North Korea

Nuclear rhetoric

Print edition : August 04, 2017

A photograph distributed by the North Korean government shows North Korea's launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile from the northwest of the country. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Kim Jong-un at a concert celebrating the successful ICBM launch. This photograph was produced from an undated video aired by North Korea's KRT on July 10. Photo: KRT via AP

U.S. President Donald Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Hamburg on July 6. At a time when Trump is threatening military action, President Moon has offered talks with his North Korean counterpart and suggested that reunions of separated Korean families should start again. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (top) flies with South Korean jets over the Korean Peninsula during a South Korea-U.S. joint fire drill on July 8. A handout photo released by the South Korean Defence Ministry. Photo: Getty Images

In the wake of North Korea’s July 4 ICBM test, the U.S. may have to put the military option on the back burner for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding Trump’s tough rhetoric.

The successful test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea on July 4 has added a new dimension to the crisis in the Korean peninsula. Donald Trump had pledged after taking over as the President of the United States that he would not allow Pyongyang to gatecrash into the elite club of nations possessing this kind of missile technology. “It won’t happen,” he tweeted in January. He followed it up by stating that North Korea “is a problem, a problem that will be taken care of”, leading some commentators to speculate that Trump was weighing immediate military options. During his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, Trump said that the U.S. would take care of the North Korea problem if the Chinese side was incapable of doing so.

But less than seven months into Trump’s presidency, the North Koreans have conducted an array of successful missile tests. Many of the missile tests conducted last year failed for a variety of reasons. North Korea seems to have more than made up for those failures. Washington and Tokyo have reluctantly acknowledged that Pyongyang now has the capability to hit parts of mainland America and its intermediate-range missiles can easily target U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam. North Korea has now joined a dozen or more countries that have long-range missile capabilities.

The ICBM, named Hwasong (Mars)-14, launched on July 4 travelled more than 1,200 kilometres and was airborne for over 37 minutes. It reached an altitude of more than 2,800 km, according to the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, which monitors such launches. (The International Space Station orbiting the earth is only 400 km above the earth.) American experts say that such a missile will have an actual range of around 6,700 km, which would allow it to reach the American state of Alaska. The Hwasong-14 uses solid fuel, which enables quick loading and firing. The North Korean official media hailed the ICBM launched as “a momentous event in the history of the country”. The timing of the launch was not a coincidence. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, called it a “gift” to the U.S., which celebrates its Independence Day on July 4. “As a proud nuclear power that possesses not only nuclear weapons but also the most powerful ICBM that can target any part of the world, North Korea will root out the United States threat and blackmail of nuclear war and solidly defend the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region,” the statement from the North Korean government said.

At the beginning of his term, Trump had militarily threatened North Korea by emphasising again and again that “all options were open” against the country. In June, he dispatched an American naval armada, consisting of aircraft carriers and submarines, streaming towards the Korean peninsula. But as most observers of the region had predicted, North Korea did not blink. In the first week of June, North Korea successfully tested land-to-sea cruise missiles. In February, it successfully launched the Pugkusong-2 medium-range missile. Pyongyang claims that its long- and medium-range missiles are nuclear capable and that it has miniaturised its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon, as well as experts in Seoul and Tokyo, have doubted this claim, but they realise that it is only a matter of time before North Korean scientists achieve this goal too.

More threats by the U.S.

After the July test, Washington once again ratcheted up its threats to take recourse to military action. President Trump blamed China for not putting sufficient pressure on North Korea. After Xi Jinping’s first meeting with Trump earlier in the year, Beijing had imposed additional sanctions on North Korea and even halted the purchase of coal. The export of coal is a source of much-needed hard currency for Pyongyang. But as recent history has shown, the North Koreans have a tendency to be more resolute and innovative in the face of adversity. China is the country’s biggest trading partner. But when it comes to politics, the North Koreans have been hewing a lonely furrow for decades.

In a telephone conversation with the Chinese President after the North Korean ICBM launch, Trump once again warned that the U.S. would be willing to take unilateral action if China was not able to rein in its neighbour. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all,” Trump tweeted. His administration then went ahead and imposed sanctions on a leading Chinese bank for having dealings with the North Korean government. Then the U.S. announced the sale of weapons worth $1.4 billion to Taiwan and branded China as a “human trafficker”. China did issue a statement condemning the missile test stating that it violated United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, China has not instituted the kind of harsh sanctions that the U.S. wants it to impose on its already impoverished neighbour.

