North Korea’s missile test on November 29 once more raised the attention of the international community over the Korean Peninsula. The launch of the Hwasong-15 missile is the last in a streak of tests that the DPRK has conducted this year and that have caused tension to rise in Northeast Asia.
The Hwasong-15 is an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) whose range is estimated to reach up to 13,000 km, which means it could hit the continental United States. It is unclear whether the missile is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead; but it still represents Pyongyang’s biggest vector up to now, and it is considered to be a non-negligible progress in its quest for developing a functioning nuclear arsenal.
As usual, the test has received firm criticism from virtually all of the international community, and new US military shows of force are to be expected in a context of heated rhetoric.
But beyond the mediatic fuss and the usual condemnations, what actually needs to be done is reflecting on how to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions so to finally solve the crisis. In this sense, it is clear that a military solution would be catastrophic, to the point of being virtually unacceptable in political terms: the DPRK has concentrated along the border with the South enough troops and firepower (including chemical and biological weapons) to inflict massive damage on Seoul and other densely-populated areas in a few hours. As a result, the only viable solution is a diplomatic effort that requires a proper combination of negotiations, sanctions and incentives; and the Hwasong-15 test reinforces this claim.
However, this approach has produced little effect by now; and the reason is that North Korea’s only ally – China – has been reluctant to put more pression on it; even though it has gradually adopted a tougher approach. In fact, Beijing and Pyongyang share a common concern over the latter’s survival; but due to different motivations.
For the Chinese, ensuring the survival of the DPRK is essential to preserve an acceptable order in Korea, namely one where the Peninsula is not united under a pro-American political entity. Feeling already encircled by US allies, China needs the DPRK as a buffer zone between its territory and the US-aligned South Korea. This is why Beijing hesitates in taking a harsher stance on Pyongyang and its nuclear program: it fears that the regime might collapse, and that the final geopolitical outcome would be contrary to China’s national security interests. China has even declared that it would act in defense of the North Korean regime if the US attempted to overthrow it by the use of military force.
Similar considerations make it clear that an effective diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue requires Beijing’s cooperation. But because of the reasons outlined above, this demands in turn to give the PRC strong assurances that the eventual geopolitical order of the Korean Peninsula will be respectful of its interests. As such, the US and the rest of the international community should seek a “preliminary deal” with China over Korea’s future, which should grant that Beijing’s security interests will be taken into account in case the DPRK collapses and Korea is reunited.
In this sense, possible solutions may include demilitarizing the North’s territory after reunification, “Finlandizing” the reunited Korea, creating an internationally-administered zone over the territory of the former North, or reducing America’s military presence in the post-unification Peninsula. Of course, reaching this kind of “preliminary agreement” is not easy; because any solution on Korea’s future status would be largely based on assurances that the US would give China with little certainty that they would actually be respected if the North eventually ceased to exist.
Still, it is an effort that must be done as a “prerequisite” to a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue to solve it peacefully and avoid the risks of a devastating war. In fact, China will be convinced to act more decisively on North Korea (notably by implementing stronger sanctions) only if it will be given credible guarantees that the post-crisis order in Korea will be consistent with its national interest.
As such, a “preliminary agreement” between Washington and Beijing over the Peninsula’s future is the key to an effective joint action aimed at solving the nuclear issue. Reaching a stable agreement in this sense is particularly important when considering that pushing North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions needs a coordinated, strong and long-lasting multilateral action. Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons for one essential reason: survival. As a matter of fact, they represent both a deterrence against foreign (notably American) military interventions and a “blackmail device” for inducing the international community to provide much-needed economic aid in exchange for a suspension of the nuclear program. Under the current situation, in which there is not a Washington-Beijing “preliminary deal” serving as the base for a joint action, Pyongyang considers that the costs of developing a nuclear arsenal as a mean to ensure its own survival are acceptable.
But the situation would be different with a Sino-American agreement on the future of Korea as the basis of a common action: it would make it possible to mount sufficient international pressure on the DPRK so to eventually convince its elite that pursuing nuclear weapons is counterproductive; as at that point the economic and diplomatic costs would be so high that continuing the nuclear program would endanger (and not ensure) the regime’s survival. As Iran’s case indicates, a coordinated effort by the major world powers can ultimately lead a proliferating state to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Similarly, an agreement with China is essential for a proper management of a denuclearized Korea; both to deter the DPRK from restarting the nuclear program at a later date (because it would know that this would once more trigger the same firm and coordinated international response) and to implement an international monitoring and verification mechanism, possibly under the terms of a Resolution by the UN Security Council. Even more importantly, a deal with Beijing over the future of Korea would assure that, in case of a sudden collapse of the North’s regime, the situation is properly managed in a coordinated manner by all the most important actors; so to avoid the risk of an escalation that may be triggered by the simple lack of preparation, by ineffective communication and by mutual misunderstanding.
Other voices have called for a greater Sino-American cooperation as the essential factor for a solution to the Korean nuclear issue. But to make it possible, a “preliminary agreement” between the US and the PRC over Korea’s future order is required; as it is the key for establishing a common line of conduct on the North Korean nuclear issue, and consequently for reaching a diplomatic solution that is accepted by the major players in the region. Without it, on the contrary, the crisis will continue in a cycle of missile or nuclear tests, condemnations, aggressive rhetoric and military demonstrations; and the permanent risk that an unpredicted incident could trigger an escalation and a devastating war would continue looming on the Peninsula, with deleterious consequences for the international stability.
About the author:
*Alessandro Gagaridis runs the website Strategikos, and holds a Master’s degree in “International Relations: Professional Focus Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution” at the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium).