North Korean Crisis | IDSA Summary

The belligerent rhetoric from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is causing serious concern. While a war appears rather unlikely as neither side can afford it, it cannot be completely ruled out. A miscalculation by either side might lead to a war that is certain to cause loss of human lives and destruction of frightful proportions.

What has triggered this crisis?

On 4 July 2017, obviously to coincide with the US Independence Day, North Korea carried out what it claimed as an ICBM test. The US and South Korea responded by holding a joint missile drill to counteract North Korea’s “destabilizing and unlawful actions,” as a US Army statement noted. Kim’s response was the test of 28 July, claimed to be ICBM once again.

North Korea’s capabilities –

  • It is not known how good and accurate US intelligence on North Korea is. Presumably, the US lacks human intelligence.
  • There is also a difference of opinion about North Korea’s technical ability to miniaturize the bomb.
  • What is, however, reasonably clear is that North Korea might acquire the ability to deliver a warhead on the continental United States before Trump completes his term in 2020.

UNSC sanctions –

  • The US scored a diplomatic victory by getting Resolution 2371 (5 August 2017) unanimously passed at the Security Council.
  • North Korea has been under sanctions since 2006, but the new resolution, if implemented, will cut its export earnings by US$1 billion from the current level of $3 billion.

China’s calculations –

  • Though China has publicly advised North Korea to abide by the resolution, only time will tell as to whether it will scrupulously abide by the UNSC resolution.
  • Obviously, China does not want the regime in North Korea to collapse for good and sufficient reasons. If the regime were to collapse, millions of Koreans will seek refuge in China.
  • Subsequently, Korea will be united under Seoul. Such a united Korea will adversely affect China’s security as US troops can be stationed in the north of Korea.

US Policy in disarray –

  • North Korea is threatening to send a missile that will fall in the waters 30 to 40 km off Guam. The US has an important military post in Guam with B-1 bombers and fighter jets that might be used against North Korea in case of war.
  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave an unconvincing defence of Trump by saying that the latter was speaking in the only language understood by Kim and that Americans could sleep peacefully at night.
  • What is sad and frightening is that Kim might take Trump’s words seriously. The US lacks access to Kim to talk to him. Talking through the media to a man like Kim is most dangerous.

Why Does Kim Want Nuclear Weapons?

If the 1953 Armistice had been followed by a peace treaty that North Korea had asked for repeatedly, Kim might not have been seeking nuclear weapons. Basically, he believes that keeping in mind what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi after they abandoned their search for nuclear weapon capability, his own survival and that of his regime calls for the pursuit of nuclear weapons until a proper peace treaty is in place.

A Possible Solution –

Washington should approach the issue with a sense of realism. Sanctions have not worked in the past. They are unlikely to work in the future. It will make more sense to have two-party (US and North Korea) talks rather than revive the six-party talks. Trump who promised out of the box thinking on foreign policy should be able to see the advantages of talking to Kim. And Trump has a better chance of getting domestic support for such talks than Obama ever had. Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ was flawed as he should have combined it with talks.

Way forward –

  • This is the time the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres should make a discreet intervention. He should ask Kim and Trump what each wants from the other. A public statement that he is ready to mediate if both sides ask for it will not do.
  • Even if Kim does not stop his belligerent rhetoric, Trump does not have to flatter him by imitating him. Trump should discreetly ask UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to step in.
  • Kim believes that his life and his regime will not be safe unless he has nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them even at the US. It is not his intention to nuke the US, but he thinks that his weapons would deter an attack by the US.