North Korea’s sabre rattling with nuclear programs and missile launches continue, with no concern to international opinion. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and has launched dozens of missiles since the beginning of last year in defiance of world counsel and United Nations resolutions and in its quest to develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US. Each time, there are indications that it is making advance with the ultimate aim to put a nuclear warhead atop a missile capable of hitting a US target.
Why is North Korea investing so much capital in such unproductive ventures when the country needs money to feed its impoverished people? Possession of nuclear weapon is seen as the only secured deterrence and ultimate guarantee to its security. The presence of close to 30,000 US marines in South Korea, the existence of US-South Korea security alliance and the conduct of annual military drills unnerve Pyongyang. It has always seen the annual military drill as preparation for the eventual invasion, which is why possessing nuclear weapons is considered as the only insurance from external attack. While North Korea’s contention is debatable, the truism is that it has hugely impacted the security of the region, creating unwelcome possibilities of escalation.
In the latest provocative act, North Korea launched a salvo of several suspected short-range surface-to-ship cruise missiles off its east coast on 8 June 2017 in continuation of weapons launches. Such acts by Pyongyang have rattled Washington and Seoul as the North seeks to build a nuclear missile capable of reaching the continental mainland US. According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the launch came from North Korea’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, and that the projectiles flew about 200 km with an apogee of about 2 km.
It may be recalled that after the conservative president Park Geun-hye was impeached, elections were held and a liberal has come to power. North Korea’s sabre rattling poses new challenges to the new liberal President Moon Jae-in even as he desires to reverse the former conservative rule’s hard-line policy and chosen a policy of engagement with the North. Even the Trump administration in the US is rattled and Trump has announced that all options, including a military strike, on the table. He also wants Beijing to do more to rein in the North’s weapons activities.
The missile firing of 8 June marked Pyongyang’s fifth known round since Moon took office in early May and fourth missile test in less than five weeks. It remains to be seen if Moon’s intended intensive push for easing military tensions and improving inter-Korean relations has any hope. By its acts, Pyongyang continues to defy UN warnings and US threats of possible military action.
The decision and timing of Pyongyang to launch the latest missile is significant. The projectiles were fired into waters between Japan and South Korea where US aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan participated in joint exercises with the South Korean Navy, which has just ended. It is possible that North Korea wanted to demonstrate that it has in its possession wide range of missiles that can hit participating ships in joint drills with precision strike capabilities.
Earlier on 29 May North Korea had fired a Scud-type ballistic missile from Wonsan. This kind of missiles can be used against both ships and ground targets. Understandably, the US is increasingly concerned about North Korea’s advance in missile capability, especially its intercontinental ballistic missile technology, with the US missile defence chief making his worries public. The Trump administration’s aim is to deter the North from making further advance so that it does not succeed to put a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile. Though it could take several years for the North to reach that stage, the pace in which it is making advance in perfecting the missile technology, the possibility for the North to succeed in its aim might not be unthinkable. While some analysts claim that North Korea has already developed the capability, others doubt such claims by the North. Trump has vowed it “won’t happen”, for whatever it means.
The intentions behind North Korea’s weapon tests are to build a nuclear and missile program that can stand up to what it sees as US and South Korean hostility. Outside analysts however see North Korea’s acts as means of bargaining and make political demands to the US and South Korea, including the removal of nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea meant to check North Korean aggression.
North Korea is already under multiple UN resolutions and prohibited from testing nuclear weapons or missile technology and is already subject to multiple international sanctions. The UN Security Council has imposed additional sanctions and further tightened measures following more nuclear tests and missile launches by North Korea. Following the missile firing on 8 June, the UNSC unanimously adopted a US-drafted resolution imposing new targeted sanctions on a handful of North Korean officials and entities. The fresh sanctions by the UN Security Council unanimously approved to add 14 North Korean individuals and four North Korean companies or organisations to its blacklist. Out of the 14, Japan had already added two to its own sanctions blacklist.
North Korea remained undeterred and slammed the latest sanctions as “mean” and rejected the fresh wave of sanctions. It vowed to press ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs. Its relentless surge in weapons and missile program is to project an image to the world that international sanctions can never subdue its resolve to be a full-fledged nuclear power with striking capability, equal to sit at the high table with other nuclear powers. Its spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued after the sanction were announced: “Whatever sanctions and pressure may follow, we will not flinch from the road to build up nuclear forces which was chosen to defend the sovereignty of the country and the rights to national existence and will move forward towards the final victory”.
Though Trump expects China, North Korea’s sole major ally, to do more to put pressure, China prefers talks and not more sanctions, though it stopped importing coal from North Korea. One of North Korea’s main sources of foreign currency is exports of coal. This came to a complete halt in April, according to data released by the UN Security Council’s committee on sanctions against North Korea.
In November 2016, the U.N. Security Council adopted a sanctions resolution setting value and volume limits on coal imports from North Korea. Complying to the UN resolution, China subsequently announced the suspension of coal imports from North Korea in February 2017. According to a report in Yimouri Shimbun, only one country reported imports of North Korean coal from January to March 2017. While the total volume of imported coal in January was 1.44 million tons, it was 1.23 million tons in February. Though the name of the country importing coal from North Korea was not revealed, it was apparent that China did continue importing coal in both January and February 2017. It is also believed that Malaysia too imported some amount of coal in March 2017.
The US is unwilling to enter into talk unless North Korea halts its missile and nuclear tests. Endorsing Trump’s hard line approach, American officials have indicated that military intervention in North Korea is an option on the table.
While the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley sent a clear message to North Korea: “Stop firing ballistic missiles or face the consequences”, China’s ambassador Liu Jieyi stressed that the resolution reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia and expressed the council’s commitment to a peaceful diplomatic and political solution, and to the importance of reducing tensions. Liu reiterated China’s often touted “dual-track” proposal, which means North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a suspension of massive military exercises by the US and South Korea.
Russia with borders with North Korea backs the freeze-for-freeze proposal and prefers diplomatic option to address the issue. Russia is opposed to the logic of confrontation as a means to settle the issue. Thus both Russia and China being neighbours of North Korea prefer a peaceful diplomatic solution to the decade-long conflict and seek to restart talks with Pyongyang so that tensions do not exacerbate in the Korean Peninsula. The US and its allies, on the other hand, seek tougher sanctions to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
With both sides hardening their positions with no sign of either yielding to their respective positions, there is no way this deadlock could be broken. In the meantime, tension is aggravating by the day as North Korea continues to advance its missile technology. This creates enough room for an unintended conflict whose repercussion could be beyond imagination.
*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.