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The crisis over North Korea’s reckless but successful pursuit of nuclear- weapon capability and the misguided response thereto by the United States (US) is taking the world nearer to an unnecessary and perfectly avoidable catastrophe. Let us see where we are, why we are there, and how we can get out of the mess.

The coverage in the international media has been lamentably slanted. It gives the reader the absurd impression that, for no rhyme or reason, from time to time, Kim Jong-un has been testing missiles or nuclear devices in violation of Security Council Resolutions It is true that he has been testing. But, that is not the whole story. The joint military exercises (starting from 21st August and continuing) by US and South Korea are seen by North Korea as a rehearsal of, or preparation, for an attack on it. Had the exercises been called off or reduced in scale, North Korea might not have tested the ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) on 29th August, the first to go over Japan after 2009, or the nuclear device on 3rd September.

We need to raise the fundamental question: Why is Kim Jong-un doing what he is doing? It is indisputable that he does not want to start a war with US as he knows that US can wipe his regime and even his country off the face of the earth. Obviously, he is seeking security in his own fashion by pursuing nuclear weapons. Surely, that security should be provided to him if the alternative is a catastrophe. Kim Jong-un’s public boasts and threats should be taken with a pinch of salt.

US Policy towards the Crisis

The first thing to note about US policy is that the world has stopped taking President Trump’s tweets and public pronouncements as fully representing US policy. Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury the like of which the world has never seen” (9th August 2017). Two days later, he tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path!”

On 6th September 2017, Secretary of State Tillerson, Defence Secretary General Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats gave a classified briefing to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The message was that the US would work hard for a strong resolution at the UN Security Council and increase pressure on China to inflict more pain on North Korea by denying it oil. There was no hint that US was preparing a military option to be exercised soon.

The world has recognized that Trump cannot help tweeting. The real US policy could be said to be a mix between what Trump tweets (about 25%) and what his senior aides such as Secretaries of State and Defence as well as the National Security Advisor choose to say in public from time to time (about 75%), taking enormous trouble not to appear to be contradicting their President. They do not always succeed in avoiding the appearance of such contradiction. In short, while Trump has said in so many words that he rules out talking, his senior aides have made it clear that there is still scope for diplomacy. However, they are, as yet, unable to make Trump agree to sending a serious and meaningful signal about Washington’s willingness to sit down and talk to Pyongyang.

There is a danger, clear and present, in all this. Kim Jong-un who is an autocrat himself, might take Trump’s tweets literally and react accordingly. The two of them are running up the escalation ladder each trying to be faster than the other.

The Disunited UN Security Council

There is a sharp difference between the Security Council’s approach towards North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental missile on 29th July and its conducting a nuclear test on 3rd September. In the first case, a united Security Council passed a resolution (2371 of 5th August 2017) condemning North Korea for the test and imposed heavy economic sanctions on it, reducing its export income of $3 billion by a third. Obviously, the testing of a bomb of 160 kilotons of TNT, ten times the strength of the bomb that Truman used on Hiroshima in August 1945 is a more serious matter than a missile test. But, the Security Council is not united, with China and Russia opposing a US move to have a resolution that would, among other things, call for banning the export of oil to North Korea. The country imports about 750,000 tonnes of oil a year with China supplying about 95% and Russia the rest.

It is not difficult to figure out why China and Russia are opposing the new US resolution, the text of which is not yet out. The resolution calls for banning import of textile products from North Korea and employment of North Koreans outside the country. We do not know the exact number of North Koreans employed in China, Russia, the Middle East, Malaysia and elsewhere. It could be anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000. The North Korean government orders its citizens to go abroad and they must send back money. It has been estimated that $2.3 billion is earned this way in a year.

Obviously, if the US resolution is passed and implemented, the North Korean economy will collapse and millions might cross over to China. At the same time, North Korea might continue with its tests, missile or nuclear, as the army might have stocked up a lot of oil. It is absurd to argue that just because pain is inflicted on the common people, Kim Jong-un and his coterie would change their behavior.

