The US and both Koreas should focus on smaller goals and work towards them
Col Harmanjeet Lidder SM.
North Korea is the last existing vestige of the Cold War, which has been ruled by a dynastic regime since its creation. Armed with nuclear weapons, with an ability to target the US mainland, North Korea’s actions have stirred tension and fear throughout the region, which has made it internationally very unpopular — there are a total of 13 UN sanctions imposed on it.
But despite years of isolation and economic punishments and predictions from outside analysts about the collapse of the nation, North Korea continues to demonstrate an ability to survive as a coherent, functioning entity and it does so seemingly in an undeterred manner, as its fulminations continue unabated as can be inferred by the recent tactical missile tests in April and May 2019.
Though never used but during the Korean War itself, General MacArthur had requested the use of tactical nuclear weapons on North Korean targets. Moreover, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster had claimed that nuclear threats had played a major role in bringing about the armistice. After the signing of the 1953 armistice agreement, while the Chinese Army withdrew from the North, the US Army remained, for good.
The dynamics of American designs notwithstanding, North Koreans always perceived the presence of the US forces on South Korean soil as a looming threat to its existence, a phenomenon that exists till date and is central to all North Korean military designs. Then in 1958, five years after the armistice agreement was signed, the US unilaterally abrogated Article 13 (d) of the agreement by introducing Nuclear Weapons on South Korean soil, following which North Korea too denounced the abrogation of paragraph 13(d). In 1972, the number of US nuclear warheads deployed in South Korea was a whopping 763 and in the period between 1971 to 1989, public threats by the US to use nuclear weapons against North Korea were not an uncommon feature and indeed were sometimes backed by a demonstrated display of nuclear capable planes and naval vessels being deployed in the US-ROK military drills.
North Korea commenced its nuclear voyage in 1959, but it was only around 1979 that it commenced its flirtation with nuclear reprocessing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of its alliance with China, the nuclear programme remained a valuable asset to North Korea and though there is no evidence to suggest that Pyongyang saw the nuclear programme as a bargaining chip at its inception, the record is clear that by early Nineties, it had learned the programme’s value in its relations with the outside world.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 till 2002, in a short period of 13 years, the US conducted eight major military operations across the world, many of which led to regime change. That’s an extraordinary record of belligerence. Also, in 2002, George W. Bush designated North Korea to be part of an Axis of Evil, alongside Iraq. This was followed by a very provocative demonstration by the US in 2003, when nuclear capable aircraft and naval vessels were deployed in a joint US-ROK military exercise. Thus, if Pyongyang assumed that it is probably next on the list, it was logical, unless it could deter the US from doing so. Thus, what emerges is the North Korean interest in acquiring any advanced missile and nuclear capability was rooted in its belief that these would be a deterrent or a tool to counter the US military might and belligerent designs.
Addressing the Problem
The security situation on the Korean Peninsula remains frozen in many ways. The serenity on the DMZ is deceptive as even today soldiers of opposing sides stand guard on hair trigger alert and around 28,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea as part of USFK with a motto of ‘Fight Today’.
So, obviously the varying approach and policies followed by 13 US presidents alongside the efforts of 12 South Korean presidents in dealing with the three members of the Kim dynasty, need review, if we are to hope any change in the current situation, leave aside a presently unthinkable and later a far-fetched dream of a unified Korea. Discussed in the subsequent paragraphs are certain factors, which have in the past and will likely in the future, form part of every option of brokering peace on the Korean peninsula.
- With 13 UN sanctions having been imposed on North Korea in the last three decades, with the harsher ones in the most recent past, North Korea seems undeterred. So clearly some lessons emerge. One, the North Korean threshold for economic pain is very high and two, these sanctions have not worked in arresting North Korean designs. There can be no denying the fact that with an economy like North Korea, sanctions would have hurt it, but the question always remain, how much?
- The answer to the above lies only with Kim Jong Un and though many scholars advocate the philosophy of draining North Korea economically, they must understand that this so-called magic wand has yielded little or no result till now, and second, there has to be a strong reason now to impose further sanctions. Even if North Korea enjoys the patronage of China at the moment, Kim would be aware that on crossing a critical threshold, even China would not be able to veto further sanctions, as happened during the six nuclear tests. So, if he were really on the verge of economic collapse, would Kim risk such a stupid misadventure?
