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A Conflict Scenario In Korean Peninsula Worrying – Analysis


The ‘bad boy’ in Northeast Asia has incurred the wrath of the world sans China for his audacious stand on the nuclear issue, thereby displeasing the humanity. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s relentless surge to acquire and strengthen nuclear capability was again demonstrated in the fourth nuclear test in January, followed by rocket launch in February in violation of UN resolutions.

The UN had no choice than to unanimously approve additional sanctions – the toughest for North Korea in more than 20 years. But the questions that arises: will they work now if they did not work earlier?

Tougher sanctions

The U.N. resolution, which had more than 50 co-sponsors, carried several unprecedented measures. Among them included expanding existing sanctions, with the aims to cripple parts of the North Korean economy that fuel its nuclear and ballistic programs. Among new sanctions, member nations will now be mandated to inspect all cargo going to and from North Korea. Previously, countries were needed to inspect such shipments by Pyongyang if they had reasonable grounds to believe they contained illicit goods. The new sanction also includes banning the sale of valuable minerals such as gold, iron ore and titanium by Pyongyang and prohibits the sale or supply of jet fuel to the nation with the exception for civilian passenger aircraft flying to and from North Korea. Banking sanctions were too tightened and bans on the sale of luxury goods imposed. In addition, travel bans and asset freezes were imposed on 16 new individuals.

Even while President Barack Obama urged the world leaders to speak with one voice so that North Korea abandons the dangerous programs and chooses a better path for its people, China’s ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi termed the resolution as a new starting point and a paving stone for political statement on Pyongyang’s nuclear issue and called for a return to dialogue. Liu made a strong case for the resumption of the stalled Six-Party talks to address to North Korea’s nuclear issue. The efforts of the world community to make Pyongyang see reason by adopting carrot and stick approach is virtually negated by China’s reluctance to embrace tougher measures against Pyongyang because of its close ties with the isolated nation and its own strategic consideration. China’s relationship with Pyongyang has allowed the latter to access to the international economy, and get the funds it needs to develop its nuclear, missile and space programs. The ban on mineral exports will significantly damage Pyongyang’s foreign currency income. Mineral exports account for almost 40 per cent of North Korea’s total exports.

While China pressed for dialogue, Russia pressed for some change in the resolution before vote. Russia argued for the removal of a North Korean mining executive operating in Russia from the list of individuals designated for asset freezes and travel bans. Both China and Russia were concerned about US and South Korean consultations about possible deployment of the US-made THAAD anti-missile system as they feared that Pyongyang’s behaviour was intended to be used as a justification to increase military capabilities in the region.

China’s stance

Despite agreement to the resolution, it remains unclear if Beijing shall enforce the new sanctions. From Beijing’s perspective, stability is more important and therefore cutting trade to North Korea could fragment and destroy the North, fomenting revolution and chaos. Beijing fears that instability in the North could result in flooding of refugees into its territory from across its border, and could bring in military backlash or even a crisis that could force the intervention of South Korea and thus drawing in the US and Japan into the conflict. Such a scenario could be nightmarish for Beijing. Though China condemned North Korea’s nuclear program in the UN Security Council this time as before, it has remained reluctant to enforcing the sanctions. For Beijing, sanctions are aimed at bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and not solely to punish it. Beijing also takes the excuse that sanctions would adversely affect the lives of ordinary North Korean peoples.

In February, the State-run Korean Central News Agency wrote an editorial saying that sanctions and ever-increasing threats have left little impact and that the foundation of the Juche self-supporting economy has only been further strengthened and its nuclear deterrence for defending the sovereignty has been bolstered on a daily basis.