There is another bone of contention between US and China.US has threatened to act against any country that trades with North Korea. The obvious target is China. “What we absolutely cannot accept is that”, a Chinese official said, “on the one hand (we are) making arduous efforts to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, and on the other hand (our) interests are being sanctioned or harmed.”1 The rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and the US make it even more difficult to have a common stand on North Korea among the big three.

There is an even more fundamental difference of opinion between US on the one hand and Russia and China on the other with regard to North Korea. In March 2017, China proposed a formula of ‘double freeze’ followed by talks. The idea was that US and South Korea ‘freeze’ their military exercises and simultaneously North Korea ‘freezes’ its tests, missile or nuclear. Russia supported the ‘double freeze’ as has Germany, more recently. Even the UK, ever deferential to the US, has supported talks with North Korea. In short, the US might find itself isolated if it wants to seek a military solution.

South Korea and Japan

President Moon of South Korea has stopped calling for talks with North Korea. He has agreed to install more THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) anti-missile systems in the country after having opposed it when he was in the opposition, and even after his election as President. He has also got the US to agree to lift some restrictions on South Korea’s missile capacity, with the cap of 500 kg payload being removed. The South Korean military has carried out simulations of an attack to hit crucial nuclear sites as well as the leadership of North Korea.

Japan has worked out evacuation plans for its 57,000 citizens in South Korea. It will need US assistance in this. There have been panicked purchases of nuclear shelters in Japan with some columnists also advocating that Japan should start making nuclear weapons.

In short, South Korea and Japan might not be able or willing to exercise any serious restraint on Trump when these countries themselves are conflicted on how to respond to North Korean actions.

Options before United States

The options before the United States are to 1) Deploy forces for an attack on North Korea hoping that Kim Jong-un will climb down; 2) to live with a nuclear armed North Korea or 3) to talk to North Korea on a peace treaty and extend economic assistance on the basis of eventual dismantlement of the nuclear programme.

President Trump might be tempted to adopt the first option. But, there is the danger that North Korea might send artillery shells to the Seoul Capital Area, about 50 km. away from the border, with a population of 25 million. Tens of thousands might be killed, including US soldiers and Japanese expats, though North Korea might be destroyed in toto. The Pentagon knows all this.

The second option is to be seriously considered as it is difficult to turn the clock back. North Korea is already a nuclear power. It might currently lack the technology of miniaturising the weapon or of safe re-entry into the atmosphere of its missiles carrying a nuclear pay load but it is only a matter of time before it acquires the necessary expertise. Politically, Trump cannot accept this option.

Obviously, if the first two options are not acceptable, the third option needs to be taken seriously.

How to Square the Circle?

Kim Jong-un will not make the first move for talks for fear of rejection. President Trump also will be reluctant to be seen as ‘weak and vacillating’.

Obviously, there is need for discreet mediation by credible agents. The Swiss President Doris Leuthard publicly offered to mediate on 3rd September 2017. Switzerland has prior experience, having represented US interests in Iran since 1980. So far, there is no response to the Swiss offer and it is doubtful that the Swiss offer made publicly would be accepted by either party.

The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, is in a better position to mediate. He should discreetly talk to Washington and Pyongyang. If the mediation offer is accepted, the talks between North Korea and US should be kept confidential till an agreement is reached.

The 6-party talks held in the past can be revived later, but the initial talks leading to an agreement must be confined to US and North Korea. The aim of the talks must be to stop North Korea from proceeding with more tests. Once North Korea stops testing, progress towards a peace treaty and economic assistance should follow in parallel. Progressive dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme should start at an agreed point of time.

As of now, removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula appears almost impossible. What is urgent is to stop the march of folly. Once that march is stopped new possibilities might appear.

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

Originally published in IDSA

Copyright © 2005 – 2017 IDSA.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Blaming north korea may be just a partial way of looking at the problem. The US has been constantly threatening Korea especially after Trump assuming office in the beginning of the year. Hence, the onus is on US to back down and let north korea to realise the gravity of militarization