- In the absence of UN sanctions, the US may consider imposing harsher sanctions on North Korea, on its own. This option, too, is fraught with risk – the risk of pushing North Korean economy to such a low ebb that the Kim regime acts rashly to save the situation: Use it or lose it option.
Military Action/ Surgical Strike
- The Israel Air Force carried out a surgical strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and ever since there have been pressures on the US administration to replicate the same in North Korea to take out its nukes or to use Special Forces instead. Towards that, firstly, North Korea has been the toughest intelligence target in the world and with scanty intelligence, such operations are always a no-go. Moreover, if ever there was a time window to do this, it’s long gone.
- North Korea has a larger army compared to South Korea and boasts of one of the largest rocket forces in the world and possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of targeting the US mainland though its ICBMs, efficacy notwithstanding. But despite this, it is no match to the US military might and Kim Jong Un would be well aware of this. Seen in isolation, the US has adequate military capability, both in quality and quantity to solve the North Korean problem militarily, but the result will be catastrophic, even if we don’t consider players other than the US, South Korea and North Korea, a highly unlikely scenario in the first place. With Seoul – Incehon metropolitan area being less than 60 kms from the DMZ and the estimated capability of North Korea to fire up to 500,000 artillery shells and rockets in less than an hour, the casualty figures in Seoul would be horrific, even if nuclear weapons were not used. Thus, at the end of this conflict, North Korea would have been decimated, but South Korea would certainly not show gratitude to the US.
- Thus, for the lobby that argues that Kim Jong Un has harnessed all these nuclear weapons with an offensive intent, to launch a military campaign might be wrong as it would just be spelling his own doom. Of course, these weapons being used as a last resort for survival by North Korea can certainly not be ruled out.
- The US always found North Korean nuclear programme unacceptable, but never so unacceptable that it considered waging a war to prevent it. Now with a looming ICBM threat to its mainland, if the US were to change its stance at the cost of several thousand South Koreans and possibly Japanese citizens, it would be the apotheosis of the ‘America First’ philosophy and a crushing blow to Washington’s reputation amongst its allies.
- If we are to learn anything from history it is that applying pressure on North Korea has pitiful results rather than solving a problem and America can retract from a treaty to suit its interests. Thus, each time the US and North Korea have negotiated before, it has led to some sort of cheating and paved the way for a new crisis. So clearly, there exists a trust deficit. As former US president Jimmy Carter said, “North Koreans must be convinced that they will be more secure without nuclear weapons and that normal diplomatic relations with the United States are possible”.
- While it is easy to blame North Koreans for all their actions, it would be unfair to suggest that they did not attempt the route of dialogue. In 2003, North Koreans wanted a non-aggression declaration from the US, a peace treaty to end the Korean War and Washington’s diplomatic recognition of the DPRK. It was bluntly turned down by the US as the North Koreans put a clause that only once these clauses were met would they talk about the Uranium Enrichment – something similar to ‘All or Nothing’.
- One of the long-stated aims of the North Koreans has been to get their leader talk one to one with a US president and the first time it was realised was in 2018 at Singapore, 70 years after its creation. But now when they have met, this time the North Koreans are not very pleased with the American stance of ‘All or Nothing’ in the form of Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID).
- The moot point remains that after all these years of struggle and hardships, when finally North Korea has acquired its security insurance, in the form of its nukes, why would it just let them off so easily, without being given any concrete security assurances and why would North Korea not fear of the same treatment being meted out to it as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, given the impeccable US track record in the past?
- With the exception of few South Korean presidents, South Korea has always tried to mediate and diffuse the crisis, sometimes even meeting North Koreans secretly. This is despite the numerous offensive actions carried out by North Korea on South Korea, both military and terrorist related, which cost hundreds of South Korean lives. The reason is clear, that a miscalculation or a rash decision by any side, irrespective of which side wins, South Korea has all to lose. However, ironic as it seems, South Korea does not call the shots for its future and peace, it’s the US that decides, a price the South Koreans might have to pay for outsourcing their security.
The China Factor
- The Americans came to Korea, first to tackle Japan during World War II and then to check the spread of communism. Even after the Cold War ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans stayed on, as there was no one to challenge them. However, after the Cold War the rise of China started and as it grew economically, it also endeavoured to grow strategically. Today, China is a global power and has improved upon its military capability, both quantitatively and qualitatively and it seeks space, at least in its own neighbourhood.
