Context

  • S. President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric against North Korea and equally strident counter-threats by Pyongyang have made the situation in the Korean Peninsula drastically worse.

Recent developments

  • New reports signaling that North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, U.S replied back with the same aggressiveness.
  • America’s nuclear weapons, was intended to deter Pyongyang from escalating the situation, it resulted into an instant failure.
  • Issuing a specific threat, North Korea said, it was considering a plan to fire missiles towards Guam, the American territory in the Pacific.
  • It is appalling that there’s no substantial effort to defuse tensions even as two nuclear powers are steadily escalating threats against each other.
  • The State Department playing down Mr. Trump’s remarks and countries like Russia, China and Germany counselling calm have not helped much.
  • It is unclear whether there are any efforts from either side to reach out to the other diplomatically.
  • More worryingly, the U.S. and South Korea are going ahead with massive sea, air and land exercises later this month, which is a dangerous spiral.

How worse can situation turn?

  • Even a narrow strike by the U.S. to diminish North Korea’s missile capabilities could instantly turn into a full-scale war if Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s volatile leader, sees it as a threat to his regime.
  • North Korea has installed thousands of pieces of artillery along the demilitarized zone which can rain down fire on South Korea in minutes.
  • Similarly, if Mr. Kim continues to ignore the threats from Washington and goes ahead with an attack on Guam, it could prompt Mr. Trump.
  • Trump who is equally unpredictable when it comes to decision-making, to pick an option his predecessors avoided because of the risks involved.
  • Trump predecessors resorted to sanctions and war games in the region to weaken and intimidate North Korea even after the futility of such methods became clear.
  • Sanctions work only in a country where the rulers are responsive to their people through some political process, not in a totalitarian regime whose primary goal is its own survival, much like North Korea.
  • If Mr. Trump continues to push the same buttons, it could also push the world into a major conflict, putting the lives of millions on the line.
  • Direct negotiations with Pyongyang should be on U.S agenda.

Historical role of USA in Korean peninsula

  • Even before the second world war ended, Russia and the USA had agreed that after the war Korea would be divided into two zones, Russian and American.
  • In August 1945 Russian troops entered the north. In September, after the Japanese surrender, American troops landed in the south. Korea was divided in two along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. It was originally intended that the two zones would eventually be united into one. Of course that did not happen.
  • With the onset of the cold war the divide between them hardened. The Russians installed a communist government in the north and in the south a government was elected in 1948. Korea became two countries, one Communist, and one Democratic.
  • The North Korean army invaded the south on 25 June 1950. They quickly drove south and captured Seoul.
  • The UN Security Council invited members to help the south. US troops arrived on 30 June but they were forced to withdraw into the area around Busan. The first British troops arrived in Korea on 14 September to reinforce them. On 15 September other US troops landed at Incheon 150 miles north of Busan. The soldiers in the Busan area broke out and pushed north and linked up with the troops in Incheon on 26 September. On the same day allied troops liberated Seoul.
  • United Nations troops then pushed the communists back over the 38th parallel and by 24 November they controlled about 2/3 of North Korea.
  • However the Chinese then intervened. Strengthened by Chinese 180,000 troops the communists then counter-attacked and drove the allies south. By the end of 1950 the allies were back at the 38th parallel.
  • The communists attacked again on 1 January 1951. The allies counter-attacked on 25 January and on 14 March they again liberated Seoul. Several communist offensives followed but all of them were repulsed.
  • The war ended in a stalemate and on 27 July 1953 a cease-fire was signed. The 38th parallel was once again the border between the two countries.

After the Cold War

  • Regime acceptance and regime survival have been key priorities for Pyongyang since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • A positive move in 1992 was the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and a suspension of Team Spirit, the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, leading to the Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation.
  • When joint exercises were resumed in 1993, North Korea announced its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The ensuing crisis led to talks and a year later, an Agreed Framework was concluded under which North Korea suspended its decision to withdraw from the NPT, agreed to freeze its nuclear activities, and in return, the U.S. pledged to build two light water nuclear power reactors. Food aid and humanitarian assistance provided by the Clinton administration from 1995 till 2000 was close to $750 million.
  • The Bush administration declared North Korea part of the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002, cancelled direct talks and annulled the 1994 agreement. North Korea responded by throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and formally quit the NPT thereby provoking a fresh crisis.
  • China and Russia initiated Six Party Talks in 2004 which led to the 2005 joint statement which expanded the scope to more than the nuclear issue. However, the talks collapsed when the U.S. imposed sanctions a few months later; North Korea responded with its first nuclear test in 2006.
  • Since then, North Korea has made steady progress in its nuclear and missile programmes. An underground nuclear facility has been built at Mt. Musan.
  • Nuclear tests were conducted in 2013 and twice last year, and it is estimated that North Korea has enough fissile material for 10 to 15 nuclear devices. By 2019, North Korea will be able to develop long-range missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.
  • Given Mr. Trump’s redline, Mr. Jong-un is convinced that nuclear capability is the ultimate security guarantee to protect his regime against U.S. intervention.
  • S. policy has oscillated between sanctions in response to nuclear and missile tests, dilution of sanctions by China, talks about closer defence ties with Japan and South Korea, citing of additional threats by North Korea and more testing, thus repeating the cycle. U.S. expectations that sanctions would lead to regime collapse were misplaced because given China’s stakes, this will not happen

Role of China

  • Recently China has registered a policy shift reflecting unhappiness about Mr. Jong-un’s behaviour, particularly the high-profile executions of those considered to be close to China. The most recent was the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Mr. Jong-un’s half brother, in February, which prompted China to halting coal briquette imports from North Korea. Air China stopped direct flights to Pyongyang last month but these are now being reinstated. North Korea has accused China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”.
  • However, China can neither permit a regime collapse which would create instability nor allow its communist ally to be subsumed into a unified Korea.
  • Trump is trying to persuade China to exert greater leverage by praising its President, Xi Jinping, as “a good man” who is “trying hard”.
  • After the latest missile test, Mr. Trump tweeted, “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr. Xi is unlikely to be persuaded.
  • At the UN Security Council meeting on April 28, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed support for a denuclearised Korean peninsula and previous Security Council resolutions but did not support additional punitive measures. Instead, he again suggested that the U.S. and South Korea could suspend their military exercises.
  • More than North Korean tests, China is worried about the possibility of an unpredictable Trump initiating unilateral action which could create an escalatory spiral.
  • Another concern is the U.S. decision to accelerate deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system in South Korea though it is hopeful that a moderate President gets elected in the May 9 election in South Korea and reverses the THAAD decision.

Way forward

  • Xi’s objective is to persuade Mr. Trump that neither more sanctions nor military strikes are viable options; the only option is ‘dialogue’.
  • Second, while denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can be a long-term objective, for the foreseeable future, Mr. Jong-un is not going to give up North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. At most, he can agree to a freeze on its programmes — no further tests, no exports or transfers and no threats.
  • In return, the U.S. will need to provide assurances relating to regime acceptance and a gradual normalisation of relations. A moderate leader in Seoul will help the process of a sustained dialogue which also needs coordination with Japan.
  • Jong-un’s stakes are existential and, having seen Western interventions in Iraq and Libya and Russian intervention in Ukraine, he is determined to retain his nuclear capabilities till the end of what will be a long and delicate negotiating process, a process which could all too easily be derailed by confusing rhetoric and mixed signalling that has escalated tensions.

 

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