Ratcheting up tension in Korean Peninsula

Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary

Aug 18 2017 - A lot has been reported over the past couple of weeks about the escalating tension in the Korean Peninsula. As the western media demonises North Korea, one gets the impression that it is led by a “crazy fat kid” (Kim Jong-Un, 33), who is ready to go to war with America.

Compared to the US superpower, even nuclear-armed DPRK is a piddling. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is basically an impoverished country with an oppressive, unstable political structure dominated by its military. Having 46,540 sq miles area, a population of 25 million people, USD 30 billion GDP (2015) and chronic shortage of food and medical supplies—it has been cornered by the Korean Armistice Agreement of July 1953. The Armistice ceased hostilities of the Korean War (1950-53), but no peace treaty has been agreed on so far. Technically it is still at war with the US.

The Kim Jong-Un regime is deeply insecure and under constant fear that the Republic of Korea (ROK), with American help, will invade the North and try to instigate a regime change. Pyongyang also feels unsafe after the recent political changes in ROK.

The latest bout of tensions stems from the North testing two ICBMs in July. Latest reports suggest that Pyongyang has developed a miniaturised nuclear device that can be mounted on its ICBMs and launched on targets as far as the US mainland. Nuclear-DPRK has changed the security equation in East Asia. To protect DPRK from enemies such as ROK, Japan and America, Kim has two priorities—autonomy over a modernised military and political independence. DPRK describes its nuclear weapons as a “nuclear deterrent for self-defence”. It is a mystery as to how the poor country of DPRK funds it nuclear and missile programmes.

What is noteworthy is that tensions flare up every time American troops in South Korea play provocative war games. The next joint military exercise called “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian” is scheduled from August 21-31, 2017. These drills make Pyongyang jittery and it ratchets up war invectives against the Americans. The Americans also match the rhetoric with equal vengeance.

Donald Trump personally came out with extremely crude, off-the-cuff threats to DPRK. He threatened Kim Jong-Un with “fire and fury” if DPRK tried to attack American targets. Pyongyang responded to this by preparing plans to launch an attack on the American military base in Guam. Interestingly, the threat did not come from Kim Jong-Un personally, but from his military command. Upping the ante, Trump warned that US military was “locked and loaded” should Kim Jong-Un “act unwisely”.

While Trump has been making irresponsible threats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the United States is not an enemy of DPRK and there will be no regime change or military operation against it. Defence Secretary James Mattis said that though the US was ready (militarily)—“diplomatic efforts” were underway to deal with the threat. Clearly, there is incoherence in Washington.

It appears Donald Trump has found an able sparring-partner in Kim Jong-Un. By making nasty threats Donald Trump has pinned himself to a corner—with no room for flexibility. World leaders have called upon Donald Trump to avoid further tension with DPRK. Kim Jong-Un, by not personally threatening attack on Guam, retained the option not to implement the threats of his military command.

China, DPRK’s most important ally and trading partner, has called upon Washington and Pyongyang to calm down, and has asked the Americans to cease its military exercises that escalate tension. Beijing–Pyongyang relation has suffered in recent times because of DPRK’s repeated nuclear and missile tests. Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang was in evidence when it voted on August 6, 2017, at the UN Security Council Resolution to strengthen sanctions on DPRK.

What is most surprising is that Chinese leaders have not made any public statements on the ongoing tension between DPRK and the US. The China factor is most important in the current fracas. Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times on August 11, said that China shall stay neutral if DPRK fires first. Donald Trump has been asking Beijing to restrain Kim Jong-Un and on August 12 spoke to Xi Jinping, who advised him to avoid “words and deeds” that would “exacerbate” the already tense situation. Chinese assertion to stay neutral is a clear warning to Pyongyang to stop being reckless. And the implied threat that China may be drawn into the fight, if US attempts pre-emptive strike on DPRK, is also a warning to Donald Trump. Beijing simply cannot allow US adventures on DPRK, a buffer ensconced under its belly. Kim Jong-Un knows well that had DPRK been geographically located away from China, Americans would have pulverised it militarily long ago, as it has done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Sanctions have not stopped DPRK from developing its nuclear and missiles programmes. An American pre-emptive strike would lead to an apocalypse. So the only option worth considering is to find a diplomatic solution. Understandably, Kim Jong-Un will continue to brandish his missiles and push for maximum concessions from America—recognition as nuclear-weapon-state (NWS), end diplomatic isolation, end the state of war with a peace treaty, withdrawal of sanctions and obtain economic concessions. Can Washington, which wants complete cap on DPRK’s nuclear programme, agree to Kim’s wish list without annoying ROK and Japan? Only Beijing can help bring the two opposing parties together for a diplomatic solution and restore calm in the peninsula, as there is no contact between them.

Mike Pompeo, CIA director said on August 13 that there was no imminent threat of a nuclear war with DPRK. ROK President Moon Jae-In also declared there will be no war in the Peninsula. Japan’s Shinzo Abe also called upon Beijing to stop Pyongyang launching missiles. The only way war can break out is through a miscalculation or by accident. Meanwhile, both sides should handle their military assets cautiously and refrain from making irresponsible threats.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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