China and Russia

In a statement issued immediately after the launch, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged all the parties involved in the Korean dispute to remain calm and stressed that the situation in the region “is complicated and sensitive”. The last thing that China, which shares a long border with North Korea, wants is a war on its doorstep and U.S. troops on its borders. Besides, it is aware that the U.S. and Japan are using the North Korea card to surround it militarily.

The recent stealthy installation of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea is an indication. China has demanded that the system be removed at the earliest. The newly elected South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, had strongly voiced his opposition against its installation during his campaign.

After a meeting between President Xi and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the first week of July in Moscow, the two countries issued a joint statement calling on the major parties involved in the Korean peninsula to sign up to a de-escalation plan drafted by China. It envisages a moratorium on the North Korean ballistic missile programme coupled with a freezing of the frequent joint military exercises and missile tests that the U.S. military conducts with the South Korean army.

“The situation in the region affects the national interests of both the countries,” the statement said. “Russia and China will work closely to advance a solution to the complex problem of the Korean peninsula in every possible way.”

In the same declaration, Moscow and Beijing called for the removal of the THAAD missile systems from the Korean peninsula. The statement accused the U.S. of using the North Korean issue as an excuse to further its military infrastructure in the region and change the balance of power. “The deployment of THAAD will cause serious harm to the strategic security interests of regional states, including Russia and China,” it said.

President Putin in an interview with the TASS news agency said that it was in the mutual interests of Moscow and Beijing that “there is a comprehensive resolution of the problem of the Korean peninsula in order to preserve lasting peace and stability in north-eastern Asia”. The joint statement urged the “confronting parties” to sit down for talks, agree on the principles of non-confrontation and pledge to make the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the document stressed that the international community should take into consideration “the sensible concerns” of North Korea.

South Korea’s dramatic gesture

At a time when Trump is calling for a military response to North Korea’s move, Moon Jae-in of South Korea made a dramatic offer in a speech he made in Germany ahead of the G20 summit. He said on July 6 that he was willing to meet Kim Jong-un for talks and proposed that the reunion of long-separated families from the two Koreas should start again. He also called for the demilitarisation of the border between the two countries. At present, it is the most heavily weaponised international border. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within the artillery range of North Korean guns. Moon, who had promised during his presidential campaign to pursue peace talks with the North, said that sanctions should only be used as a tool to get the North back to the negotiating table. The U.S. has been using “sanctions” as a weapon to induce regime change in Pyongyang.

While running for the presidency, Trump had told a reporter that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un and “do a deal”. He still has not completely ruled out a meeting with the North Korean leader “under certain circumstances”. But right now, the U.S. President is adopting a belligerent position, boasting that he is handling North Korea “very well, very firmly” without diplomacy. Ordinary South Koreans are worried about the war jargon that Trump routinely uses. Any attack on the North would evoke an immediate response. Much of the collateral damage would be borne by South Korea and Japan. Nearly half of South Korea’s population lives less than 100 km from the border with the North.

The U.S. had considered a “surgical strike” on a North Korean reactor in 1994. But better sense prevailed after the Bill Clinton administration realised that it would lead to open hostilities resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Clinton administration in its last years focussed on finding a diplomatic solution. A breakthrough seemed imminent after the then Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited Pyongyang.

The advent of George W. Bush and the “war on terror” brought the situation back to square one on the Korean peninsula. The North was put in the so-called “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq and on the list for regime change.

In the wake of the ICBM test, the U.S. may have to put the military option on the back burner for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding Trump’s tough rhetoric. U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis recently said that a war with North Korea “would be tragic on an unbelievable scale”. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear power armed with delivery weapons.

Many prominent Americans, like former President Jimmy Carter, have been long urging a negotiated settlement. North Korea’s basic demand is diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty containing a guarantee that the U.S. will not attack it. North Korea had once disavowed its nuclear ambitions in exchange for nuclear reactors from the West and economic aid. It was only after Washington reneged on its commitment that Pyongyang chose its current course. It knows that a nuclear deterrent is the best guarantee against regime change.