean the door to dialogue has been closed? Opinions on this differ. Trump’s decision was not a surprise as he was not only miffed with Pyongyang’s defiant attitude but also its interactions with Syria and Iran, including proliferation activities. Trump was further angered by Pyongyang’s threat to conduct a “9/11-style” attack.

So, it seems that the Trump administration wanted to send a message that now is not the time to talk with North Korea. Trump probably wanted to wait for the results of Song Tao’s visit to Pyongyang (as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy) and see if North Korea was responsive to dialogue. That did not happen. Had Trump announced re-designating North Korea when Song Tao was still in Pyongyang, Beijing would have been angered and seen it as circumventing its efforts to pursue dialogue. By delaying the announcement, Trump helped Beijing save face. Washington wanted to wait and watch the results of Song’s visit.

For some time, North Korea’s response had been muted. It is possible it is busy in making more technical preparations before conducting further missile launches or even cyber-attacks against major US websites, similar to what they did to Sony Pictures not long ago. Pyongyang could be expected to pursue its agenda dictated by its own perceived strategic demands. North Korea is expected to continue to do what it has been doing thus far. The strategy is slow but in consistent pursuit of its strategic goals largely irrespective of the efforts of the international community to stop it. In light of the recent incidents, a military retaliation by the US could seem unpreventable.

So, coming back to the original question: How does North Korea find itself after Trump’s decision to list it as a state sponsor of terrorism and if it could return to the dialogue option? There could be two possibilities in extreme situations: North Korea confident with striking capability with completely survivable and reliable nuclear-tipped missiles or if it is completely squeezed tight, leading Kim Jong-un to fear that a collapse is imminent. Either of the two possibilities could be pregnant with future uncertainties and unpredictability.

The truism is that Kim Jong-un is not against negotiating with the US, but it does not want to discuss its denuclearisation as its goal is to be recognised as a nuclear state. It has repeatedly declared its unwillingness to negotiate a freeze or denuclearisation. So, the odds for a negotiated settlement are bleak and Trump’s decision on re-listing seems to have closed this option. His intention to build pressure seems to have misfired. Given that either side is unwilling to yield, Kim Jong-un could threaten to target the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, making matters worse.

If Trump expects that his decision opens up sanctions possibilities that did not already exist, that could be an overestimation. The re-listing could, of course, help Trump in convincing other countries to end or curtail commercial or diplomatic relationships with North Korea. But one is not sure if this will impact major Chinese banks and networks that facilitate North Korea’s sanctions evasion. Trump may just be sending a strong message to the UN members that have trade relations with the US, urging them to sever trade ties with the North. The countries which are neutral could come under pressure to take a stand on North Korea.

Whatever the impact of Trump’s decision could be, for the time being the route to dialogue seems to have been closed, or at least the atmosphere for it has been frozen. China would be most unhappy as this would directly affect the financial transactions its private companies have with North Korea. Though the overall economic impact of sanctions on North Korea might not make any significant difference, in the political domain, it could undermine efforts by South Korea and China to engage in dialogue with North Korea. So, the view that Trump has erred could merit support.

(With inputs from The Daily Telegraph)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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