North Korea

Nuclear alarm

Print edition : September 29, 2017

An undated photograph distributed on September 3 by the North Korean government showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at an undisclosed location in the country. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

The South Korean army’s K-1 tanks during a military exercise in Paju, South Korea, on September 5. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP

The Korean peninsula is on the edge once again, following North Korea’s testing of a “hydrogen bomb”.

The crisis in the Korean peninsula has escalated to unprecedented levels in the past couple of months, and going by the statements from Washington, there are no indications that the situation will be defused any time soon. In the first week of September, even as the leaders of the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—started assembling in the Chinese city of Xiamen for their annual summit, North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test so far.

The international community, spearheaded by the United States, imposed draconian sanctions against North Korea after it conducted a series of missile tests at the beginning of the year. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury such as the world had never seen” if North Korea went ahead with more missile and nuclear tests. It was an implicit threat from the world’s largest superpower that it would use nuclear weapons.

After Trump’s “fire and fury” speech, North Korea seemed to have backtracked from the threat to target the waters around Guam, which hosts one of the U.S.’ biggest military bases. And Trump tweeted that the North Koreans were treating the U.S. with respect once again. However, Korea watchers were not surprised when North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan in late August. It was the first time that a North Korean missile flew over another country.

War games

The North Korean action was a response to the war games that the U.S. and South Korean armies were jointly conducting in the South along its borders. As many as 17,500 U.S. troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers participated in the war games. The two armies simulated “decapitation” raids on the North Korean leadership and surgical strikes on nuclear and missile sites in the North. The U.S.’ B-1B supersonic bombers, which are nuclear capable, made regular flights between Guam and the Korean peninsula during the 11-day-long exercises in August. The long-range bombers started participating in the military exercises only from 2016. China and Russia had called on the U.S. to postpone its military exercises on the Korean peninsula and on North Korea to simultaneously stop testing its new missiles and nuclear weapons. The leadership of the two countries had said that the stopping of the annual war games by the U.S. on the Korean peninsula was an important prerequisite to get meaningful talks restarted to defuse the long-running crisis. But the appeal fell on deaf ears.

The new South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, who had promised to improve relations with the North, has been overtaken by the events of the past few months. The man who had protested against the installation of the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles on Korean soil has now been forced to adopt a more hawkish tone; he is now requesting for four more of the systems to be located in South Korea. China had strongly protested when the U.S. stealthily installed the first THAAD system as South Koreans were preparing to face elections. President Moon, however, seems to have got an assurance from Washington that no pre-emptive attacks will be launched against North Korea, although after the latest nuclear test Trump has again threatened punitive action. An attack on the North could lead to immediate retaliation against the South where the U.S. has many bases. The North has always viewed the government in the South as inconsequential for its survival.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. has wartime operational control over South Korea and jurisdiction over half the demilitarised zone, which divides the North and the South. There are 28,500 U.S. troops permanently based in South Korea. Pyongyang’s top priority has always been to engage in direct talks with Washington.

Pyongyang has described the test of its “hydrogen bomb” as “a complete success”. If the North Korean claim is true, it is the first time that it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Its destructive power is significantly more than that of the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Japan in 1945. The United States Geological Survey record of the seismic impact of the latest nuclear test conducted by North Korea revealed that it was seven to eight times more powerful than the last nuclear test conducted by the country, in September 2016. North Korea has said that the nuclear test, the sixth it has conducted so far, has given it the capability of loading a miniaturised hydrogen bomb in an intercontinental missile. The North has already successfully test-launched intercontinental missiles twice this year.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was shown inspecting a miniaturised nuclear warhead that could be fitted into the cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Experts in the West have cast doubts about the claims. The same experts were sceptical of the North’s claims of mastering ICBM and nuclear weapons technology, only to be proved wrong within a short time. The North Korean leadership has apparently decided that a full-fledged missile and nuclear deterrent is the only insurance against regime change.

