By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
US President Donald Trump has displayed an inconsistent and dangerous approach towards North Korean provocations, prompting even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to advise restraint. This is because the consequences of a major conflict on the Korean peninsula, which would definitely have nuclear dimensions, are going to be disastrous for the whole region.
The present episode of crisis was caused by the Trump administration’s attempt to move the redline over the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. Earlier, after North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the US used to bring more stringent economic and diplomatic sanctions on Pyongyang through UNSC resolutions. However, the new US administration is threatening to use ‘preemptive strikes’ on North Korean installations if any tests are conducted. Also, the US has been considering provisions of ‘secondary sanctions’ on countries, bodies and individuals that deal with North Korea. If North Korea acknowledges and accepts this new redline, they will be unable to have more nuclear and missile tests. In all probability therefore the Kim Jong-un regime will not accept this proposition, at least not before some diplomatic gains are achieved through dialogue and negotiation. However, the US is not ready to accept any form of dialogue with North Korea, until the latter “refrains from these provocative tests.”
In dealing with the ‘unpredictable’ North Korea, Donald Trump has been trying to convey that he is also equally unpredictable. He also wants to show that his threats are not empty by firing missiles on Syria and detonating the ‘mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan. The US has also brought back the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, along with the nuclear-powered submarine USS Michigan. Bilateral and multilateral military exercises between the US, South Korea, Japan, France and Britain are underway around the Korean peninsula. The US has also hastened to install the Terminal High Altitude Arial Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. All these measures are meant to pressurise North Korea into accepting the new US redline.
Although the US has threatened to ‘go alone’ on the North Korean issue, Washington knows that the role of Beijing is going to be very critical. For the same reason, Donald Trump likely tried to reach some understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping in dealing with North Korea during their recent summit meet in Florida, and over the phone conversations that followed. The US has been attempting to appease Beijing by promising trade concessions and taking Chinese security interests in the region into consideration.
However, the game that the Trump administration appears to be playing is devoid of any understanding of the complex regional context. Donald Trump needs to understand that ‘blinking first’ is not an option for North Korea’s belligerent regime. The North Korean strategy so far has been to defy any pressure and sanctions, and assert its independent security posture. Any moderation in this strategy in response to pressure would lead to the regime’s total strangulation and is thus not an acceptable proposition. Trump must also understand that North Korea is not Syria, for at least three reasons. First, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons along with their delivery systems. Second, North Korea’s survival is ensured by China. While China is not in favour of North Korean nuclear development or its provocative behaviour, it is definitely committed to the country’s survival. Third, any preemptive strike on North Korea would invite North Korean assured retaliation on Seoul, where one-fourth of the South Korean population resides, in addition to fifteen thousand US soldiers.
The US has also been unable to understand that China is not going to change its approach towards North Korea because of Donald Trump’s cheap inducements. Instead, it seeks bilateral trust based on a long-term common vision for the region. China has consistently been imposing economic sanctions on North Korea aimed at its nuclear and missile programmes, in tandem with the international community’s efforts. However, it also continues to have significant trade linkages with North Korea that help the regime survive. China’s recent ban on North Korean coal imports has more to do with its compliance with UNSC resolution 2321 and less with a bilateral understanding with the US. China’s approach was made clear by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his speech at the UNSC on 28 April, when he called for dialogue and diplomacy on the North Korean crisis rather than military threats and arms build-ups. Trump’s redlines thus carry with them huge consequences.
The US administration’s approach has also irked South Korea, one of its allies in the region. South Korea feels that although Trump has unilaterally determined his North Korea policy, it will have far-reaching regional consequences. In addition, Trump has asked South Korea for US$1 billion for the deployment of THAAD, and has hastened the process of deployment when there is no elected leader in the country. The South Korean media has in fact emphasised that through his behaviour, Trump has threatened not only North but also South Korea. When the new South Korean leadership takes over in less than two weeks, it is likely that the very alliance with the US will be reviewed.
In this scenario, Trump’s unfolding game in the Korean Peninsula is, at best, not going to work, and at worst, may have devastating consequences for the region. Many in the region are of the opinion that the real danger is not from Kim Jong-un doing something catastrophic but Trump making a foolish move. It is only hoped that good sense prevails and a modus vivendi is evolved to deal with the crisis.
*Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS