A game of chicken in the Korean peninsula

On North Korea, the world is way past tactical solutions. Only a comprehensive diplomatic solution will work

Updated - December 11, 2017 12:55 am IST

Published - December 11, 2017 12:02 am IST

Thirteen thousand kilometres. That’s how far North Korea’s newest Hwasong-15 missile can travel, which puts the United States, its principal adversary, within striking distance. With nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in its arsenal, and with hardly any workable U.S military options to disarm Pyongyang, nuclear North Korea is now an inevitability and here to stay. Lessons from the tragic end of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi would further disincentivise North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un to give up his weapons. Pyongyang’s neighbours, namely Japan and South Korea, and the international community, the U.S. in particular, however, have not reconciled to this reality provoking a nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula.

The rationality of escalation

Kim Jong-un has been called all kinds of names, from a ruthless dictator to a madman. But Kim’s actions consolidating his hold over power in Pyongyang or developing North Korea’s strategic arsenal show that he is anything but irrational. More pertinently, his policy of taking on the entire international community is seemingly premised on the classical military strategy of escalating to de-escalate — to initially escalate to unacceptable levels so as to force one’s adversaries to make concessions in areas they otherwise would not. Being recognised as a nuclear weapon capable state would be the foremost objective; survival of his regime and an eventual removal of sanctions would be the natural consequences of such a recognition.

Given that Pyongyang is pursuing such an escalatory strategy when there is a great deal of great power disharmony and American indecisiveness, the odds are heavily stacked in its favour. In this game of chicken, Kim seems to be the winner.

Great power buck-passing

Ever since Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, which led to the Six-Party Talks to diffuse the situation in the Korean peninsula, the North Korean regime has played the great powers against each other, exploiting their respective strategic calculations vis-à-vis Pyongyang, and each other. Having outmanoeuvred the big boys, North Korea conducted several nuclear tests and has now reached a point of no return, leaving the great powers stupefied and outwitted. Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s determination to go down this road by all means, the differing great power endgames and their unwillingness to commit sustained political and diplomatic capital, individually and together, to the Korean peninsula have contributed to the current crisis in a major way.

Today, having exhausted all its strategies, from imposing sanctions to isolating North Korea, Washington has neither any leverage nor is it in a position to make a successful military strike against the country. China is not only worried about a lethal nuclear fallout in its neighbourhood and the potential rush of North Korean refugees into its territory but also uneasy about what may otherwise be an excellent solution — a reunified Korea, something Beijing thinks will undercut its rising regional predominance. Russia, having had clandestine dealings with the North Korean regime in the past, also has no cards to play. And yet, if the unravelling of the Korean peninsula weakens Washington’s standing in the region further, Moscow and Beijing would certainly not mind that.

Japan and South Korea, in a sense, then are the real victims in this game of great power buck-passing and geopolitical expediency. Seen as arch-rivals by Pyongyang and located in what is arguably the world’s most dangerous neighbourhood, Tokyo and Seoul would be the first to face Kim’s wrath. What is complicating their plight even more is the shakiness of the extended deterrence commitments of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

Going nuclear would not take too much time or effort for either of these technologically advanced countries. The lack of a firm commitment from Washington on security commitments could potentially prompt them to develop a modest strategic arsenal which would have a domino effect for the region and the rest of the international system. In a self-help world of such kind, the NPT-led non-proliferation regime as we know it would cease to exist.

Systemic crisis

At the heart of it, the crisis in the Korean peninsula reflects an endemic and worrying disorder in the contemporary international system. For one, international diplomacy has failed in the region. The ability of the great powers to compromise and reach a workable consensus to deal with global crises seems to have considerably reduced especially with the arrival of Mr. Trump and the assertion of China and Russia. What is even more worrying is this: the failure of the great powers to arrive at a workable consensus in crisis situations is perhaps a sign of the times to come.

Second, the current crisis is further intensified by the deal-breaking tendencies of Mr. Trump. For instance, his administration’s tirade against the Iran nuclear deal, the end result of long, arduous negotiations, is sending out all the wrong signals to the international community. If Kim’s North Korea is decidedly revisionist, Mr. Trump’s revisionist tendencies are equally damaging.

What is also becoming clear today is that isolating states that “misbehave” does not resolve conflicts. Be it Pakistan, Iran or North Korea, isolating states in the international system can only further complicate existing crises. The reason why we have been able to restrain the development of Iranian nuclear weapons is precisely because the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) reached a historic nuclear deal in 2015 despite pressure from within the U.S. and countries such as Israel to use force against Tehran. Had it not been for this deal, we would have had quite a mess in our neighbourhood today.

Finally, and at a deeper level, the disarmament platitudes of the N-5 (or the five nuclear weapon states) and no progress on their disarmament commitments have eroded the faith of the nuclear have-nots in the global nuclear order. In an indirect but relevant way, such erosion of a normative global order has contributed to the North Korean crisis. Therefore, those lamenting how Kim’s nukes will weaken the non-proliferation regime have only themselves to blame for it.

The future

Now that Pyongyang has crossed the nuclear threshold, international sanctions and the use of force against North Korea will not yield the desired results. It will lead to immeasurable human suffering within North Korea and in its neighbourhood. We are way past tactical solutions, and, therefore, only a comprehensive, sustained and diplomatic solution will work, though the result of which is uncertain, and the intent for which is non-existent among the great powers at this point. However, if indeed Kim is “escalating to deescalate”, Pyongyang might be open to such engagement especially since it has now gone beyond being forcibly disarmed. Moreover, for Kim, talking itself would constitute a form of recognition for his regime.

The most unpleasant part of such a comprehensive solution would involve according de facto “recognition” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In other words, North Korea has nuclear weapons and its delivery mechanism in its custody, and there is no getting away from that fact, not now. If so, all we can do now is to consider how we can live with a nuclear North Korea rather than think of impractical military solutions to disarm Pyongyang. For sure, it would be a pity to add it to the list of states possessing nuclear weapons. But then there is a time to prevent something from becoming a reality, and there is a time to accept when it becomes an inevitable reality.

The operational aspect of this approach would involve taking on board North Korea’s historical grievances, involving the regional powers including China and South Korea to reach out to Kim, and reviving the dormant Six Party Talks at the earliest. Revival of the Six Party talks is important precisely because entrusting China and or Russia to solely deal with North Korea would be unwise. Moreover, multilateral engagement would also prevent anyone from engaging in underhand dealings with Pyongyang.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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