Thumbnail images: 

North Korea has been a conundrum for both China and the U.S. With sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is believed to be “on the verge of a strategic breakout – quantitatively (by ramping up its warhead numbers) and qualitatively (through mastery of warhead miniaturization and long-range ballistic missiles) – that directly threatens the U.S. homeland.” If China exerts economic and political pressure and it implodes, Beijing would “lose the buffer zone and refugees would flood in,” and “then China could become the enemy”. Geography and ideology indicate that North Korea is China and America’s problem. However, nuclear-missile proliferation along with aggressive posturing has made North Korea a prodigal nation the global community must seriously deal with.


During the last five years, North Korea has phenomenally expedited its missile programme with 71 test fires – “four tests in 2012, eight in 2013, 18 each in 2014 and 2015, and 23 in 2016” – out of which 42 have been short-range Scud variants, a long range satellite launch, an intermediate-range ballistic missile test, and ground test of a new rocket engine with solid-fuel technology. Suffice it to say, Pyongyang aims to acquire sufficient capability “to strike the USA with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both” South Korea and USA to sign a peace treaty and form the North-South confederation – “a final victory or the unification of the peninsula under North Korean rule.” This is not likely to happen without a major shift in strategic alignment in the region and at the global level. Given North Korea’s military-first policy and brinkmanship, it would remain a myth “that the stronger the North Koreans get, the more reasonable they will become.”


Pyongyang’s Game Plan


Any speculation on North Korea’s nuclear-missile activity must be seen through introspection on its larger strategic game plan. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, America has successfully deterred North Korea and preserved the ceasefire in the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, it constrained South Korea from launching any counterattack or unilateral military policymaking vis-a-vis North Korea. Around 30,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea and high-tech surveillance of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) besides joint military drills and offer of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAD) systems.


However, all these have not deterred North Korea to conduct nuclear weapons experiments and ballistic missile launches. It relentlessly strives to build capabilities and maximum strategic gain vis-a-vis the U.S. to pursue its ambition of the unification of Korean peninsula. Reportedly, opinion polls in the South now strongly favour the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in who is hopeful of the speedy realization of a North-South confederation. In case of a Washington-Seoul future joint attack, Pyongyang intends to win by continuing to build up “self-defense capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike” as stated by Kim Jong-un in his 2017 New Year’s address. North Korea will be able to target the U.S. mainland with its nuclear-tipped ICBMs. Even when President Donald Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea fired a medium-long-range missile into the Sea of Japan.


An Anatomical Embrace?


Irrespective of multilateral sanctions imposed, North Korea managed to advance its nuclear and missile programme at ease. China is believed to have backed Pyongyang during its tumultuous years for which their relationship is termed as “an anatomical embrace between “lips and teeth.” The former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean President’s father, travelled to China seven times between 2000 and 2011. China does have significant leverage over North Korea, and remains its economic lifeline. However, with growing international criticism and pressure China has clarified that it does not appreciate North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Reportedly it has announced a ban on coal imports amounting 1 million during 2017 in response to North Korea’s continuing missile tests, which has been lashed out by Pyongyang as Chinese “dance to the tune of the USA.”


Though China has an upper hand on the North Korean issue, it would not overlook for long the spillover effects of standing beside a troubled neighbour who is the cause of global concern. For that matter, the incumbent North Korean president is believed to have no strong affinity with the Chinese leadership unlike his father. On the other hand, Chinese domestic strategic community seems to be deeply divided over the North Korean issue. If unification of the Korean peninsula is inevitable, as many foresee, which side of history China will choose to be on is a matter of speculation.


Who Can Stop Pyongyang?


Successive American administrations, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, have sought to end the North Korean conundrum by applying carrot, stick, and “strategic patience” options. North Korea now has reached a stage where expecting it to roll back its missile and nuclear programme by hook or crook would be unrealistic. However, multilateral negotiating process can be resumed to ensure that Pyongyang will not use nuclear weapons first and draw limits to its inventory. Therefore, for Trump administration dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue will be the foreign policy litmus test. President Elect Trump had tweeted “it won’t happen!” in response to the news of North Korea reaching the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of targeting parts of the U.S.


Expressing his displeasure, Trump has pointed to China who is “taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” This suggests that the Trump Administration is desirous of bestowing the onus on China. However, this would be futile if China remains adamant and South Korea develops gaps with the U.S. on strategic matters. If China falters, it would establish direct contact with Pyongyang ultimately. But it would be a nightmare for Washington if the South Korean domestic left constituency gains greater political ground, consequently altering the whole strategic alignment.


Perceptively, Trump administration does not believe in the ‘end of history’ narrative which suggests that everything is destined to collapse into the Western-liberal order. Trump’s leadership style of breaking diplomatic norms and out of the box thinking may guide the new administration pragmatically to instil a sense of rationality in Pyongyang’s strategic behaviour. If Trump puts the issue to backburner or follows the policy of isolationism and protectionism, the North Korean puzzle would languish as a “China problem” for future American administration.


A Regional Solution!


Given the long involvement of major powers since Cold War, the crisis in the Korean peninsula has never been perceived as a regional imbroglio. It has escalated to a stage that qualifies it now to be posited as a global crisis, necessitating global solutions. But can Trump stop North Korea from brinkmanship by addressing its perceived security deficit vis-à-vis Seoul-Washington axis? Can the six-party talks be resumed discarding all negative gestures to engage North Korea’s new leader meaningfully?


Realistically external game plans have less constructive effects on regional dynamics of whatever scope. Can China, at first instance, take the lead to initiate a sustained regional dialogue with Pyongyang involving other regional stakeholders like South Korea and Japan?


[This opinion piece forms a part of an article series, entitled “Geopolitical Implications of the North Korea Crisis”, being published by the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.