US-North Korea Brinkmanship: Anticipating Escalations – OpEd


Strains between North Korea and United States already tense, this previous week saw them pushed significantly higher, and considerably more to an unnerving spot. The particular developments in this regard were the assertions from North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in a UN speech that it is inevitable for North Korea to launch a missile at the US mainland. However, it actually came days after Trump used the same venue to pronounce that US might ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if it keeps on debilitating US or its allies.

The US is the regular concentration of North Korea’s propaganda and is constantly seen and anticipated as the country’s fundamental foe. It’s less demanding to lead a totalitarian regime when there is nationalistic cause around which the mass population can be united, and as such Kim Jong Un needs an enemy in the face of US.

Scaling up bellicose rhetoric towards the West, and particularly US, could result in further escalations. North Korea however, doesn’t realize the disparity of power between itself and the US. Trump sent US bombers prior to Ri’s UN speech to fly in international waters along the North Korean coast in a provocative show of power.  In response, North Korea is threatening the Americans by claiming the very right to shoot down US strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace fringe of their country. There is a continuous war of words; Trump belittled Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man’, followed by Kim’s disparaging term for Trump as a ‘dotard’, but thank goodness both parties are campaigning affronts at each other, rather than actual bombs.

The root of the current nuclear standoff, in the opinion of experts, lies in the ‘stability-instability paradox’, that nuclear weapons do deter war as the world witnessed during cold war. However, the sense of security granted by the possession of these weapons also encourage certain low-level provocations and this paradox — where nuclear weapons on the one hand deter a full scale war, but at the other also encourage a low level behavior — is the reason why Kim thinks he can get away with threatening and firing on US strategic bombers.

Nevertheless, Kim knows that as long as China will join with the US in taking him out, he can keep upping the ante. The absence of concern on the part of China and Russia regarding North Korea’s debilitated dispatch stands in contrast with Japan at the other end of the spectrum. Russia has come out in opposition to US unilateral action, insisting that dialogue is the only way out. Putin is additionally indisposed to help the US request for an oil ban contending that Russian oil exports to North Korea are negligible. Beijing conversely, is more open to pursuing sanctions and is signaling a shift in the attitude.

Whereas, Japan is becoming less tolerant with its premier’s pronouncements that North Korea’s provocative acts are threatening world peace, Japan is planning remilitarization in response to the threat from North Korean aggression. The Japanese defense ministry intends to acquire the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system in response to the type of threat it faces.

Kim Jong Un’s stubbornness is not likely to stop brinkmanship efforts, although in the meantime inciting the US beyond a specific point is very liable to welcome pre-emptive action. Whatever the nature of the pre-emptive action, the destruction that would ensue the world would be ‘unimaginable’, in the words of Trump.

There is an ineluctable need for the major parties to play their part in saving the planet. Neither very hard nor very soft approaches are going to get Pyongyang back to seriously negotiating the denuclearization of North Korea. The international community needs to be more prudent and pragmatic.

However, among the possible solutions to the ongoing nuclear standoff is accepting the “nuclear North Korea,” just as the world did with China or accept the risk of using non-diplomatic military tools. Though negotiations are one way to date they have failed at every turn, likewise war is another option, but costly and risky. Beijing in this regard argues that the US must cease joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea agreeing not to carry out further missile tests.

Correspondingly, overlooking Kim’s barbarity against his own citizens has been standard practice in the civilized world long before the North Korean nuclear weapons and ICBMs became a believable threat. This scant mention of barbarity is ironic. North Koreans are suffering at the hands of the country’s dynastic leadership that is among the most repressive in the world and this alone is enough of a reason to isolate or force change in the country.

This is the loftiness of incongruity — that the whole international community persisted in being quiet with respect to the gross human rights violation in North Korea, but when it comes to their own strategic interests in the same region, in consort to real politik considerations, they highlight it in a drum beat.

*Ubaid Ahmed is currently working as Research Affiliate in Strategic Vision Institute and can be reached at [email protected]

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