- Korea lies in the immediate geographical neighbourhood of China and besides the blood alliance of North Korea and China dating back to the Korean War, North Korea acts as a geographical buffer between its territory and the US dominated South Korea and Japan: a relation of lips and teeth, where the lips protect the teeth. The US will do well to appreciate that a stable North Korea is in China’s interest and while Americans are faced with a nuclear threat, the Chinese are faced with a threat of a nuclear leak, in the event of a US attack or in case the nukes are mishandled after a regime change in North Korea. So, China will do its best to avoid both these scenarios.
- China may not like to get embroiled in case of a military clash with the US over North Korea, but a US tilting unified Korea (which would be a possible outcome in case of a military option) would certainly not be in China’s interest, a factor that needs deliberate war gaming by the US strategic and military experts, while charting out their options against North Korea.
- The US and China have a clash of interest in many arenas, such as trade and Taiwan and North Korea may only just get added to the list, if not already there. The US interests in South Korea is not just North Korea but much beyond. The US interest in Asia Pacific can easily be ascertained with the only five countries it has bilateral and mutual defence treaties: South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. American interests in the region may have transformed over the years, but as of now they clearly stand out: one, to contain or check China and two, economic. East Asia is now the most significant region for international commerce. However, the US must realise that it is on a direct course of conflict with China. After all, the last thing that China will accept is being second best to the US, in its own region.
The Way Forward
Clearly, the way forward is stark and difficult, with no clear answers in binary and like it as it may, the US will have to be in the lead to restore peace and stability in the region, first due to its strategic clout and second, due to its passive abetment in letting the situation get this far.
If one positive is to be extracted from the Hanoi and the Singapore summit, it is that the long-lasting aspiration of a Kim to speak to POTUS directly has been met and hopefully it would be a big celebrated achievement for the North Koreans, for whatever its worth. However, a rigid stance like ‘All or Nothing’/ ‘Big Deal or No Deal’, is not going to work and all the Americans might get is nothing. So, some variance to diplomacy and deterrence within the realm of pragmatism is what is the need of the hour.
Immediate denuclearisation may not happen or even complete denuclearisation may never happen. The scenarios are abundant, but what stands out is this: it will have to be a give and take, considering all the factors I have discussed above. The answer possibly lies in a sequential and conditional process, spread over a period of time, involving all stakeholders. Implying that only if the first mutually decided condition is met in its totality will the next step be implemented and so on, or the deal is off. The underpinning of this arrangement will have to be eliciting trust and commitment by both sides, with either side ready to compromise some of their previously stern stances. Cases in point being, the US military pull-out from the Korean peninsula and North Koreans giving a full inventory of its nuclear arsenal and strategic missiles with a No First Use commitment and immediately rejoining the NPT to start with.
Kim Jong Un is well aware of the geopolitics of the region and will play his cards well as is seen from his recent actions post the Singapore and Hanoi summits. Status quo will suit him and will only undermine the American standing in the region. At the moment, South Korea needs America for its security and its export driven economy needs China, so it may find itself sandwiched between its own interests. A delayed solution or status quo will only give more fodder to South Korea and possibly even Japan to take their security interests in their own hands, a likely course, given the vast size of the economies of these two countries. If this were to happen even in part, it would be a narrative changer, consequences of which cannot be fathomed at this stage. The US coexisted with Soviet Union and can do so with North Korea also, may not hold water here.
The only uncertain aspect in this entire gamut is the stamina of North Korean economy, though China possibly would do its best from allowing North Korean economy to collapse to a point of no return. In the eventuality of this happening, bleak as it may be, but not impossible, will also fundamentally alter the dynamics of this sensitive situation, with the likelihood of destructive outcomes far outweighing constructive ones.
And lastly, given the China angle, the US must tread with caution as any accident, miscalculation or overreaction may spiral the situation out of control.
Therefore, in effect, negotiations and dialogue are the key and these must continue, even if it is not one to one between the two leaders. South Korea must demand to be brought in the forefront of the negotiations and getting South Korea to sign on the 1953 armistice agreement, even today, will be a good start towards it. The past is a mystery and the future is a mystery, but instead of looking for stunning solutions and unification at this stage, the major stakeholders, particularly the two Koreas and the US, must work with focus and resolve, looking for small goals initially and then building on them gradually.