Pyongyang has shrugged off all the “fire and brimstone” ultimatums from the Trump administration. Top U.S. intelligence officials have been planting stories in the media that the Trump administration has a contingency military plan to make “a pre-emptive strike” against North Korea. Any strike against the North would lead to the immediate devastation of Seoul from counter-strikes. The South’s capital is where most of the country’s population and wealth are concentrated. As Steve Bannon, a former key adviser of Trump and an alt-right ideologue, recently observed, the U.S. knows that it cannot realistically resort to the military option in North Korea.

Chinese response

The latest North Korean actions have further alarmed China, the country’s biggest trading partner and until recently a close political ally. North Korea was particularly upset with China for supporting the passage of the United Nations Security Council sanctions in August against it, the toughest so far. North Korea’s exports have been cut by one-third as a result of the latest Security Council resolution.

Global Times, the Chinese newspaper that is close to the political establishment in Beijing, had in an article cautioned North Korea against carrying out another nuclear test. “The game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point. If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return,” the newspaper wrote. A nuclear war in the region would engulf not only the Koreas but also countries like China and Russia. The editorial urged Pyongyang to take a “small step back” to make the conflict easier to solve, which “doesn’t mean being a coward, but being courageous to face the challenge in a different way”. Of course, the advice did not have any impact on the decision-makers in the North.

After the latest nuclear test by the North, there have been renewed calls on China and Russia from the U.S. to cut off all oil supplies to the cash-starved and energy-deficient North. The Trump administration has now called for a total economic blockade on North Korea and has threatened to impose punitive sanctions on any country trading or having commercial links with North Korea. This is a move akin to an open declaration of war by the U.S. on the North. China has not been very happy with North Korea for some time. The latent tensions between the two sides have been exacerbated with the emergence of the young Kim Jong-un as the leader of his country.

The North Korean leadership historically has had a tendency to take important decisions unilaterally. The first President of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, launched a war for Korean reunification in 1951 without consulting neighbouring China. The war that followed led to the division of the country on a long-term basis. It was only the intervention of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that helped the North Korean army avoid complete defeat at the hands of the U.S. The PLA intervened when the American forces threatened to cross into China. The U.S. Air Force had bombed the North into rubble using more ammunition than it had used in the Asia Pacific region during the Second World War. Every family in Korea lost a family member in the Korean War.

Similarly, the North has been pursuing its missile and nuclear deterrent policy without keeping China in the loop. The leadership of the Workers’ Party of North Korea knows that the last thing China wants is the precipitate collapse of the North Korean state and the advance of the U.S. to China’s borders. A nuclear or even a conventional war in the region is an unthinkable scenario for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

As recent events have shown, Beijing has very little leverage over Pyongyang. The more sanctions North Korea is subjected to, the more defiant it becomes. The Trump administration is aware of China’s limitations, but it is seeking to use the Korean crisis to wrest more concessions from Beijing on the economic front.

Method in the madness

For the time being, the leadership of the hermit kingdom prefers to remain in isolation than make any unilateral concession to the U.S. As most observers of the region now agree, there is a method in the seeming madness emanating from Pyongyang. North Korea’s bluster backed up by facts on the ground now leaves the U.S. with no option but to talk with its new nuclear adversary on the block.

India and Pakistan were eventually recognised as de facto “nuclear powers” by the West, despite being non-signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Saner voices in the Trump administration, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have indicated that eventual talks with the North have not been ruled out despite the recent assertions to the contrary by his commander in chief.

Meanwhile, the ongoing tensions in the Korean peninsula have provided the pretext for further militarisation of the region. The Trump administration has asked for an additional $54 billion for the U.S. military, a 10 per cent increase in the military’s budget. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been using the Korean crisis to change the character of the Japanese defence forces and change the pacifist constitution in the country. Along with South Korea, Japan has decided to spend much more on its defence budgets citing the “North Korean threat”. Japan and South Korea have already sent their shopping lists for more sophisticated weaponry to the U.S., which is good news for the thriving U.S. arms industry. More worrying for the U.S. is the growing chorus among right-wing circles in Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear deterrents of their own. It is well known that both Japan and South Korea have made tremendous advances in the field of nuclear technology and can produce nuclear weapons at short notice. In fact, the South Koreans had embarked on a secret mission to produce nuclear weapons of their own in the 1990s. It was the Americans who nipped that project in the bud.

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