Resumption of bellicose rhetoric and threat for pre-emptive Nuclear strike

This time around, Pyongyang’s reactions to the “gangster-like” UN resolutions imposing tougher sanctions seem more threatening than previously. Hours after the new UN sanctions were announced against its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, North Korea fired several short-range projectiles into the sea off its east coast into the Sea of Japan. But what could be seen as the most precipitous and worrying reaction was when Kim Jong-un issued order to keep the country’s nuclear arsenal to be ready for “pre-emptive attack anytime”, thereby ramping up rhetoric, as he feels that the situation on the divided Korean Peninsula had become more dangerous now than ever before. This demonstrated a massive shift in the country’s military strategy. Kim made his comments while monitoring the test firing of a new, high-calibre multiple rocket launcher.

Though such bellicose rhetoric is routine for North Korea at times of elevated tensions, any such actual execution of the threat could eventually lead to virtual extinction of North Korea from the earth, though considerable damage would have been caused. The retaliation from the US, South Korea and Japan could be massive in such a case. The only available balm to the perceived threat could be that experts are divided about North’s ability to mount them on a working missile delivery system.

It was therefore for this reason Washington downplayed Kim’s threat as posturing. The world has not seen North Korea test or demonstrate the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). Nevertheless, the US forces would not be left wanting and would be ready to counter-eliminate strikes if necessary.

South Korea has a legitimate reason to be worried after Pyongyang threatened to go ballistic. The joint annual US-South Korea military drills further make North Korea angry as it has always seen as rehearsals for invasion. The possible deployment of an advanced US missile defence-system in South Korea is another point adding to tension. The THAAD system fires anti-ballistic missiles to smash into enemy missiles either inside or outside the Earth’s atmosphere during their final flight phase. Both China and Russia oppose this US move. Beijing perceives the move as undermining its own nuclear deterrent and has the potential to ‘destroy’ relations with Seoul.

Kim Jong-un’s order to keep the military on standby for nuclear strike figured in the US presidential debate. Senator Marco Rubio called Kim Jong-un as a “lunatic” and an unpredictable wild man, an out of control crazy man, careening around northeast Asia with nuclear weapons. Others analysed the man as a dangerous dictator who poses a real threat and oversees some of the world’s worst human rights abuses and personally eccentric but also a rational dictator. Therefore, it was reasoned that one need to understand how his regime really works.

Three possible reasons

Three reasons are cited behind North Korea’s perennial threat-making but never actually executing them. The motivation could be a combination of these three, though the degree to which one or another is more important varies but ultimately these three reflect the country’s behaviour. The first reason is about maintaining the big lie that keeps North Korea running. The second is about countering enemies that Kim knows are more powerful.

Pyongyang’s tantrum is a cry for attention. The problem is how to stop such tantrum. Though North Korea is unlikely and intentionally starts a nuclear war, but the threat to use, however empty, raise the risk of unwanted conflict; so it could be disruptive and dangerous. The third is provocations play well in North Korean internal politics. Taking control of power at a young age with many small and ruthless coterie of more experienced military and party officials in the government, Kim Jong-un’s immediate challenge was to ensure that his orders are obeyed. So, his concern has been seeking means to consolidate power among the country’s governing elites. His two years in office so far has seen violent political purges, exiling or executing a number of high-level officials. The use of anti-aircraft guns in the execution process was to send fear and a message to others about his brutality and therefore securing obedience without slightest dissent to his authority. Combined with the above, Kim Jong-un has also conducted a series of military provocations, nuclear development, weapons tests and a series of threats in 2013, to start World War III. The intention is to make his military officials as well as people that he is a capable leader so that everyone rallies around him. Such internal dynamics need to be understood to see Kim why he is behaving the way he is.

India’s possible role

Can India play any role in the Korean peninsula issue? As India’s profile continues to grow, there are expectations from countries friendly to it that India should use its diplomatic leverage to look for a possible solution to the continuing impasse. Though this might look appealing and ideal, the geopolitics consideration might deter India to adopt such a pro-active diplomatic outreach at the moment. However, should India volunteer for such an initiative that could surely help and contribute to the peace and stability in the region.

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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