By Rana Divyank Chaudhary
The prize question of the season in Northeast Asia– when will Kim Jong-un pull the trigger? The South seems to be keeping its cool for an unnaturally long time; China does not appear compelled to choose sides; the US has not backed down from the oldest shouting match in this part of the world; the North does not seem to be getting anywhere near what it was gunning for.
What new course has the warpath taken? Whose strategy is paying off? Has the ‘war’ been won without firing a single shot?
The Downhill Road to Peace
Since North Korea’s third nuclear test earlier this year, war rhetoric witnessed an alarming spike, with Pyongyang pitted against Washington and Seoul. North Korea cut off the military hotline with South Korea, threatened to end the decades-old armistice, and pulled out all of its thousands of workers from the jointly-run Kaesong factory complex. It also asked foreign diplomats to evacuate the capital and ordered its missile forces to be moved for forward deployment. If Kim Jong-un was seeking a negotiated compromise and consequent de-escalation, he went further than anyone, in the history of North Korea, down the spiral of deceptive escalation.
Coinciding with the crisis, the US and South Korea carried out their longest joint military exercise which involved the largest number of ground forces and involved US Air Force’s strategic bombers overflying close to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). The US declared complete and absolute war preparedness and threatened to retaliate proportionately, should the North initiate hostilities. The gigantic display of offensive weapons and wartime capabilities could not have been timed worse.
China not only acted against North Korea in the UN Security Council but also came out strongly in favour of maintaining regional peace and stability by all means of restraint. It betrayed very little on the talk of possible war, US actions, and the consequences for China’s influence over the region. Beijing even went on to host US emissaries and to an extent, facilitated the extension of the US’s logic of balance of power for the Korean peninsula.
The US strategy has paid the most in the short term. Washington relied on DPRK’s near-hermitic insulation from the world and zero soft power to seal the verdict on Pyongyang’s militarism and war-mongering. Global propaganda painted the North’s escalatory actions as completely unprovoked while a huge military simulation targeting it was being staged right across its borders. The US seized the opportunity to justify greater force levels in the Northwest Pacific. It also found an uncanny platform to coax China into committing to multilateral support and bilateral strategic entente.
China should be able to gain more on the longer time scale. Its measured silence in particularly inflammatory moments of the crisis and matching responsiveness at the level of international deliberations at the UN helped soften its image of the devil’s advocate. The scenario arguably revealed to Beijing in greater detail, the fine print in US’s changing diplomatic and military strategy towards troublemakers in the Pacific, its commitment to offshore balancing in the region, and its regard for China’s role in keeping the lid on when the pot boils over. Beijing has kept a close eye in the direction exact opposite to the one everyone was pointing in.
Eyeballed Into Retreat
While the threat of actual war now averted, the battles that matter have surely been fought and decided. North Korea’s threat of obliterating whatsoever stood in its path to nuclear status and military supremacy in the peninsula has come to no avail, yet again. But this time it has gone back to the barracks empty-handed. The US showed readiness of nerve and pushed the young Kim to fold before the old card-trick of ‘threaten-till-they-settle’ could come a full circle.
Perhaps hypothetically so, but the US caught on to actionable intelligence, free for all since Kim Jong-un’s takeover last year and the failed rocket test. The DPRK could predictably conduct a series of self-aggrandising manoeuvres to make up for the inexperience of its new leader and dash hopes of a change in the regime’s ways. Going ahead with a large-scale war drill with Seoul at this point, not only put the burden of urgency on Pyongyang but also exacted the right kind of noise from the international community. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining high levels of mobilization would hurt the North terribly and the standoff could be reasonably expected to self-bust.
Has this turnaround brought a discernible change in the routine of Korean crises? Certainly seems so. The US has gained the initiative and held back from the past’s heavy-footed conduct of paying off Pyongyang to stall its nuclear programme for as long as the latter found that convenient. North Korea aimed for greater stakes and status but could only cry hoarse louder and longer. For the US to not back down from this absurd escalatory spiral has set a critical precedent for bigger players in the region. Small, noisy ones might not have a next time.
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern, CRP, IPCS
Email: [email protected]