Rhetoric and political signalling is an accepted element of crisis management provided the messages are clearly understood by those for whom these are intended. If not, it becomes a source of misunderstanding and a recipe for unintended miscalculation and potential disaster. Nowhere is this more evident than in recent exchanges between the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) where events threaten to spin out of control.
Trump’s mixed signals
In an interview to Reuters last week, U.S. President Donald Trump, while describing it as his “biggest challenge” , cautioned: “There is a chance that we could end up having a major major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.” Earlier in April, amid reports that North Korea might be planning another nuclear test to coincide with the 105th birth anniversary of long-time leader Kim Il Sung, Mr. Trump had announced that “an armada, very powerful” was headed towards the Korean peninsula. After a week it emerged that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was actually on its way to Western Australia, on account of a lack of clarity in communications. This now stands corrected. Meanwhile, a nuclear submarine, USS Michigan, has surfaced in Korean waters.
In turn, the DPRK threatened a “super mighty pre-emptive strike”. After undertaking a live firing exercise off its east coast, it followed up with another test-firing of a ballistic missile on April 29 which fizzled, causing loss of face.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump had said that he would be willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making it clear that Barack Obama’s policy focussing on tighter sanctions was a failure. After assuming office, he adopted a harder line, declaring that he would do “whatever is necessary” to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear-capable missile that can reach the U.S.
In the Reuters interview, however, he reflected unusual empathy when asked about Kim Jong-un: “He is 27 years old [in 2011 when he took over]. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.”
In an interview to NPR last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that while the North Korean leader may be ruthless , “he is not crazy”. He held out prospects of engaging in direct talks but was unwilling to engage in “negotiations about negotiations”. The U.S. has not held bilateral talks with North Korea since the Bill Clinton presidency. So clearly, there is no dearth of signalling but the question is, what is the 33-year-old Kim Jong-un expected to make of it?
Need for policy consistency
Regime acceptance and regime survival have been key priorities for Pyongyang since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A positive move in 1992 was the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and a suspension of Team Spirit, the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, leading to the Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. When joint exercises were resumed in 1993, North Korea announced its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The ensuing crisis led to talks and a year later, an Agreed Framework was concluded under which North Korea suspended its decision to withdraw from the NPT, agreed to freeze its nuclear activities, and in return, the U.S. pledged to build two light water nuclear power reactors. Food aid and humanitarian assistance provided by the Clinton administration from 1995 till 2000 was close to $750 million.
The Bush administration declared North Korea part of the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002, cancelled direct talks and annulled the 1994 agreement. North Korea responded by throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and formally quit the NPT thereby provoking a fresh crisis. China and Russia initiated Six Party Talks in 2004 which led to the 2005 joint statement which expanded the scope to more than the nuclear issue. However, the talks collapsed when the U.S. imposed sanctions a few months later; North Korea responded with its first nuclear test in 2006.
Since then, North Korea has made steady progress in its nuclear and missile programmes. An underground nuclear facility has been built at Mt. Musan. Nuclear tests were conducted in 2013 and twice last year, and it is estimated that North Korea has enough fissile material for 10 to 15 nuclear devices. By 2019, North Korea will be able to develop long-range missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. Given Mr. Trump’s redline, Mr. Jong-un is convinced that nuclear capability is the ultimate security guarantee to protect his regime against U.S. intervention.
U.S. policy has oscillated between sanctions in response to nuclear and missile tests, dilution of sanctions by China, talks about closer defence ties with Japan and South Korea, citing of additional threats by North Korea and more testing, thus repeating the cycle. U.S. expectations that sanctions would lead to regime collapse were misplaced because given China’s stakes, this will not happen.
Will China nudge?
Recently China has registered a policy shift reflecting unhappiness about Mr. Jong-un’s behaviour, particularly the high-profile executions of those considered to be close to China. The most recent was the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Mr. Jong-un’s half brother, in February, which prompted China to halting coal briquette imports from North Korea. Air China stopped direct flights to Pyongyang last month but these are now being reinstated. North Korea has accused China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”. However, China can neither permit a regime collapse which would create instability nor allow its communist ally to be subsumed into a unified Korea.
Mr. Trump is trying to persuade China to exert greater leverage by praising its President, Xi Jinping, as “a good man” who is “trying hard”. After the latest missile test, Mr. Trump tweeted, “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Mr. Xi is unlikely to be persuaded. At the UN Security Council meeting on April 28, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed support for a denuclearised Korean peninsula and previous Security Council resolutions but did not support additional punitive measures. Instead, he again suggested that the U.S. and South Korea could suspend their military exercises.
More than North Korean tests, China is worried about the possibility of an unpredictable Trump initiating unilateral action which could create an escalatory spiral. Another concern is the U.S. decision to accelerate deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system in South Korea though it is hopeful that a moderate President gets elected in the May 9 election in South Korea and reverses the THAAD decision.
The way forward
Mr. Xi’s objective is to persuade Mr. Trump that neither more sanctions nor military strikes are viable options; the only option is ‘dialogue’. Second, while denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can be a long-term objective, for the foreseeable future, Mr. Jong-un is not going to give up North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. At most, he can agree to a freeze on its programmes — no further tests, no exports or transfers and no threats. In return, the U.S. will need to provide assurances relating to regime acceptance and a gradual normalisation of relations. A moderate leader in Seoul will help the process of a sustained dialogue which also needs coordination with Japan.
Mr. Jong-un’s stakes are existential and, having seen Western interventions in Iraq and Libya and Russian intervention in Ukraine, he is determined to retain his nuclear capabilities till the end of what will be a long and delicate negotiating process, a process which could all too easily be derailed by confusing rhetoric and mixed signalling that has escalated tensions.